The International Steam Pages
Xingyang Brickworks Railway, 12th-16th November 2004
A December 2008 update is available - click here.
If you like what you see, then the railway is covered in our Battlefield Heroes DVD.
The Xingyang Brickworks Railway was first reported by Bruce Evans who came here at the end of 2002. Since when a trickle of visitors have arrived, most of whom have expressed varying degrees of disappointment with the lack of activity, the weather, access to the railway and the attitude of the local management. For most of 2004, the railway has been reported as being closed, possibly permanently. To misquote Mark Twain, stories of the railway's demise were much exaggerated. As always we stayed locally, the little money we spent will stay in the area where it does most good. I have no time for those insensitive visitors who stay in Zhengzhou, import guides and transport from far away and do nothing for the development of what is a poor area of the country. And, thank god, if ever a steam line was designed to be difficult for a bus load of tourists, this would be it....
A visit to Xingyang was definitely in order for other reasons as my partner Yuehong's family on her father's side comes from this area of Henan. After our visit to Shaoxing in November 2004, we caught train 1706/7 overnight to Zhengzhou - a real throwback this, with green coaches, old hard sleepers with minimal bedding, limited hot water and trolley service and toilets with little water.... A Y13 taxi to the west bus station, a short Y5 bus ride and a further Y7 taxi brought us to Xingyang CNR station in just an hour and a half. There is a large, modern hotel in the 'new town' some way to the south but the Y60 hotel opposite the station, albeit of the 'adequate' variety, had to be worth a try. After no more than one day's nagging, we got the room floor cleaned and the hot water restored. The fact that hotels south of the Yellow River at best regard central heating as an optional extra was alleviated by a slight rise in air temperature. The hotel's main advantage is that is is just 10 minutes walk from the railway - of course, getting to it took rather longer as we went the long way round the north, west and south sides of the brickworks (why can't most all-day taxi bound reporters add such a simple observation? ). The map of the (north-)eastern end below should be of some help in getting other independent travellers started. Xingyang is definitely best explored on foot, it takes just over an hour to walk from one end of the railway to the other.
The weather initially was of the central China grey variety but at least it was dry which meant that the railway's operation was 'normal' - it is inevitably suspended when it rains as the clay pits are unworkable. We were given a warm welcome at the shed where we found 07 under repair - the cabside Chinese characters are for the 'Henan Construction Material Factory':
The inscription behind the loco dates from the line's construction in about 1958/9, it reads 'Long live the spirit of Angang (Anshan) steelworks', a famous slogan of the 'Great Leap Forward' period. In fact, Xingyang Brickworks is a monument to traditional communist supply side economics, the whole area is a mass of piles of unsold bricks, the quality is excellent but in a China where cheapness is everything and concrete is king, they are by and large unwanted. A billion bricks can't all be wrong.... I believe the plate on the smokebox indicates a locomotive from a forestry railway, but it may simply indicate a locomotive from the Harbin works - comments please!
207 was the working locomotive - 007 which had been reported derelict has been disposed of although the railway has kept its tender. We soon discovered in the best way possible that the descriptions we have read of the course of the line are reasonably accurate, but it was good to be able to keep as warm as we did on an early winter's day:
We took the next (cloudy) day off to visit Yuehong's elderly uncle, a truly humbling experience in a tiny village far off the beaten track. As I said in an email to my own relatives, it was a million miles from Beijing and our comfortable modern flat and a reminder that the prosperity of the new China is not very evenly shared out among its population.
On our third day the weather was much better (the fourth was out of this world as can be seen below, the fifth similar) and we set about recording the working railway. The first train of the day normally leaves from near the shed just after 07.00, before which the locomotive needs some preparation. Thereafter trains run at intervals of just over an hour, we saw at least half a dozen daylight trains each day.
Returning from the loading point, the line climbs from the arch bridge to a summit by the outer loading point. The loco then slows and cuts off the train, quickly running forward so that the loaded wagons can continue towards the unloading points under gravity:
Unloading is fairly rapid from the side-tipping bodies, if the clay is damp then some may need shovelling.
Within twenty minutes the train will be on its way. The locomotive takes water every fourth trip or so and everyone takes a midday lunch break. Here is 207 arriving for servicing:
There are two sets of wagons (26 in each in use), one set is filled (this takes just under an hour) while the other makes the trip to the brickworks. The unloading points used alternate, sometimes the crew were redirected after initial instructions were given, caveat gricer....
The five arch bridge is absolutely sublime in the early morning, it looks even better on video. The smile on Yuehong's face had to be seen to be believed:
Beyond it the gradient is against the empties except for a short stretch near the loading point. As widely reported, much of the line is in a narrow gully and almost unphotographable. Here a train of empties arrives at the far end, in the background is a large power station, I guess related to the Shangjie aluminium complex.
The loader is on the left here, normally gravity suffices to move on the wagons, but sometimes it fails....
Compared to earlier visitors we found the loading point had shifted to the west side of the track and much nearer the main road, making the classic early morning departure picture impossible. This is the only shot now available here:
After which there is nothing to record before the arch bridge and very little after.
Hence, the only minor downside to this gem of a system is the relative lack of photographic opportunities, particularly for the loaded smokebox first trains. Overall it is definitely best explored at leisure and individually. Previously reported security problems were almost non-existent (the railway manager can be a bit of a pain) and the one or two other people who questioned our purpose were swiftly reassured. It was good to see it unaffected by the 'mass tourism virus' which has blighted too many other such railways in China. The slogan appropriately suggests that the Chinese people should stand by to repel the expected imperialist invaders.....
I have to say that the large personal grey cloud that used to accompany me round China south of Beijing seems to have vanished since I met Yuehong. Of course, being based in Beijing, having some choice as to when and for how long to travel, allied to the Yahoo weather forecasts (weather.yahoo.com), might just be responsible in part.