The International Steam Pages
Steam in China, February/March 2000
Duncan Cotterill reports:
This report covers a trip to Chengde, Jingpeng, Tiefa and Weihe in February and March 2000. Flights to Beijing with British Airways were booked through Regent Holidays of Bristol, UK (Tel: 0117 921 1711, Fax: 0117 925 4866). Arrangements within China were made by Sun Xiaolan of China Liaoning Steam Locomotive Photography Association who also acted as our guide. We were a group of eight, mainly from the UK but with one each from Switzerland, Germany and Hong Kong.
With the decline in steam operation on the state system (CNR) almost complete, the numerous local and industrial railways still using steam become far more appealing. We only saw one CNR locomotive in steam during the entire 2½ weeks, and that was purely by chance when a Yebaishou QJ passed through Chifeng station when we called to pick up our tickets. However, we still managed to record over 50 different locos of 4 different classes and see a tremendous variety of operations: from double headed QJ 2-10-2s on Jingpeng Pass to tiny narrow gauge C2 0-8-0s in the forests of Manchuria, from the intensity of operations at Tiefa with 3 SY hauled passenger trains converging on Sanjiazi station at the same time to the spectacle of 3 JSs on the same train slogging up the hill at Chengde. China is still a rewarding place to see and photograph steam locomotives in operation but it can't last forever.
LONDON to CHENGDE (23 - 24 February 2000)
Wednesday 23 February 2000
The majority of the group, Bryan, Peter, Geoff, Adrian and myself, met at Heathrow for the usual BA 039 flight to Beijing, unusually full compared with recent trips . . . . . I only got 2 seats to myself rather than the usual 3!
Thursday 24 February 2000
Arrival at Beijing was a few minutes early with immigration, baggage claim and customs speedily negotiated. Outside we met Robert and Frank, who'd flown Lufthansa from Frankfurt, and our guide Sun Xiaolan. By 11:00 we were on a rather slow bus en-route for Chengde, a 3½ hour journey. We left the main road a few km before town to travel via Shuangtashan, the main yard on the steelworks system.
Traffic levels remain high on this photogenic system. During our visit here, we saw about 7 workings per day from Chengde over the hill to the yard at Shuangtashan, the hub of the system. All trains were banked, usually by two locos, occasionally by only one. A single train was double headed and single banked. There seems to be no preference for either JS or SY on specific duties over the "main line" from Chengde to Shuangtashan, both classes turned up regularly as both train engines and bankers. Only 3 different JS and 4 different SY were seen during our visit. These locos appeared to handle all workings between Chengde and Shuangtashan and from Shuangtashan to the steelworks and adjacent power stations. A number of other locos must handle duties inside the steelworks complex.
Locos: JS 5720, 6227, 6403, SY 1422, 1493, 1522, 1726.
There has been some speculation about the existence of a second rail connection between the steelworks and the CNR system. Our observations should finally lay these to rest. Everything required for steelmaking is either brought in over the line from Chengde or originates locally. The major traffic from Chengde is coal, presumed to be mostly for the two power stations on line, not the steelworks. Coke and iron ore (taconite pellets) for the steelworks also arrive from Chengde. The other key ingredient of steelmaking, limestone, comes from the direction of Damiao, north of Shuangtashan. Trains are said to run over the Damiao branch a couple of times a week. We also saw several lorry loads of what appeared to be limestone on the road from Damiao heading towards the steelworks. Steel products travel out by rail via Chengde but as these are generally loaded in the bottom of C62 type wagons (gondolas) it is easy to mistake them for empties unless you're looking right down into the wagons.
There is also tanker traffic to the oil storage depot on the Damiao branch just north of Shuangtashan. In addition, we saw a couple of wagons going out containing tubular steel fabrications, possibly from the plant, sometimes described as a pipe works or a brewery (wishful thinking?) On the branch south of Shuangtashan.
The scheme to build a replacement line bypassing the town centre still appears to be topical. It seems that the new line is planned to leave the Longhua line north of Chengde and cross the hills north of town to join the Shuangtashan to Damiao branch. Any such line would have to climb to at least the same height as the existing line, if not higher, to cross the mountains. No evidence of any progress with construction was seen.
We didn't spend much time around the CNR station but most of the trains we did see were on the Longhua line and were BJ hauled. A few DF4 were also seen around the station. There was no sign of the DF2 that used to perform pilot duties. Only BJ were seen on these turns.
While in Chengde, we stayed at the Huilong Hotel, close to Chengde station. Even numbered rooms overlook the northern approach to the station and the junction with the steelworks branch. What better way to drop off to sleep than listening to an SY pulling out on a coal train?
Thursday 24 February 2000
No locos were seen at Shuangtashan yard as we arrived from Beijing at 14:30 but we didn't have long to wait. We stayed around the summit for the rest of the afternoon. The weather was bright and sunny with only the pollution from the steelworks and the nearby power stations to dull the light as the sun dropped into the murk.
JS 6227 Chengde - Shuangtashan Loads 14:34
Near the summit
JS 5720 Banked JS 6403 + SY 1422 Chengde - Shuangtashan
As usual, all locos faced out of Chengde so all workings from Shuangtashan were tender first.
Friday 25 February 2000
The morning dawned dull and murky. We headed over the hill to Shuangtashan where we found all the working locos:
JS 6227 Shuangtashan - Chengde empties 08:12
JS 6403, SY 1493, 1522 stabled at station
JS 5720, SY 1522, 1726 stabled at servicing point.
We were shouted at by a couple of policemen for crossing the tracks (How very English!) but as long as we kept on the right side of the nearest line, our presence was tolerated and no attempt was made to stop us photographing the locos. When Adrian ventured into the servicing point, they went after him with batons drawn! A passing train obscured our view of his premature ejaculation from the depot but he didn't seem too bruised and battered on his return.
SY 1493 + 1422 Shuangtashan - Steelworks Trip 08:26 (25 x loaded C62 s)
We drove towards the steelworks but couldn't see anything of interest from the outside. An SY was seen heading towards the power stations with coal. Between them, the two power stations' coal requirements must represent a significant proportion of the traffic over the line.
SY 1493 Steelworks - Shuangtashan Trip 09:10
The weather was showing no signs of clearing so we decided to explore the Damiao line that leaves Shuangtashan in a northerly direction. Both the Damiao and Chengde lines leave the east end of Damiao yard and run in parallel for about 1 km before the Damiao line turns north, giving the illusion of double track. The rails just after the junction showed signs of very recent use but a few km further north they were dull and slightly rusty. We concluded that most of the traffic must only run as far as the oil depot near the junction. This was backed up by information from our driver that the line only saw the occasional train of limestone to the steelworks. We also saw several lorries loaded with limestone heading in the direction of the steelworks so rail does not appear to have a monopoly of this traffic.
We decided to try our luck on the Chengde side of the summit only to find a train leaving Chengde Xi as we arrived:
JS 6227 Banked JS 6403 + SY 1522 Chengde - Shuangtashan Loads 10:14
Climbing up on the hill revealed a pleasant phot spot overlooking Chengde Xi. Soon another loaded train arrived from Chengde and the bankers returned from the summit. We photographed the train departing:
JS 5720 Banked JS 6403 + SY 1522 Chengde - Shuangtashan Loads 10:54
Most of the group were up on the hill for the shot when they were joined by 2 policemen who looked through the viewfinders of the videos but did nothing to indicate any problems. When we came to leave, we found our way blocked by more police and were forced to wait until the big chief arrived from the bureau of foreign affairs with an interpreter. "What were we doing?" "Photographing the steam trains. We have done this before and there has not been a problem. What is the problem now?" They were concerned that we may have been photographing a building they said was a prison and we'd better accompany them down to the nick. We did and then they wanted to see the videos. By this time Xiaolan had arrived to assist us. The police watched our videos and once they were satisfied that they were only of the train and not the prison we were thanked for our cooperation and were free to go.
We decided to go back up to the summit area, and well away from anything controversial. We just missed a train judging by the pall of smoke hanging around the summit, then saw:
SY 1493+1522 Banked JS 6227 Chengde -
Shuangtashan Loads 13:34
Below the tunnels:
JS 6227 Banked JS 6403 + SY 1422 Chengde - Shuangtashan Loads 15:45
The last train finally answered a long standing question. Where does the steelworks get its iron ore? We'd known for years that coal and coke arrived over the line from Chengde. We'd seen pretty clear indications that morning that the limestone came from the Damiao direction by road or rail and this train was full of iron ore in pellet form.
SY 1422 + JS
Light Engine to Chengde Xi 15:57
Back in Chengde, near the station:
Shuangtashan - Chengde Light Engine 16:45
With daylight fading fast and the ability to dash out from the hotel for a silhouette if anything else did show up, we called it a day. The sky had never cleared entirely although it had been bright at times during the afternoon.
Saturday 26 February 2000
No clouds at all this morning, the sky was clear but there was some mist in the town. The visibility was much better around the summit and improved everywhere as the day progressed. During the afternoon some cloud bubbled up but most trains ran in good light anyway.
SY 1422 Banked JS 6227 + 6403 Shuangtashan - Chengde
empties W of Summit 08:02
SY 1726, 1522, JS 5720 Shuangtashan servicing point 08:25
Then near the summit:
Shuangtashan - Chengde Light Engine 09:15
Back in town, near Chengde station:
SY 1522 Chengde - Shuangtashan
CHENGDE to RESHUI (26 - 27 Feb 2000)
We travelled on Train 573 leaving Chengde at 22:08 for Chifeng, arriving on time at a very uncivilised 03:46. Our train was DF4 hauled throughout and no steam was seen en-route. We met Mr Li, our driver, outside the station but couldn't leave until 04:00 due to being blocked in by badly parked taxis. Nevertheless, we were in Reshui by 07:30 and even had time for breakfast prior to photographing our first train before 08:00. The one big advantage of a very early arrival.
No significant changes to report. The best steam line in the world is still as good as ever with 100% QJ operation continuing.
Traffic levels were generally better than in November 1999 but varied considerably from day to day. The busiest day saw no less than 8 eastbounds and 6 westbounds climb the pass in daylight, the quietest had only 3 in each direction, all of which ran in the morning. An average day would see about 5 trains in each direction in daylight (ie trains that would have been lit by the sun at some stage of the climb). In 6½ days there were a few westbound and one eastbound single headers but no light engine movements were actually observed in either direction. As before, the major traffic flow is coal going east but there is also a significant flow of timber, road vehicles and general freight to the west.
The locomotives seen were as expected. All were listed in with Hans Schaefer's 1999 list of Daban QJs although several locos seen in November were not seen on this trip and vice versa. A total of 24 different QJ were seen, each of them on several different occasions during our stay. On a few days, locos seen heading in one direction early morning made a return trip over the pass before sunset. A number of locos are getting quite scruffy with cabside numbers almost illegible. QJ 6876 has recently returned from overhaul with numbers in a slightly different, but no more legible, style.
Locos Seen: QJ 6135, 6230, 6301, 6351, 6356, 6388, 6389, 6517, 6638, 6639, 6687, 6735, 6760, 6763, 6828, 6876, 6925, 6996, 6998, 7009, 7012, 7040, 7041, 7143.
As usual the weather played a major part in determining what we were able to photograph. Every day was mainly sunny although there were significant amounts of cloud around at times. Visibility seemed to be inversely proportional to wind speed with the clearest views following prolonged periods of strong wind. There were many of these! The wind direction was predominantly westerly as usual but it did swing around between south-west and north-west at different times.
We stayed at the Post Hotel, Reshui. The hotel has come in for some criticism recently but we found it more than adequate as always. The RMB 50 per day photographic levy still applies although it appears that the local hoteliers and restauranteurs are linking the introduction of the levy to a drop off in business this winter and are now starting to protest themselves. Good luck to them.
Sunday 27 February 2000
The weather was colder than at Chengde with the obligatory north-westerly wind blowing most of the day. There was a thin covering of snow on the ground east of the summit with much more on the west side. Cloud built up during the day but cleared again by late afternoon.
QJ 6638 + 6996 2868 06:10 Daban - Haoluku Goods 07:58
Km 511 Above Galadesitai
Monday 28 February 2000
There wasn't a cloud in the sky from dawn to dusk and visibility was generally very good. The wind was quite strong all day but was from a more south westerly direction than normal allowing us a crack at some shots that had proved difficult in the past.
QJ 7012 + 6388 ???? ??:?? Haoluku - Daban Goods 07:18
Km 510 Above Galadesitai
Tuesday 29 February 2000
Adrian left early morning for Daban, Tongliao and Da'an on T-711/714 at 05:50. The 6 of us remaining experienced quite a gloomy start on the Reshui side of the hill but it was much brighter on the west side. The cloud soon thinned and disappeared leaving a clear blue sky for the rest of the day. A good day photographically with less wind than usual to disrupt the proceedings:
QJ 6876 ???? ??:??
Daban - Haoluku Goods 07:04 Summit
Once again there was nothing eastbound after 16:00 when the light was at it's best. Note the quick turnaround of QJ 6876 seen westbound at 07:04 and eastbound at 15:58.
Wednesday 01 March 2000
A whole day with not a single cloud in the sky but the light was always hazy around Jingpeng and got progressively hazier elsewhere as the day wore on. There were plenty of trains in total but a complete dearth of eastbounds in the morning.
QJ 6301 + 6735 2826 00:42 Daban - Haoluku Goods 07:15
app Summit Tunnel
Thursday 02 March 2000
The weather continued to warm up after a cold start with temperatures well above zero for much of the day. Fortunately, we didn't lose the exhausts although they thinned a bit as the temperatures rose. Much of the snow that had been around since our arrival had now disappeared although some of the north facing slopes still had a good covering. The light was always a bit hazy and there was a fair bit of thin cloud around.
QJ + QJ 4157 01:05
Haoluku - Daban Goods 07:10 Liudigou
That was it! We waited at Jingpeng for the 12:00 and 14:00 departures from Haoluku but nothing had appeared by 17:05. Likewise the 12:02 and 14:02 light locos from Daban failed to show and nothing was seen on the way back to the hotel either. This lack of activity was probably due to the St Albert's day holiday.
Friday 03 March 2000
Another fairly murky start but the pollution soon blew away to leave clear air and colder temperatures than we'd experienced for a few days. A few high clouds reappeared by late afternoon but otherwise the skies were clear. We couldn't complain about lack of trains either, the procession of eastbounds just kept coming:
QJ 7041 + 6389 4135 00:00 Haoluku - Daban Goods 07:44
Km 488 Above Xiakengzi
Saturday 04 March 2000
Our last day on the pass was cold and sunny but quite windy:
QJ + QJ 2835 00:00
Haoluku - Daban Goods 07:00 Km 510 Above Galadesitai
RESHUI to TIEFA (04 - 05 March 2000)
We travelled by road to Chifeng leaving Reshui at 13:00. It had been hoped to use train 290 to Shenyang departing at 19:16 but this turned out to be an additional working over the Spring Festival period and had ceased to run daily at the end of February. So we found ourselves on the 21:15 train instead with 5 hours to kill in Chifeng. Some of this time was successfully wasted trying, and failing, to get a closer look at the QJ that passed through the station light engine as we arrived to pick up the tickets. It was almost certainly a Yebaishou machine but couldn't be positively identified.
We left on train 207/210 behind the inevitable DF4. At some stage after departure we passed another steam loco in the middle of the night, probably not a million miles from Yebaishou.
We were awake by Xinlitun where an orange DF4B with a Yebaishou depot code was noted. No live CNR steam was seen between there and Shenyang, only dumped or stored QJ and JS at Shenyang Xi. The only loco noted at Huanggutun depot was a DFH3. SY 1637 was shunting Huanggutun wagon works. A number of DF7C were seen in the Shenyang area, a new class here and one that seems to be spreading rapidly into new areas. A pair of DF11 were also seen, another class new to Shenyang since my last visit in November 1997. The usual DF4, DF5 and DFH3 were present in large quantities.
We met Robin at Shenyang and then left by minibus for Tiefa, parallelling the Shenyang - Changchun main line part of the way. No steam was seen on the journey, only DF4 of different varieties. Electrification masts have already been erected in many places on the Changchun line and the western freight bypass around Shenyang.
DAQING COAL COMPANY, TIEFA (05-06 March 2000) (see also Rob Dickinson's report from January 2000)
Our visit here was plagued by a strong westerly wind which whipped up severe dust storms by late morning on the second day making photography pointless.
The system is interesting if, for the most part, desperately unscenic. The colliery system makes an end on connection with the CNR system at Daqing, not Tieling. Traffic is interchanged at Daqing yard. The Tieling - Daqing line belongs to CNR, not the colliery. No coal trains were seen leaving Daqing towards Tieling but this traffic is probably diesel worked.
With the exception of 3 pairs of DFH3 hauled passenger trains from/to Shenyang and beyond, all traffic west of Daqing is worked by the coal company's large fleet of SYs. We saw 11 different locos but the fleet may be up to 20 strong including one of the oldest SYs, SY 0029 and the newest reported, SY 1772, built 10/99. Locos appear to work chimney first or tender first at random with no deliberate turning of engines being apparent. The main loco servicing and stabling point is at Daqing but visits are discouraged by management. A carriage and wagon works is situated on the north side of Tiefa, adjacent to the Faku line. Locos may be overhauled here as well but we saw no evidence of this.
Locos seen: SY 0029, 0435, 0860, 0979, 1749, 1764, 1767, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772.
The hub of the system is at Sanjiazi from where lines radiate in four directions. The lines north to Daming, and south to Wangqian and Xiaonan are about 12 km long. The east line to Daqing, where the Tiefa system makes an end on connection with CNR, is only about 6 km long but that to the west stretches much further. Diaobingshan (Tiefa) is about 5 km from Sanjiazi, Faku another 15 to 20 km and Dongguantun a further 25 km or so, making the total distance from Sanjiazi about 50 km. The junctions at Sanjiazi are triangular allowing trains from the north and south lines to either head east to Daqing or west to Diaobingshan. There is an east-west chord allowing direct running between Diaobingshan and Daqing but no direct north-south line. The south line splits into two branches at Qiaonan with a triangular junction between the two lines to Wangqian and Xiaonan.
There are at least 2 collieries on the north line, 3 on the south and at least 1 to the west in addition to 1 near Daqing. There is a power station on line at Tiefa but the majority of coal traffic runs from the mines to Daqing for interchange with CNR. Most traffic seems to originate on the north or south lines making the Sanjiazi to Daqing section the busiest for coal traffic. At Wangqian, there is a ballast quarry with a loading point adjacent to the station.
The passenger service is remarkably intense on all 4 lines. The service was generally as detailed by Rob Dickinson but early morning trains 103, 202, 203 & 303 have been retimed (see appendix 1). Passenger workings operate from/to Diaobingshan with the line to Sanjiazi hosting trains to the north, south and east lines. Most trains on the south line to Wangqian appear to serve the branch to Xiaonan either on the way out or the way back but not both. Hence locos on these services go round the triangle at Qiaonan once on each return trip. This means if they go out from Sanjiazi chimney first, they return to Sanjiazi chimney first and vice versa. Around shift change times Diaobingshan and Sanjiazi can be incredibly busy places with several arrivals and departures in rapid succession.
The line is not entirely devoid of scenery but the busy Diaobingshan - Sanjiazi - Daqing section is rather uninspiring. The line west of Diaobingshan towards Faku is pleasant with the line climbing to a summit tunnel just out of Diaobingshan then generally dropping through low hills near to a large reservoir. There are some acceptable positions on this section but coal trains are few and far between, limiting opportunities to passenger workings. The tunnel appears to have been constructed recently to replace the original alignment which took a more circuitous route around the hills. Road access is via a rough dirt track from Tiefa which follows the earthworks of the original line part of the way. Although there is little scenery of interest on the Wangqian line, the approach to the terminus is overlooked by a hill providing a pleasant view of arriving trains over the village church (I kid you not!). The collieries themselves provide the only other interesting backdrops we found on the line.
For those interested in traffic volume, Sanjiazi is paradise with the early morning passenger rush followed by a procession of trains of empties heading out from Daqing to each colliery then returning loaded during the morning followed by another tranche of passenger trains. Although we didn't spend an afternoon in this area, presumably the pattern of empty and loaded trains repeats. If you want photos in good scenery, don't rush to Tiefa. It's hard work finding even acceptable spots and none of them see many trains.
We stayed at the improbably named Bowling Palace Hotel in Tiefa. A surprisingly plush establishment built on top of a bowling alley a couple of blocks from Diaobingshan station. Unfortunately, some of the facilities didn't work properly with 2 rooms having no electricity in the morning.
Sunday 05 March 2000
Daqing depot @ 11:47: SY 0860, 1147, 1255
SY 1767 Coal to Daqing 11:48 Daqing
In view of previous comments about the management here ejecting gricers from the depot, we kept a low profile and avoided any problems.
From Daqing we headed for Wangqian, terminus of the south line, where a hill overlooks the station approaches and a church. A pleasant enough shot for departures but better for arrivals. There are three mines on the south line, one at Dalong, near the junction with the east-west line at Sanjiazi, one a couple of km further south at Qiaonan and a third on the branch to Xiaonan which goes off to the east just south of Qiaonan. At Wangping there is a quarry that appears to ship ballast out by rail but no mine.
SY 0435 (T/F) 206 13:13 Wangqian - Diaobingshan Psgr 13:14 dep Wangqian
Next on the agenda was a trip to the west line which runs through pleasant hilly country between Diaobingshan and Faku. The scenery may be pleasant but the line is not desperately photogenic or particularly busy.
SY 1764 (T/F) 407 14:31 Diaobingshan - Dongquantun Psgr 14:49 W
Monday 06 March 2000
A bright and clear start to the day but very windy. We were at Sanjiazi for sunrise and saw no less than 6 steam worked passengers arrive and then depart in just over an hour:
SY 0435 302 05:59 Daqing -
Diaobingshan Psgr 06:20
SY 1771 was station pilot.
After a break for breakfast, we returned to the junction east of Sanjiazi to see:
Daqing - South Empties 08:56
We headed out to Wangqian to do the passenger arrival shot:
SY 0860 205 09:28 Diaobingshan - Wangqian Psgr 10:07
Then it was back to a spot west of Daqing in the hope of some coal train action. By this time the wind had developed into a dust storm making conditions outside intolerable:
Empties from Daqing 11:29
By this time we'd had enough. The sky had turned a distinctly brown colour and the wind had strengthened and changed direction to a north westerly. Photography was out of the question and even going outside the bus to watch the trains was a very unpleasant experience.
TIEFA to WEIHE (06-07 Mar 2000)
Instead of hanging around Tiefa until early evening to catch train 505 from Tieling to Weihe, we returned by road to Shenyang and took the train from there instead. Once again, no steam was seen en-route to Shenyang or from the train, only DFH3, DF4/4B/4C/4D, DF5 and DF7C.
WEIHE FORESTRY RAILWAY (07-11 Mar 2000) (see also Rob Dickinson's report from January 2000)
As a devotee of big steam action, I never thought of Chinese narrow gauge forestry lines as anything special but this system is a real cracker and well worth a few days of anyone's time!
There are a couple of corrections to place names from previous reports: Conghe should be Chonghe, the name of the river that the line parallels between Qingshan and Liushan. Xinan should be Xing'an. The latter is academic now as the Xing'an branch has been ripped up and a road built in it's place, crossing the line at the north end of Zhenzhu station where the branch used to diverge and obliterating virtually all trace of the railway. If I hadn't seen the branch in operation last year, I would never have guessed that there had ever been a railway there.
Apart from a few small railcars, the line remains totally steam operated with a fleet of 8 or 9 C2 class 0-8-0 tender engines. All 8 locos present were seen on line work during our stay. The whereabouts of No 032 is a mystery. Given that the line operates for about half the year, leaving several months free for overhauls, it seems strange that this loco has not been reported at all this winter. Is it still based here?
Traffic seemed to follow a similar pattern every day with departures from Weihe as follows:
05:10 Empties to Dongfeng returns as 14:35 Loads ex
* Theoretical departure time (see below).
The passenger service seemed to run more reliably than before, making both return trips between Liushan and Weihe (Keyunzhan) every day without fail while we were there. Considerable efforts were made to minimise delays such as turning a late inbound round at Zhenzhu and running a 2 coach special from Weihe to Zhenzhu and back to maintain the service. Steam haulage continues but the normal consist was 2 coaches and a van rather than 3 and a van previously seen. In practice, passengers take about 1 hour longer than scheduled to cover the line so actual departures from Liushan are probably nearer 12:00 and 04:00 than 13:00 and 05:00.
Timber trains ran remarkably consistently with a similar basic plan for departures from Weihe every day. Occasionally, one train would be cancelled or two trains combined. On the last day there was an 06:35 but no 12:10. This coincided with the return to traffic of the eighth loco, which had been stopped for repairs until then, but it is unclear whether the two facts were related. On at least two occasions there must have been another overnight departure from Weihe, judging by which locos returned the following morning. With the exception of the 14:35 from Dongfeng, which was touch and go to make Weihe by sundown, all the loaded trains were due to arrive at Weihe during the hours of darkness but usually one or even two would be sufficiently delayed to complete their journeys in daylight. Apart from timber, the only freight we saw was coal, presumably intended for locomotive use at Dongfeng, although some was offloaded at Pinglin for heating the water tower. One mysterious load we saw was a wagon of timber heading back to the forest. Was it planned to rebuild some trees that had been cut down by mistake?
To operate 8 or 9 round trips per day with only 7 or 8 serviceable locos takes some doing and quick turnrounds of locos were common. A favourite move was for the loco that worked the daytime passenger to take a train of empties out to Liushan overnight and return with the following morning's early passenger. That's 288 km in 24 hours, an awful lot of revolutions for those tiny driving wheels.
Locos Seen: 030, 031, 033, 034, 035, 053, 054, 055.
Many of the branches leading off the main Weihe-Liushan line beyond Dongfeng disappear into the forest with no obvious loading point visible. Some of these lines may go a considerable distance into the hinterland.
Previous visitors may have noticed the relatively heavy earthworks on the line, the generously wide embankments and cuttings and the sweeping curves, all of which help to make the line the photogenic gem that it is but seem completely over the top for a narrow gauge forestry line. A local railwayman shed some light on the subject, informing one of our group that the line was originally built to "Russian standard gauge". This isn't as ridiculous as it first sounds as Weihe is on the original Trans-Siberian route which cut across north-eastern China from Manzhouli to Suifenhe. Any branches built off the main line before it was converted to standard gauge (in 1935?) would have naturally also been 5 foot gauge. Before the C2s arrived, the line was said to worked by Japanese locomotives, presumably after conversion to 2'6" gauge.
If you think narrow gauge forestry railways are all about a gentle trundle through the woods then visit Weihe and have your illusions shattered. This line is both scenic and photogenic as well as having almost guaranteed snow every winter (It wasn't an accident that China's national skiing centre was built just a few km away). Trains are reasonably frequent with about 10 daylight workings on an average day (4 empties and 2 passengers out and 2 loads and 2 passengers in). Locations are reasonably accessible by road although chasing isn't easy due to the poor state of the roads and fact that the little locos don't hang about. They're driven fairly hard on the level but the thrash up the banks is out of this world! The sound of a loaded train taking a run at the bank out of Pinglin is an audio experience in it's own right. All in all, it's a marvellous little railway and well worth a visit. The system certainly didn't have the run down air of Yabuli last year and all the indications are that the operation will continue at least one more season and probably two. Experience it while you can.
We stayed at the Wei Lin hotel, operated by the Forestry Bureau, in down town Weihe. This is a pleasant, comfortable, if a little dated establishment, far better than would be expected in a backwoods logging town. The heating was inadequate last year but no such problems this time round. The hotel's restaurant is poor, opening too late for breakfast and closing too early in the evening. However, there are some excellent restaurants within easy walking distance. The evening meals here were the best on the trip.
Tuesday 07 March 2000
We arrived at Weihe on time at 04:54. Adrian was also there having joined the train at Harbin. We met our drivers and proceeded to the hotel to add several extra layers of clothing and consume a mediocre breakfast before heading down to Keyunzhan. It was overcast and snowing lightly so there was no point in rushing out for the dawn masterphots.
On shed were 033, 054 and 055 in steam with 035 under repair. The weather looked set for the day so we decided to ride the passenger out to Liushan and back but the incoming train was late. In the past this had been sufficient reason to cancel the daytime working but today was different, somebody was thinking on their feet.
Shortly before 08:00 033 came off shed with a couple of coaches which we all boarded. The train left, passing 030 on pilot duty at Weihe, and ran to Zhenzhu where 031 was waiting on the incoming train. Both locos and passengers swapped trains and we were on our way to Liushan in the comfort of pseudo soft class. The fare for 72 km and 4 hours of steam haulage was a staggering 6 Yuan (less than 50p). This entitles the Weihe Forestry Railway to a prestigious QJ Tours Golden Turdskin Value Award.
We soon discovered why Rob hadn't noted the junction of the Xing'an branch and why we couldn't remember the Xing'an road he mentioned. The Xing'an branch has become the Xing'an road! The railway has been ripped up and replaced by a road using the old trackbed. In places it's just possible to see the indentations in the dirt where the sleepers used to be but otherwise there's no trace of the line. We got as far as Shuangfeng before meeting our first log train waiting behind 034 at 09:48. Our loco was detached and gave the logs a push up the hill before carrying on it's way to Liushan. As noted last year, pushers here just stay on the train long enough to get it moving at a good speed then drop off. No more trains were seen on the outward journey. Arrival at Liushan was at 12:10, considerably later than the advertised 10:40. It took 033 a whole 6 minutes to run round the train and depart again, tender first. This provided ample time to experience all the delights of Liushan with 5 minutes 53 seconds to spare. It had taken all of 7 seconds for one member of the group to stick his head outside and report that "the snow's blowing horizontally" and we'd all seen enough.
On the way back, the loco turned at Yulin. We didn't see another train until Dongfeng where 054 was waiting on empties. At Shuangfeng another empty train with 031 was crossed. We left the train at Pinglin where our vehicles were waiting. No timber trains or empties were expected so we chased 033 back into Weihe, getting one more shot of the inbound and then photographed 034 leaving on the return working.
It appeared that heavy snow over the previous couple of days had hampered forestry operations and that traffic was temporarily down as a result. There was little activity at the few timber loading points adjacent to the line. It is worth pointing out that several of the branches off the main line appeared to run a considerable distance into the hinterland and the loading points were not always visible. Some maps show branches from the Yulin, Chonghe and Dongfeng areas running 5 to 10 km away from the main line. Although possibly truncated, these lines are long enough to lose a train down for several hours.
Wednesday 08 March 2000
A busier day than Tuesday on the Weihe system. We worked our way out to the Pinglin area in the morning and came back in the afternoon. As expected, most of the trains were empties heading out from Weihe with most of the loaded arrivals expected overnight. The planned times we were given for trains fitted well with what was actually seen although a margin of plus or minus one hour appeared to apply. All seven serviceable locos were in use (030, 031, 033, 034, 053, 054, 055) with 035 still under repair.
034 212 05:00 Liushan - Keyunzhan Psgr 07:20 N of
031 Pilot @ Weihe 08:46
053 10:30 Weihe - Yulin
Empties 10:18 dep Weihe
Plenty of trains but the curse of the narrow gauge ensured that smoke blew down or engines shut off just where we didn't want or, failing that, the sun disappeared behind a cloud at the critical moment.
Thursday 09 March 2000
An early start got us to Zhenzhu before sunrise. A train of incoming loads from Dongfeng turned up just too early and missed the light by minutes. The weather was much clearer than before with sunshine for most of the day but a strong north westerly, becoming westerly, wind blew continuously making it feel a lot colder than the -10 C recorded. Again, trains ran pretty well according to the plan give or take the odd hour and all 7 engines were in use.
031 ??:?? Dongfeng - Weihe Loads 06:20 ex Zhenzhu
The incoming passenger was delayed almost an hour and turned up with just one coach and a van. The second coach had been abandoned at Pinglin but was replaced by the time the outbound working reached us. It is likely that some sort of clever manoeuver was carried out, similar to Tuesday's as 64 minutes from Xinli to Keyunzhan and back would not be practical:
033 212 05:00 Liushan - Keyunzhan Psgr 07:48 Xinli
Our attempt to get beyond Pinglin was successful today and we spent the afternoon around Shuangfeng:
031 12:10 Weihe - Chonghe
Empties 13:17 app Shuangfeng
The loads didn't take a pusher from Shuangfeng even though 033 was probably still there. The pusher may only be required to restart a loaded train that has been looped to await a crossing.
Returning to Weihe:
??? 14:30 Weihe - Dongfeng
Empties 16:15 Pinglin
The last 2 trains had to be worked by 034 and 054 but which loco was on which train is unknown. All in all, quite a successful day in spite of the wind.
Friday 10 March 2000
A bright start. We headed out to Zhenzhu for first light:
053 00:50 Qingshan - Weihe Loads 06:35 ex Zhenzhu
The curse of the narrow gauge struck again as 053 drifted past us then opened up again just too late for the photo.
030 212 05:00 Liushan - Keyunzhan Psgr 07:16 ex Zhenzhu
By the time we got another train, the inevitable westerly wind was blowing to frustrate our efforts until early afternoon:
033 201 08:00 Keyunzhan - Liushan Psgr 08:36 ex Xinli
211 ran as a mixed with 4 empty timber wagons behind the usual consist of 2 coaches and a van.
Again all 7 serviceable engines were in service. On our return to Weihe, the 8th loco, No 035, was in steam at Keyunzhan having just returned to traffic after repairs.
Saturday 11 March 2000
Another cold, bright start. The pattern of workings was slightly different with 06:35, 10:30, 13:10 and 14:30 empties booked and 2 inbound loads expected during the morning:
033 06:35 Weihe -??
Empties 07:10 N of Zhenzhu
One loco was shunting the wood factory outside Weihe as we passed just before 12:00.
It had become cloudy and warm since 11 o'clock. The snow was melting and mud was replacing ice as the principal hazard on the roads. It was time to move on.
WEIHE to LONDON (11-12 March 2000)
Saturday 11 March 2000
Travel as far as Harbin was by road as there was no suitably timed train. On the parallel main line DF8s appeared to be the principal freight power with DF4 pilots assisting over the mountains. A DFH3 hauled passenger was also seen. At Maoershan an unidentified steam loco was seen on what appeared to be an industrial branch climbing out of the town before disappearing through a deep cutting around the back of the hill. East of Acheng, an unidentified JS was seen at the junction of a branch heading south. It wasn't clear whether this was a CNR or industrial loco.
We left on train K-72, the crack Harbin - Beijing sleeper, leaving at 16:28. Power was almost certainly a DF4D to Shenyang. Little of interest was seen on the way south, only DF4C on freight and DF4D or DFH3 on passenger. A dead QJ was seen at Fuyu (formerly Sanchahe), It may have been in transit as it was coupled to several wagons. No other steam was seen en-route. Electrification masts have already been erected along much of the route south of Harbin with piles of poles waiting to be used at other locations.
Sunday 12 March 2000
Arrival at Beijing was on time at 06:06. We were driven to the airport hotel as usual for a shower, repack and breakfast before continuing to the airport for BA 038 back to Heathrow. From the aircraft there were excellent views of the Beijing-Chifeng line where it skirts the large reservoir north-east of the capital and also of a rather curvaceous section of the Ji-Tong line just west of a reasonable sized town (Baiqi?). A steam trail was seen in the yard.
A good trip by any standards. The weather can be difficult at this time of year but while it wasn't perfect, we had very few days when the skies weren't predominantly clear. The wind was a constant factor but careful choice of locations mitigated it's effects to some extent and we had snow at both our main destinations. Traffic levels were generally good everywhere and we only saw two diesels while at the lineside, both of them expected. Everything else was steam, a considerable achievement in the year 2000. While food, accommodation and travel arrangements are secondary to the steam action, it is important that they run smoothly to allow the maximum time and effort to be devoted to photography. Apart from the change of trains from Chifeng to Shenyang, everything went reasonably well. All the hotels were warm and comfortable and food was both good and plentiful, so much so that I put on half a stone while we were away.
During the trip, somebody mentioned that it was surprising how quickly steam was disappearing from China. To my mind, the real surprise is how long steam has survived. After my last visit to Zhongwei in January 1994, I thought there was no point in going back to China as the best had gone and there was little of interest left. How wrong I was. Before long someone discovered Yebaishou closely followed by Jingpeng and the rest is history. Now, six years and eight visits later, the problem is not the scarcity of steam but that so many places are still using steam that it's difficult to do them all justice in the time available.
One of the factors behind the survival of steam in many locations has been the absence of a medium power diesel suitable for lines that can't take the weight of a DF4 or where traffic doesn't justify the use of a main line machine. Attempts to dieselise the branches have largely relied on the use of older designs such as the BJ and DFH3 hydraulics, both main line passenger designs unsuited to steeply graded lines. The DF5, a heavy shunting loco and on paper a much more suitable machine, doesn't seem to have found favour on line work although hundreds are in use on shunting and trip duties. As a consequence, SY and JS mikado's have no serious competition on many local railways and industrial systems. Even on CNR, which seems hellbent on eliminating steam completely, 40 year old JS can still be found in traffic while QJ a third of their age are consigned to the scrapyard. This situation may be about to change for the worse.
Having seen the DF4 epidemic eliminate thousands of QJ over the last decade, I'm now concerned that the DF7 series will have the same effect on the smaller locomotives over the next few years. Anyone who's seen the DF7s at Tongchuan slog up the hill, with 50% more load than a JF, will be in no doubt as to their capabilities. These are competent machines. In the 1990's, the appearance of a DF4 at a previous steam stronghold would make the heart sink. You knew that it wouldn't be long before the place was overrun with diesels and steam would be history. I'm seeing the same thing now with DF7s. They seem to be appearing everywhere and it can only be a matter of time before the real gems like Shiguai or the Chengde steelworks branch succumb to the orange invaders. Even colliery systems aren't immune. In addition to the DF7s at Tongchuan, I now hear that there are four at Shuangyashan as well.
On a more positive note, there is still a strong economic argument against dieselisation on many railways.While secondhand ex CNR QJs are still available in good condition at giveaway prices and overhaul facilities are readily available, operations like the Ji-Tong or Bao-Shen lines will probably find it more economic to stick with steam than to buy brand new diesels. A used BJ, DF3 or DFH3 would cost more than a QJ but couldn't handle the same load. Until DF4 or DF8 start appearing on the secondhand market at reasonable prices, there's unlikely to be a serious threat to steam on these main line type operations. That isn't likely to happen for a few years yet but with major electrification schemes such as Harbin - Changchun - Shenyang - Dalian in the pipeline and DF4 production continuing apace, it will only be a matter of time before all the older main line diesels have been displaced and earlier DF4 become surplus to CNR requirements.
I don't think any of the remaining steam operations can be regarded as safe given the changes underway in the Chinese economy. In addition to the threat of dieselisation, competition is eliminating many of the less efficient mines or factories, forestry lines are under threat from road transport and a curtailment of felling on environmental grounds and there is a general move away from a coal based economy, again for environmental reasons.
Nevertheless, there should still be plenty of steam around for the next couple of years if you know where to look and hopefully it will last many years more. To someone who enjoys the spectacle of main line operations, it's a sobering thought that I may have photographed my last CNR steam locomotive. Fortunately railways like Ji-Tong and Bao-Shen are main line in spirit even if they aren't part of the CNR system. This was my fifth visit to Jingpeng but I'm still finding new locations, different shots and different angles on this wonderful line. It doesn't worry me that it's the same locos going past day after day, it's what you do with them that counts! There are almost endless photographic possibilities here and I can't envisage that I will ever tire of going there.
Industrial lines are often a different matter and most don't naturally lend themselves to my preferred style of photography. While the Chengde system is very photogenic (as Tongchuan would be if the sun ever shone) it's very difficult to get satisfactory pictures somewhere like Tiefa where the only landscape features are often rows of ugly concrete poles. It would almost be possible to exhaust the photographic possibilities here without ever visiting the line. Not quite true but Tiefa isn't high on my list for a return trip.
Likewise, I wouldn't have considered more than the most cursory visit to a narrow gauge line in the past but visits to Yabuli, Weihe and Zhanhe last year have changed my opinion. Contrary to my previously held beliefs, there are good locations on these lines and although in general, loaded trains run downhill from the forests, there are some stiff climbs and the little C2s are really thrashed hard on the banks. A return visit to Weihe and Zhanhe is definitely on the cards and there are other narrow gauge lines in the north east on the agenda at Xilin and Huanan.
Time to plan the next trip.
Thanks to Barry Burns, Ewen Brown and Robin Gibbons for information on the west end of the Chengde system, Adrian Freeman and Rob Dickinson for the background on Tiefa, to Rob once again for expanding our knowledge of wonderful Weihe and to Bruce Evans for lifting some of the confusion over the many different flavours of diesel now available. Ironic that a country that standardised on so few classes of steam locomotive has ended up with such a multiplicity of diesel designs? Thanks once more to Sun Xiaolan for looking after us so well and to my fellow participants for their company and good humour.
* Retimed since Jan 2000 Timetable.
Key to Train Numbers
1xx North Line (SY hauled)