Steam Railroading in China 2003

In March, 2003, at the insistence (really!) of my wife, I joined a Rail Study Tours group to see the last of the regular service mainline steam operations in the world--in China. My friend and fireman at MidContinent, Stan Searing, joined me and twelve others for two weeks of railfanning devoted to steam locomotives.

The trip started in Beijing with some added time to visit a few of the famouns sites there; Tiananmen Square and the Mutanyu section of the Great Wall north of the city. In fact, there are actually five Great Walls in addition to walls that existed around cities throughout China. The Square was bustling with people, perhaps more than usual because the People's Congress was in its last day of the session. In addition to the street vendors, natives would ask us if they could take pictures of themselves with us. Guess westerners are still an oddity there. The Great Wall had been restored in this section and was quite a sight to see and walk upon.

The first railroading activity was a trip to the newly-opened railway museum in Beijing. A big hall held 6 tracks with a variety of steam and diesel era equipment, with enough space and light that you could actually photograph it. Included was a 2-8-0 built by Baldwin and a 4-8-4 built by Vulcan of England. Of note on the engine cabs were what appeared to be mail bag catchers. In fact, they were for the block system in use on the railroad where authority to occupy a block was given by a catching a baton at the entry point and dropping it off at the exit point. Click to see more of the Beijing Railway Museum.

Our first live steam locomotive was engine #1 at the Dahuichang Limestone Railway. This is a narrow gauge railroad operated by 0-8-0 locomotives on 30" gauge track. The little engines run from a loader inside of a tunnel in the mountain back to the crushing plant. Small 4-wheel cars are brought to the unloader, where the engine cuts off and executes a flying switch to escape the cars. Crewmen place small steel rods in one wheel of several cars so that the wheel locks up and brakes the cars to a stop on the slight downgrade. One by one, the link and pin couplers are disconnected, the rod removed and the car rolls slowly toward a rotary dumper. The loaded car kicks the empty off the loader and is locked in place. The barrel unloader then rotates until the rock is emptied. The empty cars then roll out the back of the unloader and are captured by another worker, who couples them one-by-one into another string that will eventually be rolled down onto a tail track to be picked up by the locomotive and taken back to the loader.

Once the locomotive is cut off from the loaded cars, it immediately heads for the tail track to pick up empties and heads back to the loader at the other end of the line. The line is mostly upgrade and the little engines work pretty well up the hill, bouncing and hunting side-to-side on the undulating track. Two trains work the line simultaneously, meeting at the loading facility. This is a fascinating line and great to fan as you can easily walk from the unloader to the loader and find all kinds of interesting vantage points along the way.

We then took China Rail train #2559, the overnight train to Chifeng and points north. We had soft-class sleeping compartments, meaning a closed compartment with four berths. Being the smallest, Stan and I opted for the uppers, an interesting feat of entry without ladders. It had been a long time since I had ridden a sleeper on a train and considering the Chinese music piped in right over my head, the excess heat in the coal-heated car, and the strange bedding provided, it was a restless night, but interesting. We left the train at Chifeng and after breakfast, headed out for more steam on the coal railroad at Yuanbaoshan. But first, we witnessed such a unique machine, we had to stop and get a photo: the Yuanbaoshan street sweeper.

The railroad brings coal from several mines south to a power plant at Yuanbaoshan. As we arrived, two JS class 2-8-2s were switching gondolas in the yard. The power plant's diesel then came down to leave empties and pick up loads for the plant. We then went down to the shop area to find JS 6246 steaming quietly outside while 8246 was having some work done on it in the shop. Not wanting to delay any longer, Stan and I talked our way up into the cab of 6246 for a look around. My poor Mandarin didn't help with communication with the fireman but we stuck around long enough for the engineer to join us, then after starting the injector, he just headed us off down the track. It wasn't a long ride, just down by the coaling facility, but it was our first Chinese cab ride.

We hung around a while longer, watching the mixed train arrive and shuttle around the yard. Then we watched the gantry crane fueling #8250. Then it was off to lunch and the open pit mine Pingzhuang.

We arrived at the mine Pingzhuang in mid-afternoon with the overcast becoming heavier. We caught sight of a steam locomotive as we crossed the tracks entering town but were unable to find a way to get closer. We caught a couple of the steeple cab electrics shuttling cars up and down in the open pit. It is amazing how big this pit is and how much trackage there is. Down in pit, in two different locations, there were steam locomotives on steam shovel duty, acting as the power to move the shovels as needed. The videocam brought them close but not close enough to get any engine numbers. A steam locomotive went by in the distance on the above-pit track pushing a spreader but otherwise, steam was hard to spot. We did go looking for the engine shop and after a lot of wrong turns and asking directions, we were able to locate it at the far end of some industrial buildings that were being demolished.

We walked through the shop finding SY 2-8-2 engines 0463, 0271, 6245 and 1025 cold and 0766 hot in the shop. #1083 was outside having some work done on either the engine brakes or the valve motion, it was hard to tell. At one point, the engineer hauled out the throttle so the drivers spun wildly, sending a great exhaust plume into the air.

We stayed at the Post Hotel in Reshui, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region with the loops of the Ji Tong Railway outside our window. We could hear the QJ class 2-10-2s going up and down the mountain all night long. An early start the next morning began the seemingly endless parade of steam trains on the Jing Peng pass line. Most freights were doubleheaded; only a handful were single engine trains.

The next day was cloudy but we started with a westbound freight with QJs 6986 and 6230 climbing the hill behind the hotel. We then chased it to Jing Peng, stopping along the way for photos. After watching them take water and the fires being cleaned at Jing Peng, we waited for a meet with an eastbound, we headed back down the hill to Shang Dian. We caught what appeared to be #6517 doubleheading eastbound at Hahashan, I believe.

As we arrived in Shang Dian, the wind was stronger, the clouds darker. A Westbound freight rolled into the siding behind singleheaded 7143 as it began to snow. The wind was so cold that we were waiting in the entrance to the station. A young woman came out of what looked like the office and offered me one of those furry hats with a railway badge on it. I had just bought the same style badge from someone else and her price seemed too high. We dickered back and forth but after thinking about the prospect of freezing in my baseball-style cap and another in our party offering to buy the badge I had, I closed the deal with her. I was exceedingly glad I did for the next four days. The headings on the board behind us read: "Start Spring Career Inspection, Guaranteed Safe Production."

With the westbound on south passing track, I waited for the eastbound. It wasn't a long wait as #6630 came rolling in under those beautiful lower-quadrant semaphores. These would be the only daylight trains we would see with headlights on. (In the US, steam locomotives typically did not run with their headlights on during good daylight weather. With the advent of the diesel, headlights in daylight became the norm.)

Before 7143 could leave, it had to wait for two light engines heading east as the snow got worse. Though we still did a little chasing after that, the snow was beginning to accumulate so we called it an early day.

Friday morning was clear and bright with a fresh blanket of snow. We were off! Again, we did some great chasing, lots of meets and time to get to special vantage points. Back and forth between Reshui and Jing Peng we shuttled. I shot video the whole day but as the sun was getting low in the afternoon sky, two light engines headed east over the Simingyi bridge before we called it a day. Then we all had to pose with the Simayi Bridge District sign.

Saturday morning was the time Stan and I waited for. We headed for Linxi, east of Reshui. We wanted a long ride up to the Pass and we made it just in time to grab a 32 car doubleheaded westbound freight behind #7007. The crew was very friendly and we settled down inside, me sharing the fireman's seat with Meng Qing Long, the man I called the Little Fireman and Stan riding the jump seat directly behind. On these engines, the engineer is on the left and the fireman is on the right, just the opposite of US practice. Our engineer was Xia Qing He and the man I call the Big Fireman was Yuan Yong Sheng.

It was relatively easy going on level track out of Linxi. Stan and I had brought photos of us working at MidContinent to show the crews we were familiar with steam. Somewhere near Yuzhoudi, I believe, the engineer beckoned me to his seat so I could sit there while the rest of our group, who were chasing us with the bus, took photos of our train. I sat quietly, looking out the window, occasionally putting my hand on the throttle so the photos would look like I was actually doing something. At one point, the engineer was over on the other side of the cab with Stan and the firemen when all of a sudden, the drivers began to slip. Without even thinking, I reached up and grabbed the overhead throttle and shut it, waited a few seconds, then opened her back up.

I didn't see it but Stan swears that when the crew heard the drivers slip, they all looked at me. When they saw me shut the throttle and work it, they stood there stunned for a few seconds, then smiled and gave a thumbs up sign. From that point almost to the tunnel above the hotel in Reshui, I was actually running the train by myself. They just let me go. What a thrill!

Stan took over as we drifted across the SiMayi Viaduct, an almost complete circle of track, mostly on the viaduct. He did all right keeping the train speed in check. We pulled in for a meet at Xiakengzi and the engineer called me back over to try some downhill running. We pulled out of the siding and drifted toward to Jing Peng. The brake system on these engines is the same 6-ET system we use at MidContinent so I was right at home. The handle moved very stiffly but otherwise seemed to work ok. I had brought with me a conversion table to convert the US pounds per square inch (psi) to Chinese pressure measurements in kilopascals (kPa) so I could understand what the pressure gauges were reading. However, I just ran it by feel and worked the brakes just like I do at North Freedom. We cycled between 45kph and 35kph. I suppose if I had more time to play with it, I could have taken less air and tried to get it to stay at one speed for a longer time. Oh, well, there's always next time.

Roughly three hours from leaving Linxi, we rolled to a stop at Jing Peng. We thanked our crew with Union Pacific hats (because of their red, white and blue design) and pins. Early on, the Little Fireman admired Stan's gloves so Stan now had a pair of Ji Tong Railway gloves while the Little Fireman had Stan's. Going thru one of the tunnels, the Llittle Ffireman caught a cinder in his eye. I gave him the plastic safety glasses I brought and he thought they were cool. I gave him the glasses at the end and gave the Big Fireman my gauntlets. We all gathered around 7007's pilot for a group shot and vowed it didn't get any better than this.

We did a little more chasing the rest of the day, then on Sunday, we left for Daban, Chabuga and Tongliao. Sunday was quiet in Daban, just a few locos and crew around. The steam cranes were working, moving ashes and coal around the engine terminal. Coal was also being unloaded by workers (mostly women) shovelling out the side-door gondolas. We chased a few trains to Chabuga, one reminiscent of the Union Pacific in Wyoming, and including catching the afternoon westbound passenger train just east of Chabuga.

The next day we spent catching trains in and around Chabuga. No one bothered us all day long and we had the run of the place. Still had some doubleheaders but the flat terrain meant more single engine consists. This was also an engine change for some trains, including the passenger trains. We saw a highly decorated engine cut off the morning eastbound passenger train and be replaced by a more humble #6358. We actually got to see some freight switching and some real industrial sidings with cars being unloaded. There was a small engine terminal with just a few engines there. We did witness a special event we know they planned for us. At the depot, the steam crane Z151 was working the ash pit until it came over onto one of the service tracks and stopped across from one of the locomotives. The crane dropped its bucket and we were trying to figure out what the crowd was doing there. Everyone then backed off and the crane proceeded to lift the main rod off the ground and up onto the back of another engine. We surmise that it was easier to move the locomotive over to the shop and have the shop gantry crane put the rod down where it could be worked on--a nice impromptu exhibition for us. We assume the rod was going into the shop for some work. Another interesting site reminded me of stories my mother told of picking coal during the Depression. Here, the coal pickers were everywhere, including under the cabs of stopped engines where by picked coal that fell thru the deck.

Due to the SARS problem, we had changed our plans to go south and instead headed east to Tongliao on our bus and then China Rail from Tongliao thru Beijing and on to Xuan Hua, site of a steel mill railroad. We did chase along the way and stopped at Kai Lu to catch both passenger trains. A freight train was already there, switching covered hoppers at a large elevator near the station. While waiting for the eastbound train to arrive, we watched a maintenance of way crew working on the west end and I was surprised at the facilities at the west end of the station siding. Here was a water column (no surprise) but also an ash pit!

The eastbound passenger train with #7105 came first and the vendors were out providing light refreshments. The platform was busy with lots of people coming and going. The engine crew was doing their inspection and oiling around before departure.

We had an hour before the westbound showed up so we headed for the little restaurant near the station. It was one of the best meals we had anywhere, especially the local ginger beer. I highly recommend both the action and the food at this spot.

After lunch, the westbound passenger arrived with engine 7163 as 6825 waited in the siding with the freight. The crew was taking it easy during the lull in the action but was up and gone as soon as the passenger train and the signals cleared.



Because of the SARS problem, we elected to remain up north instead of traveling to Hechi. Our train from Tongliao found us aboard a soft class sleeper for the trip through Beijing and westward to the steel mill town of Xuan Hua. Here, the Director of Transportation gave us a short tour of the mill and the locomotive shop. An SY class engine was undergoing heavy repairs. All the tubes and flues were out, the rods were all machined and all the drivers and engine truck wheels had just been turned to a gleaming contour and workers were swarming around the boiler. The shop crew, who does this kind of maintenance every 18 months on their locomotives, posed for a picture. Our group then posed outside with engine 0250. Class YJ 2-6-2 #0269 sat on the turntable lead, looking very derelict.

The Director (in red hat between shop formen) then took us to a busy grade crossing inside the plant. Here, we watched SY 1528 switch hot metal ladles out of the furnace building and take them to another part of the plant for pouring. SY #1177, with two front headlights, sat nearby waiting for an assignment. After watching the action here, we moved to a public grade crossing at the head of an interchange yard. This is where China Rail connects, although we did not see any of their equipment. Engines shuttled back and forth picking up hoppers of raw material or dropping off empties. Engine 0782 was the most decorated engine we saw. In addition to the front plaques, the fireman's side also had two large brass plaques. The front letter around the smokebox translates roughly: (on the left side-"Long Journey on the Road;" on the right side-"Best Way Face First"; and on the bottom-"Young Age."

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a grade crossing to catch several China Rail freights roaring thru behind electric locomotives.

The next day was our last with steam and we hit the interchange yard one more time. 1522 was the last steam locomotive we saw up close. That night it was back on the train to Beijing, where SY 1177 gave us our last glimpse of steam in China. On this trip, we occupied several hard class sleeper compartments. Glad we only sat as that third bunk was maybe 18" from the ceiling.

Our last full day in China we spent riding the new light rail system and shopping. Everyone was tired and I think ready to head home. The souvenirs were carefully packed and everyone arrived home safe and sound. Now to plan for the next trip!

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