The International Steam Pages

Forestry Railways in Northern China 1999

Johannes Müller has provided these reports (6th April 2001) which refer to his 1999 visit and should be read as such.

Genhe Forestry Railway

Genhe is situated 30 km north of Yitulihe, the junction on the line from Jagedaqi to Hailar. As with nearly all towns in this area in the far north of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang, there is a log transshipment yard, usually some distance from the main line. These yards with heaps of logs extending for several hundred meters on first sight pretend very much activity. However it must be kept in mind, that most if not all logging takes place in winter time, a practice being dictated by the permafrost soil predominating in this area. Thawing only for a few decimeters from the top, the permafrost below inhibits water to ooze away making the surface very swampy. The yard consequently acts not only as a loading facility but as a storage place as well.

In Genhe the main line station is in the southwestern outskirts of the town, the log yard in the northeast. Here as well is the start point of the 762 mm ng. line with depot and passenger station. According to the personel it was opened in 1954. The dieselization in 1990 and the fact that the location looked fairly busy, including a passenger train, probably means that this line is still to operate for some time in the future. The operation must even have been larger, as guessed from the outline of the station and depot. The former steam depot includes no less than four sheds with nine tracks, all disused and full of dumped carriages and log now. A new diesel shed has been built on the other side.

There is a nightly passenger train, leaving Genhe at 19.00, returning next morning. A log train was observed coming in on 2-9-99, consisting of large logs resting on bogies at each end. The line runs in northeastern direction, following Genhe river. The passenger, a real train with four carriages behind one of the diesels, now operates as far as Kailaqi, 54 km from Genhe. Until few years ago it ran via Yaoanli to Sajiqi, about twice that distance. This settlement, still situated on Genhe river, marks the end of the "ng. main line", from which the different logging brances divert at various places.

Altogether there are 8 bogie diesels, built Shijiazhuang JMY 380, dated 1990 as far as observed. Numbers seen include 005, 015, 016, 020, 021, 039. A steam loco is stored serviceable in good condition, No. 036, Harbin Forestry Machinery Factory 0-8-0, with bogie tender.

The whole district of Genhe, which reaches as far north as Mangui, is open to foreigners. There's a Hotel in Genhe, overpriced but reasonable, and a Guesthouse.

Alihe Forestry Railway

Alihe, some 50 km west of Jagedaqi, is starting point of another 762 mm forestry line. Again the logging traffic, and steam operation along with it, is restricted to winter time, lasting from November till April. From the main line station in the south of the town it is about 2 km to the log yard in the NE, north of which the narrow gauge starts. It follows a tributary valley, firstly in northwesterly direction, then north and finally northwest again. The final destination is Yishan, 72 km from Alihe, from where the main line continues another 8 km, with the usual numerous branches, used and disused, along the way. The forestry railway was opened around 1959 and is due to close at the end of the 1999/2000 season, which probably includes not only the freights but also the railcar passenger service.

The operational basis is the six track station with a fairly large, two-storey modern building, indicating a formerly higher importance. Adjoining is the tiny depot consisting of a large two-road shed, dated 1981.

A former turntable has been disused in favour of the usual turning triangle. For the railcar there is another small shed, better say garage, one of a pair. During our visit in September 1999 there was, apart from the railcar service, some shunting with the only diesel loco in some of the adjoining factories. The railcar is running to Yishan daily, starting at Alihe 8.00 and returning arund 17.30.

The railcar is quite an old one, probably a converted bus, looking like a 1970s model, making it interesting in itself. The only diesel of the system is of the JMY 380 type built at Shijiazhuang, numbered 044. There are four steam locos, the usual Harbin Forestry Machinery Factory eight wheeler. Present where 039 and 045, parked serviceable in front of the shed, and 046 inside, all with six wheel tenders. Personnel reported 023 as the fourth one.

I presume, but I'm not sure, whether Alihe is open to foreigners. We didn't have a permit, didn't meet a policeman and didn't encounter any problems. There are several basic hostels in town plus probably the usual upmarket hotel.

Ganhe Forestry Railway

Ganhe lies 100 km west of Jagedaqi. The 762 mm forestry railway there is probably now the last one with a steam passenger, fully steam worked, with steam in use even during summer time, making it a real gem. As usual, there is very little logging during the summer, which includes the months of May through October. The main line is running along the southern side of town, while the log yard is situated in the northeast. From there the ng. main line extends due north, following Ganhe river, as far as Yuanjiang 58 km from Ganhe. Here it branches, reaching Ganyuan, still on Ganhe river (72 km), resp. Wulite (69 km)-Zhongdian (79 km) in a side valley. According to the locals, the line started operations in 1957/58. It still has vital functions for the people out in the forest, making it hard to imagine that closing is a threat at present.

The passenger station lies next to the log yard, is very well kept and has six tracks. The depot is tiny, consisting of only five tracks with two sheds. One of these was used as a workshop with a railcar under construction, the other one to store steam locos. Upon our visit in September 1999 activity included, apart from the daily passenger, one train with small logs, cut to the size of just one bogie, probably for local use. In the evening the second loco in steam would regularly perform some shunting in the station and in adjoining factories.

The daily passenger train, in effect a mixed, runs to the two termini at Ganyuan and Wulite (sometimes on to Zhongdian) on alternating days. On our journey timetable was as follows (return in brackets): Ganhe 8.00 (18.00), Qilibin 10.40-11.00 (16.00-16.20), Yuanjiang 11.45-12.40 (15.05-15.15), Ganyuan 13.15 (14.30). The train included one freight personell carriage (like on the main line), five freight cars, one luggage van, one "welfare car" (fuliche), four passenger waggons (two of which in red-white-blue livery), and a sensational soft seat car! A ride in this unique vehicle pulled by the odd steamer really is the culmination of any forestry line experiences. The soft seat car has been built locally from a standard hard seater and is placed suitably behind the engine. It consists of three compartments with two windows each, two really soft couches, a thermos and a free tea service! There is no toilet but a chamber-pot provided. It is of great advantage in this connection that the compartment doors can be locked (and the windows opened). The remaining aisle is so narrow, that one has to go sidewards in it. This seems to be a kind of excursion carriage for the better well-off locals. The "welfare car", which is actually cleaned in short intervals, in reality is a rolling shop. It seems to run not every day, however, and serves the local people with rice, oil, toilet paper, cigarettes and liquor. As soon as the train stops at one of the more distant stations, the locals come rushing towards the rolling shop. It's supplies are supplemented by a number of traders, offering fruits, vegetables and meat. Placing their goods onto the rails just next to the train, they immediately turn the stations into small bazaars. Obviously there is no other reliable possibility for food transport in this part of the country.

The main ng. line runs for a few kms to the NW, before crossing a tributary on a very scenic bridge. It then turns in NE direction and follows the large Ganhe river valley. Unlike the rest, the first three stations are just for operational purposes with no settlements nearby. After 40 km Qilibin is reached, a large station with 6 tracks, where the train stops for 20 mins., allowing to take water and to clear the fire of the engine. There is also a turning triangle there. After a few kms Ganhe river is crossed. The next station, Gurunai, also has a log transshipment yard. At the junction of Yuanjiang our train stopped for nearly an hour and the loco was employed in extensive shunting, including derailment and rerailing of the freight personell carriage. We left the freight cars there. The station comprises five tracks and a log yard. A loaded log train without loco was also present. A few kms short of the terminus of Ganyuan the river has to be crossed again. At this place the engine is turned and serviced again.

The locomotives are of the Harbin Forestry Machinery Factory 0-8-0 variety with six wheel tenders. We were told that there are nine alltogether. 03 headed the passenger, 07 was shunting, 04, 05 and 09 were stored serviceable inside the depot, but there is not enough room to hide another four. External condition and performance of the machines was very good.

All local people have been very friendly and I was invited a footplate ride with the passenger train. However, the place officially is closed and an alien's travel permit is necessary. This would probably best to be had in Hailar. Qiqihar, Jagedaqi or even Alihe I wouldn't count on. The town offers one basic hotel.

Arxan Forestry Railway

Railway personel at Genhe, whose information on Alihe and Ganhe proved correct, stated that there is or was no forestry railway at Yiershi (ref. Quail map) but at Arxan (Aershan) and that this has been closed and the track already been lifted.

Former Forestry Lines

With now obviously (almost?) all existing lines visited by enthusiasts, there remains the question of the numerous railway lines marked in the aeronautical ONC-maps and, as the Nelles maps are based on them, consequently marked in them as well. In the aerea of northernmost Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang these maps show lines in the familiar "tree shaped" form with numerous branches in a great many of valleys (and in the east of Jilin/Heilongjiang as well). There is no other possibility as that these have been forestry railways too.

We didn't find anybody who could tell us about them but we obviously couldn't go to all places. In Mangui we searched the log transshipment yard, a very large one still in full use, and its vicinity. Any ng. railway should have started there. The only traces we found was a short section of rails for use with hand pulled trucks next to what seemed some kind of a secondary business at one side. No former trackbed could be seen but this could have been converted to a road. Any former railway buildings could have been removed, a practice not uncommon in China, or used otherwise. They are usually not so distinctive railway type to be identified necessarily. But the rails were clearly the light forest railway type.

On the other hand, the ONC-maps usually are very accurate and these railway signatures are confined to areas, where there definitely has been forest exploitation. So there is little doubt that the information is true to the date of production. On my edition it says "compiled 1974, revised 1981". The satellite data on which the compilation is based may even be older. This means that the information is at least 25-30 years old.

My guess is that all these railways really once existed as forestry lines.

Thirty years is a long time and their building standard is quite light. Equipment even nowadays doesn't seem to be left in place but moved elsewhere (see the example of Arxan), a practice surely adhered to in material hungry China of that date. Thirty years is also quite a long time for people to remember, and it requires a minimum age of 40-50 plus that the relevant person actually lived at this place that time. Most lines seem to have been established in the 1950s in a move to open up the resources of the far north of China. They have served this purpose and what was left in the 1980s or even is left now is just the meager rest. There must be some information resting with regional authorities, but this will be probably quite difficult to unearth. Anybody interested could follow the traces of these abandoned lines in the field, a rather frustrating task, though.

Rob Dickinson