The International Steam Pages
Steam South of Beijing, December 2001 Part 2
Owing to space limitations on my server, the images from this report have been removed (15th June 2004).
If you want to read an objective report of this railway their are plenty around. Robin Gibbons initial report from April 1998 is no longer available but Leslie McAllister's from September 1998 is. I was here in February 1999, Robin Gibbons was here in December 1999 and again in September 2001. John Raby was with me (see his own separate trip report with stills from his new video).
A long time ago ('way back in history' as we used to sing on the Penang Hash extolling the virtues of one Charlie Mopps who allegedly invented beer), a select band of enthusiasts travelled the world in search of obscure (often narrow gauge) railway lines and their even more obscure steam locomotives. Alas many of them like Charles Small and Dusty Durrant are no longer with us. Others have hung up their cameras and sit and reminisce and occasionally put their memories into words and their negatives into prints or onto one of my CD-ROMs. The point is that most of these journeys were made in the 1950s (when I was in short trousers and chasing British steam), the 1960s (when I was stupidly still chasing British steam and should have been chasing schoolgirls ) and the 1970s (by when I had finally discovered Asian steam and sex, but not necessarily in that order). The ChenJia Railway was then just a gleam in some bureaucrat's eye, it was not opened until 1985 and never made it to the first edition of the Quail China Rail Atlas. During the 1980s for the most part I put my put my head down and brought up a family (and had to forget about sex but not Asian steam, while the schoolgirls finally came to me but only to be taught chemistry), while the 1990s eventually left me in a position to catch up on the remaining nuggets of world steam (by which time I was nearly too old to care about sex anyway).
By 2001, most if not all of the lines I had read about in Charles Small's or Dusty Durrant's books had long been dieselised or more likely closed and ripped up. Regular working (ie non-preserved) steam passenger trains were as common as hen's teeth or rocking horse shit and only in China (and maybe Darjeeling in India if you stretched a point) could you find them on the narrow gauge. And those that operated year-round could be counted on the fingers of one hand. No-one I know of has been to Nanyang in Henan since I was there in February 1998, I am not sure if the Ganhe passenger qualifies (but the line will close soon anyway), Weihe uses railcars in the Summer, so only operations in the south of China probably qualify. After experiencing those which are open to foreigners in Sichuan (see Part 1 of the trip report) we travelled for 30 hours by soft class sleeper (in which we were mostly the only passengers, at a stately 55km/hour average), fortunately I could catch up on my steam reports because the coach had a mains socket for my laptop. We went through some beautiful scenery from Chongqing to Chenzhou where we decamped from the train at 02.30 ready to relearn my independent traveller skills. The hotel ladies escorted us next door where we found the staff welcoming, the water piping hot and the beds rather hard. After a short night's sleep and an impromptu breakfast we jumped in a taxi and headed for the narrow gauge station, not for the first time grateful for my own report - go straight ahead outside the station, turn left at the top, take the first main turn right, go through the underpass at the top of the hill and look for the railway station on your right after 1km. If you get to the massive aqueduct then you have gone too far. (The only town bus which serves the narrow gauge railway station is the number 26 and this cuts off at the overpass on the bypass by the Jinhe hotel. To get there from the main station take a 24 bus - there may be others too.)
Chenjia Railway 27th/28th/29th/31st December
The passenger stock was in the station, with a couple of passengers and a shunter, there were empty coal wagons in the loop and one of the steam locomotives was shuffling to and fro in the shed yard. One of my friends who ought to know better (we'll call him Tony to spare his blushes) maintains that all the narrow gauge 0-8-0s in China are the same. That is a bit like saying all the Orenstein and Koppel 0-8-0Ts in Java or the all Baldwin 2-8-0s in Cuba are the same. Well most of them are C2s I agree but they have detail differences and no two trains look the same with their various consists, but those at Chenzhou are the larger Polish derived C4s and with the likely demise of those at Xuchang, probably the last of their breed. Certainly, they have only been found south of Beijing in quite small numbers and John Raby had yet to see one working. Weighing in at just over 40 tons, a C4 is to a C2 what a QJ is to a JS, simply a big brute of a machine. The ChenJia coal is frankly only fit for briquette making, if that, and hence a steam operated firebox door and a rockable grate are essentials rather than optional extras.
Serendipity delivered us my best day's gricing in 2001 which is a considerable compliment given I have spent nearly 4 months on the road. Negotiating the taxi for a day was a lengthy process and we thought we had agreed he would come back for 17.30 instead of the 12.30 he originally asked for. Anyway we headed out of town along the old road to Guiyang and waited for the train to arrive. Fortunately it was 90 minutes late because that allowed the sun to burn off most of the mist and cloud and the rest of the day was pleasantly sunny without ever being totally clear. 93 had found three empty coal wagons and it was a very nice 'mixed'. We headed on to Guiyang where we found they had constructed a bypass since I was last there. This is a 'stop and proceed' level crossing which means the loco has to work for most but not all of the final approach to the overbridge before the station. We headed on to the summit where there are a couple of ponds/lakes astride the line which are attractive photographically. We turned off for Hanglang and just beat the train to the terminus at Xinglang. Here the taxi driver changed his mind and decided he really had to get back. So we decided to ride the train instead and paid him off at a discount. As usual we found the train crew having lunch and a distribution of photographs from my 1999 visit established an excellent line of credit.
Eventually 93 ran round the triangle and took the three empties to the mine. Refreshed with a beer or two from the shop below I watched 93 struggle up with no less than ten fulls. The train crew had been tipped off to wait for us before departing and we rushed back and boarded the single coach. Compared to 1999, the change was dramatic. Scarcely luxurious then, the current coach was a walking wreck. The wooden roof panelling (for want of a better word) was mostly missing as were ALL the windows and a fair number of the seats. Still the staff and the few passengers were delighted to see us and we set off at a smart pace up the hill nearly an hour late. Beyond the first loop (out of use like virtually all the others) the train came to a halt for a brew up in a cutting - the cinders between the rails showed it was a regular occurrence. I wandered to the front, grabbed a shot as it left and the loco crew had no option but to welcome me on board. They suggested I leave at the first station but seemed quite happy to have me there, so I stayed on the footplate to Guiyang where John took his turn. On board toilet facilities for beer drinkers required a little initiative (just be careful when pissing into the wind) but no-one seemed to care, especially the guard who tried to sell us a wagon plate and was running a card school in the final van. We even got a top up from the Guiyang station buffet. And so we rolled on, up and down, spotting a couple of potential photo positions from the new road as we went. The sun set and we bounced along in the dark, finally arriving home where only the loco headlights showed us the way off the end of the platform and down the footpath. Total net load would not greatly have exceeded 100 tons of coal and it must have taken more than 100 staff (nearly all stations are manned) to move it. Add to that people working in the coal mine and the quality of the product then it doesn't need much thought to explain the current situation. Nevertheless, it is well worth a visit and words and pictures alone cannot convey the pleasure of what would have been a great day out 50 years ago let alone in 2001.
The next day we had to confirm that we had onward train tickets (courtesy of Li Nan in Chongqing - see part 1 of this report). We chartered what turned out to be a far more satisfactory taxi for the morning and waited for the train around km 15 where the new road is close to the railway (we were not the first gricers here as the vegetation - or lack of it - on the line side showed). Passenger accommodation today was in a coach which actually had a few windows. We had a further shot where road and rail diverge again and then I went for the reflection shot between the new level crossing and Guiyang station. After the departure shot we headed for the mine with its narrow gauge electrics next to the main road west - here we were very welcome and saw five overhead electrics (01 through to 05) and a couple of battery electrics at work. The main gauge here appeared to be more than 600mm (610 - 620) although some of the older disused sidings came in at exactly 600mm. The light throughout was 'cloudy bright' as opposed to 'South China grey', in other words just about OK.
Back in Chenzhou, we had a free afternoon so we wandered around and found two locos locked away as reported (a new building this, why didn't they put them in the works?), in the works itself 20 was under serious repair and there was no sign of 21... Where was it? I was on holiday on my second visit here so I didn't really want to know. What was previously the running shed had been sealed off and had been stripped and seemed to be sub-let as a workshop. It was all extremely depressing, 20 being repaired was a hopeful sign but elsewhere there was nothing but near dereliction....
Next morning, we planned to see the mixed depart before collecting our tickets and heading on to Pingshi. Unfortunately, although 93 appeared before 08.00 and shunted more than 10 empties the effort was too much for it and it retired wounded to the shed. I only know this because John saw it all happen, I was up the line in perfect light listening to the whistles 5km away. I am old enough not to get upset by such occurrences so we made our excuses and left. A couple of days later, I inspected the station log at Guiyang which confirmed the one train a day regime (except for one day around Christmas where an extra train was run - not a Santa Special?). It seemed from the copious notes and lack of times that the train had been cancelled on the day we went to Pingshi.
On 31st December, John had an afternoon train to Beijing (on his way home to Japan), I was leaving in the evening for Luoyang. We decided to use a taxi to chase the train to Guiyang where I would ride the train for the rest of the day and John would come back to Chenzhou. Unfortunately a promising start turned to a South China grey pea-souper by departure time. Fortunately as the train climbed beyond Guiyang the weather gradually improved so that by the time we got to Xinglang there were distinct shadows if not full sun. There were very few passengers apart from a couple of ducks and three water buffalo (and fortunately the latter travelled locked in the van). I walked down towards the mine to get the trip working (8 empties today and the same number back). It was pleasantly warm and the time passed quickly although it took a long time to shunt the mine and departure was not until 14.45 - delayed a further 5 minutes waiting for me to get back. As before progress was unspectacular and we got back in the dark at 18.45, I think a four hour journey time each way is about normal with 8-12 coal wagons and 1-2 hours are needed for the mine trip. All very pleasant, but how much longer it can last, who knows? Just get there soon if you can.
Bryan sent me a sketch map of the system which jogged my memory - it is reproduced below (simplified and some parts have their proportions changed to reflect my point of view). In particular the lower of the two roads to Guiyang from Chenzhou is new and has opened up good extra opportunities.
Pingshi Coal Railway (29th/30th December)
You should also read Bryan Acford's report from November 2001, in view of the situation here I am not posting his map. Also Florian Menius's report from October 2000 which makes it clear that there are always only 'just enough' locomotives here because they are part of a fleet based in Shaoguan. We travelled down late morning (once we had collected our train tickets) from Chenzou by minibus from the south bus station (served by the 18 bus), Y10 and two hours for the 70km or so. We then took a 3 wheeler into town (Y1) where we were dropped at the main station and checked into the hotel opposite (not cheap at Y238, there is what looks to be a more expensive one in the town centre and lots of cheapies in the main street if they will let you use them). We had lunch (rip-off) and walked down to the local railway station (Ping Nan) south of the town centre and found DF4 0059 of 1975 in the shed, sad but not unexpected. The first river bridge is extremely attractively situated but it soon became clear that returning trains would not reach it before the shadows lengthened. 0059 went out on empties and a few tankers just after 15.30, which was a sign for me to walk down the line towards the power station. Before it, the next big bridge is guaranteed light till the sun goes down so I sat and waited. At 16.20, 6428 trundled across with a coal train, downhill but it would not have mattered given the temperature. Transferring from high up to lower down, I did not have very long until 6372 rolled slowly across on the mixed. Weather was very good all day, very pleasant!
A late evening query surrounds the JS which went up the main line below the hotel at 20.30 and returned ( I assume it was the same loco) an hour later with a long line of empties... Sometime before this we had restored our confidence in Asia with an excellent meal in town at an appropriate price. The next day we had to be back in Chenzhou and we weren't feeling very energetic. So we boarded the mixed (08.10 now on the station boards), it was well patronised and rode out to Hulukou with its horseshoe to take the country air. 6372, 6376, 6428 and 6510 were all on shed (but not 0059) so there was little prospect of a loaded train. 6428 headed the mixed which lost time shunting and was followed at 10.30 by 6510. We then saw 0059 coming back on a train of fulls. You could not ask for a bigger contrast between this busy well-run line and the run-down system at Chenzhou. Later we rode the mixed back to Pingshi before catching 210 to Chenzhou.
In between we investigated the electrified 762mm narrow gauge line at Hulukou. It runs about 5km south through attractive villages to a small coal mine. The working locomotive appeared to date from 1993 although the shed nearby housed a rather older machine. At the end of the line there was another electrified system about 500m long which was of 600mm gauge. There were several items of operational interest. Firstly, there was a gap in the wiring at a road crossing which meant that trains needed to use their momentum to bridge the gap in both directions. Secondly, at the bottom end there were unattended points which were changed by the solitary locoman leaning out of the cab (they must have been to a model railway exhibition at some stage). Downhill (loaded), this meant separating from the tubs some way before the points while in the opposite direction this only required a slow departure. Fulls arrived on one track while empties were accumulated on the other. On arrival, tubs were pushed to the tipper and then turned to discharge down a steep slope to bins above the 762mm line. Empties were then pushed back on to the other line (over spring-loaded points), overall this was a very slick operation. My only regret is that it was Sunday afternoon and everyone involved seemed to be taking a rest as soon as we arrived. Certainly, the reaction we received suggested we were the first westeners to visit.
Overall? I think I could have cracked this system given a week. As it was, we had just over a day in which to get a taste of it and the forthcoming dieselisation means that it will remain largely one of China's many opportunities which were never properly sorted.... My abiding interest is steam narrow gauge and I do not have the time or resources to do justice to systems like this.