The International Steam Pages
Steam in Northern China 2003/4
China December 2003 - January 2004: Huanan, Hegang, Tiefa & Nanpiao
By Adrian Freeman
An independent trip made with Don White, who provided companionship and entertainment, especially when he had the occasional tantrum. Except for the services of Mike Ma to make arrangements for our stay at Tuoyaozi, the trip was made without a guide. I always worry when I go to China that the places I visit will be 'gricered out' and that this will compromise the photographic opportunities (one of my reasons for avoiding Jingpeng), but I was surprised and pleased to find that we only encountered other 'big noses' on one afternoon - a Canadian group at an innocuous location at Tiefa.
It soon became apparent that there have already been many changes to the October 2003 timetable, including train renumberings, retimings and cancellations.
Huanan 28.12.03 - 01.01.04
Operating normally during our visit, but were informed that the miners at the pits which give the line its traffic would go on holiday on 1st January for a month. Trains would continue for a few days into January until the coal stockpile had been exhausted. No plans known for closure of this line.
Engines seen operating: 011, 23041, 23043, 23044, 168.
Following Rob Dickinson's report indicating that he was able to stay in Tuoyaozi, we made arrangements with guide Mike Ma to do the same. We were more than amply fed and watered during our stay and it was a most enjoyable experience. Our hosts were clearly acquainted with the needs of a gricer and as we arrived a Dickinson of beer was being carried into our residence without prompting. Whilst Lixin is nearer to the summit of the line, the climb to the summit from either direction is difficult photographically due to the number of trees making it tricky to find shadow-free views of the line. It can also be difficult to photograph a train of empties climbing towards the summit and then get over to the other side in time for the loaded train, banked by the engine from the empties. I found the Tuoyaozi area much more satisfactory, and in winter with snow underfoot, the many horse/bullock/human-hauled sledges make an interesting diversion. Although the gradient here is generally against the trains of empties, there is a short stretch where loaded trains must climb. There was an average of one train of empties every 4 - 5 hours, with a balance of loaded workings.
Prior to our relocation to Touyaozi, whilst at Huanan, we were asked to move on by someone from the railway, the only occasion on the whole trip.
Hegang 02.01.04 - 05.01.04
The most significant change since my visit in January 2002 is that the SY now all face the same direction, i.e. north at Jipei, which makes photographic planning much easier. There also appeared to be an overall increase in traffic levels, affecting both electric and steam operation. Coal trains were generally electrically-hauled, with steam on all the passenger workings, spoil trains and miscellaneous shunts to factories and premises with unelectrified spurs. Coal scavenging had also increased and was now being carried out on an industrial scale.
Passenger times as documented by Rob Dickinson in January 2001 are still broadly correct, with a few minor cutbacks and amendments. All passenger trains on the South line (branch 1) now terminate at Junli. Although the board at Jipei indicated trains on South line (branch 2), these were not running during our visit, so I have not included the timings. The 0944 passenger on the north line from Xingshan no longer exists - a shame as at this time of year it would have been the only smokebox-first train in daylight on this line.
The busiest spoil tip was that next to Liu Cao on the North line. It is the old opencast mine and trains of eight tipplers were generally pushed from Jipei (central station/yard) to the tip, then the empties pulled back up steep gradients with engine smokebox-first, along a line initially on an embankment, then hemmed in by hutons. The other branch seen used by spoil trains, branches off to the south of the washery. It curves round and appears to go the other side of the same opencast mine. Only a couple of spoil trains were seen to use this line during our stay.
The China Rail passenger service to Hegang is now dismal with two of the four return workings listed in the timetable from Jiamusi (only) cancelled.
Near the washery coal scavenging was at its highest level. Trains of empty wagons with their side-opening doors not secured had hammers rained on them as they were shunted past in order to dislodge the last remnants of coal, and we witnessed a half a dozen people in the wagons of a loaded coal train pushed filled sacks over the side as the train passed the flats at Nanshan, the sacks being quickly recovered and whisked away. This is perhaps indicative of the contrasts in Hegang, where there is clearly some considerable wealth, and also extreme poverty.
Tiefa 06.01.04 - 08.01.04
No changes noted here. Three days here is two-and-a-half too long. The system remains 100% steam with some very lengthy trains and is busy but uninspiring. JS 5029 was making regular trips out on the line. SY 1147 was fresh from overhaul. Best was an early morning visit to Daqing stabling point for some glint shots. Although three hours were spent here, we failed to get gripped for a permit.
On 8th Jan we took a bus to Tieling to catch our train onward to Jinzhou. Rather smarter coaches depart from outside Daiobingshan station to Shenyang, but note the following paragraph, which appeared in the China Daily newspaper on 13th Jan:
Spring Festival shoppers looted in coach
Five bandits armed with knives robbed 40 passengers on a coach of money and valuables worth more than 100,000 yuan in the Tieling County of Liaoning Province on Saturday 10th January. The coach set off from Daiobingshan, a city near Tieling at 2 am and was destined for Shenyang, the provincial capital; most of the passengers were business people who were going to purchase goods from Wu'ai Market in Shenyang, the largest wholesale centre in Northeast China. After plundering 90,000 yuan in cash and six cellphones, the bandits fled in a Xiali (?), leaving two passengers wounded.
Nanpiao, 09.01.04 - 12.01.04
Refer to the maps drawn by Louis Cerny and Rob Dickinson.
Like Rose Grove in February 1968, (or so I'm told, this was a bit too early for me). In other words, the condition of the SYs here suggested a lifespan of months rather than years. On the other hand, the poor condition of some of the track begged the question: would it be capable of carrying heavier diesels?
All SY here were in despicable external condition. Six seen - 0366, 0638, 0973, 1071, 1299 and 1478 along with diesel BJ3241. No other locos, steam or electric (complete or dismantled) were found. SY 1299 was the only loco in the shed when we visited, with its motion off.
After four days spent on this system, we totally failed to understand how it works. What is clear, however, is that you must find your train or at least an engine, rather than sitting it out at a location in the hope that something may appear. Most of the workings we observed were very short workings on each branch that never got to the junction at Xiamiaozi, such as movements of wagons between Sanjiazi and Weizigou (with summit in between)on the west branch, and spoil trains from Zaojiatun on the east line to the tip approx. 2km east up very steep gradients. These latter trains generally comprised of three loaded tippler wagons and necessitated considerable effort on the part of the SY. A four tippler train observed required at least two stops for blow ups on the climb. We never say any steam-hauled freight east of Zaojiatun, nor did we see any steam hauled freight return to Xiamiaozi from either branch - only light engine movements. No idea where the wooden-bodied wagons of coal go - they mostly seemed to shuttle (pointlessly) between Weizigou and Sanjiazi, before being shunted, apparently for our benefit. The new power station at Shagotun doesn't appear to receive coal from the mines at Weizigou or Sanjiazi and I doubt that China Rail would allow the wooden-bodied vehicles on their rails. It appears that there is a washery at Sanjiazi, judging from the number of wagons there with icicles all over the underframe, and possible also on at Zaojiatun. From 1130 for an hour or so, everything stops for lunch.
Early January is possibly not the best time of year to visit this system if you want phots of the passenger trains in 'normal' light. The hills mean that the outbound passenger workings are either too early or too late to get much sun.
Despite, or perhaps because of the peculiar operation on this line, we found it great fun. If a light engine was seen heading off down one of the lines it was easy to chase with the public transport or the three-wheeled cucumber frames that masquerade as taxis - the roads run close to the railway on both lines. The engine was always to be found at the next mine. Everyone we met was friendly. The only downside was the hotel - Nan Mei Zhao Dai Shuo, which was very run down with staff that didn't care. At 62 yuan for a single room, it was, in my opinion, overpriced for the facilities and service provided. As mentioned in previous reports, it is located to the west of Hungjia station. If arriving by China Rail from Jinzhou, this is where almost all of the passengers get off the train, even though there is no station here. The train then carries on to a derelict Nanpiao station, by Xiamiaozi.
And the question - is it better than Tiefa? There is no competition: forget Tiefa, go to Nanpiao.
Having previously visited three of the four systems that we went to on this trip, I had thought that there was a risk of not finding things very exciting. I wanted to go back to Huanan and Hegang to get them out of my system, so that I wouldn't feel the need to go so far north again. However, the bug is still there and with the exception of Tiefa, I would relish the prospect of visiting any of these systems again, with the (im)possible rider that the stable weather conditions of this trip were repeated.