The International Steam Pages

Shibanxi Holiday, 2009

This report appeared after our 25 day stay in June 2009. Since when we have been back in March 2010 - click here for that report, which consists mainly of extra recommended hikes - there is a link to this facet below too.

Shibanxi Heaven - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD when it was totally real (2004-2007).

Shibanxi Gold - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD as it evolves into a sustainable operation (2008-2011).

If you want just the minimal gricing news then click here.

A number of reports have appeared through the SY Country web site since our last major visit in June 2007 and, of course, we were back briefly in March 2008. What almost all have in common is that they have little or no appreciation of what the Jiayang Group has achieved in sensitively revitalising the whole area and not just the railway itself. The FarRail newsletter even stated "As a foreign tourist you may feel very unwelcome on this line, at least if you contact the officials." There is only one word for this and that is "CRAP", perhaps it might be true if you are a 'foreign tourist group (leader)' but it definitely does not apply to responsible independent foreign tourists. Yuehong and I have been visiting here as a team regularly since 2004 and the welcome we get now from the bottom to the top is warmer than ever. Within the safety rules of the railway we have always been given free and total access to anywhere we want to film including the shed and main workshops and that continues unchanged today. In return we treat everyone on the railway with appropriate respect and, as always, we do nothing which could possibly diminish the experience of like minded people who follow us.

Those with less blinkered eyes will find an operation making a seamless transition from a 'real' railway to what any responsible enthusiast would hope will eventually become a world heritage site - staying as it was when the first gricers came was and is not an option. Anyone who has had the misfortune, as I have, to visit the likes of Xi'an and Lijiang should find Shibanxi a revelation. Please look on the positive side, starting with the museum at Huangcun which is basically a sympathetic reconstruction of the original mine (over the original shaft) which was shut some 20 years ago - the principle difference being the winder structure which is made of steel instead of wood which would have been prohibitively expensive. I have been visiting Bagou regularly for 8 years and it is slowly changing from a totally decaying and dying ruin back into a vibrant living community; when I first came it seemed there was scarcely anyone younger than me in the place and that's certainly not true any more. Major original buildings have for the most part been sealed against the climate, cleaned and appropriate explanatory small bilingual signs attached; many newer unsightly extensions have been demolished. What extra 'modern' buildings are needed along the railway have been finished in a muted grey colour and the amount of rubbish has been drastically reduced. The tourist coaches may have a regrettable 'Pride of Leicestershire' on them but only a rivet counter would stand close enough for this to be a photographic problem, overall they are streets ahead of what happened on the Ffestiniog Railway in the UK many years ago and in my view ahead of what is happening on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

The main threat to the railway comes not from the tourists - without whom it would almost certainly have closed by now - but from the authorities in Qianwei County who want to follow national policy to the letter and blast roads into every village. There are trucks on the 'dirt' roads to Xianrenjiao (from Caiziba village) and even on the outskirts of Bagou itself and by the tunnel next to the station, no doubt these roads will be sealed in the fullness of time at which point development may then become uncontrollable. While they make it easier for the shops to bring in goods, their main use seems to be to take out bamboo and trees which will be used as pit props in the local mines; the extraction of the latter is almost certainly both illegal and unsustainable and will lead to severe erosion problems.

We believe the full tourist train ran just once in the whole time we were here, we bumped into it at Jiaoba by accident on its return journey (we saw a few other small toy train charters):

The tourist trains are restricted to just 4 bogie coaches (150 passengers), I suspect this is more to do with continuing problems on the curves than weight as even loaded these must equate to a lot less than 15 loaded coal wagons. As long as this is the most that can travel in style at one time and there is no other way in then there is hope.

Enough said, for the time being Shibanxi is still magic, after 'Heaven' and 'Gold' I am running out of superlatives to describe the place. If you haven't been yet and want to know what it was like before quite so many tourists started coming, and before it was invaded by motor bikes and mobile phones, consider buying our Shibanxi Heaven DVD. And then if you do come here you will marvel, as we do, at how relatively little has changed and how well it has been managed.

The good news from March 2010 is 'almost no change'. There seem to be more tourists and the single tourist coach on each train may be two or three. For some reason, passenger trains are now using the opposite track at Jiaoba station - the west line. From the end of February 2010, to early April 2010, there are tourist trains scheduled every Saturday and Sunday. Previously they were run 'as required'.

This is the June 2009 report:

Apart from our journeys on the train and a visit to the shed at Shixi, we spent the whole time in and around the upper end of the railway, based in Bagou, from where the reports were uploaded.

For the gricing record, as others have reported, there is at least one tourist coach on all regular trains (at least outside 'holidays'), which means just four or five original coaches are run, one of which is the market coach so the natural passenger numbers must be well down again, although on our own journeys we frequently found there to be standing room only.  All the locomotives are running with ex-Pengzhou tenders (the railway has four of them) and despite suggestions elsewhere to the contrary the two Pengzhou locomotives are still stored at the back of the shed - see Shixi Shed Visit 2009.

Both coal trains and tourist trains are conditional on the traffic on offer. We regularly saw one, or more likely, two or three coal trains a day to and from Huangcun and we have been told that these may be suspended in favour of tourist trains when they are needed, although we saw three locomotives (07, 09, 14) out simultaneously on one day. Even at weekends we usually saw an early morning coal train as the locomotive could easily get back to Shixi in time to work a tourist train if required. The tourist trains are operated 'on demand' according to prior bookings and the number of punters on the platform and if there are insufficient then the coal trains can operate normally even at weekends (although from what others have said) I believe rarely during public holidays. The number of tourists at peak times is uncontrollable, especially when those who are disappointed in the morning walk up the line and expect to board for their return journey along with the hordes who have actually come up by train. On such days every coach on the line is pressed into service, up to nine passenger trains will run. According to the workers at Huangcun, the special funeral coach sees very little use these days, they said it hadn't run for several months and its wheels were rusty.

While as a foreign visitor you are expected to pay (CNY 10) twice as much as the local tourists (CNY 5) to travel in a 'green coach' (and there is a welcome special low rate for local residents), this is all the railway profits from your visit, unlike Huanan, no attempt is made to charge for photographing the trains. The going rate here for a mindless 4 hour 'toy train' charter for gricers is apparently CNY 3000, we happily told the management that they were undersellling themselves and that CNY 5000 should be the bare minimum where the going rate for steam tours in China is of the order of CNY 1500 per person per day. Similarly, I can understand why they have no interest in re-arranging their trains to suit the whims of visiting tour groups who drop in for 2 or 3 days, especially at holiday periods. There is plenty enough real left about this railway that as a visitor you are far better just to sit and wait for things to happen naturally; and if you can't wait then there are plenty of preserved railways in the world which can lay on a show for you for this kind of money. After all, the marginal cost of an extra day here is around CNY 100 a day (see Shibanxi Practicalities), which equates to two weeks with a group! Bring a lover or a few good friends (or just some good books for when it rains) and enjoy the place to the full, there are wonderful walks in the hills or around the industrial heritage.

Rob Dickinson