The International Steam Pages

Xinglongzhen Forestry Railway, 2013
Narrow Gauge Railcars & Log trains in North Eastern China
21 April to 27 April 2013

Wilson Lythgoe writes:

OK, so I got carried away and spent six nights at Xinglongzhen after only planning to be there three but what a great place it had turned out to be. Where else in China, or the world for that matter, can you still visit a narrow gauge logging railway, travel on their railcar service and stay in a good quality hotel a mere five minute walk from the railway? Plus the locals were friendly and the food was great……..hey, I’m almost sounding enthusiastic about the place and those that have met me will know I’m not an enthusiastic type of person. Or maybe it’s just because I’m finally realising, after all these years of being a steam enthusiast, I’m really a narrow gauge enthusiast at heart! The map below shows the extent of the system a while back, but Bernd Seiler reports that it has now been lifted beyond Heping (146km).

I’d first visited Xinglongzhen back in August 2007, spent a couple of nights there, and reported on SY Country at the time:

Travelled on the 6.30am railcar from Xinglongzhen to Heping with the return journey arriving back at 6.15pm. Another railcar was crossed at Dongxing each time so the passenger service must be two trains each way a day with early morning and lunchtime departures from each end crossing at Dongxing. Each service comprised a railcar plus something that looked like an older railbus converted to a trailer seating about 20. A small freight was passed twice heading towards Xinglongzhen.

The train I was on was overcrowded to full for most of the trip with seats only becoming free on the last hour or so towards/from Heping. Very few passengers travelled any great distance though with continual stops anywhere anyone wanted to join or leave the train. Near Heping, with fewer passengers, I was allowed off the train a couple of times for photos. 
At Xinglongzhen tickets and a numbered seat were issued at a ticket office in the waiting room/pool hall alongside the passenger platform (single trip costing 20Y). To find the passenger platform go to where the road into town crosses the ng freight yard, turn left (north) and walk a few metres past what looks like the train control office. The passenger platform is the short spur at right angles to the freight yard.

After my 2007 visit nothing more seemed to appear on the internet about Xinglongzhen. I considered revisiting a couple of years ago but was told ‘there is no passenger service either in Suiling or in Xinglongzhen.’ There I let the matter rest until earlier this year when a tour proposal by Bernd Seiler of FarRail Tours mentioned that Heping could be reached by railcars but not by locomotives any longer. My interest heightened and an email to a friend in Beijing produced a reasonably positive response:

The upshot is logging trains are currently operating, they are not sure whether they will continue after the Spring Festival and suggested we check again then. The season normally finishes around then and it will depend on remaining logs to move whether they continue longer. 'Commuter railcars for the workers' were operating last summer, outside the logging season, but they don't yet know if they'll be operating this year.

That was good enough for me to plan three nights at Xinglongzhen: time enough to check things out and if there was a railcar service then time enough to ride it. As it turned out there were both railcar service and log trains running and, as I said earlier, it was all so good I spent six nights there.

I arrived at Xinglongzhen, booked into the hotel and then walked down to the railway. The line was all still there as I remembered it, apart from the railcar departure siding, but the surrounds had changed. The old tenements that had previously surrounded the railway were gone and replaced by high-rise buildings and a large public square. Alongside the railway, on its own siding, one of the lines two remaining steam locomotives was now on display.

Soon after an empty logging train left town and although I waited around the rest of the afternoon no railcars arrived around the time I would have expected had the Heping service been running. Maybe the railcar service had already been stopped……….

The Little Railcar

Next morning I left the hotel just before six. In my bag I had camera, water and snacks: my theory being that if there was a railcar working then most likely it would be leaving around 6.30am, as it had in 2007, and I needed to be prepared to catch it. I didn’t feel positive leaving the hotel but was elated when I found this little 21 seater waiting near the road crossing.

Assuming it was a public service I climbed aboard and waited to see what was going to happen. Soon after 06.30 the driver and fare collector turned up, started the engine and off we went. Just where we were going I didn’t know but we were going somewhere and that was good enough for me! First station out the driver turned round for a good look at his foreign passenger and waved me to come forward. My immediate thought was “that’s the end of my trip, I’m about to be told to get off” but no he was offering me the front seat. This seat then became my accepted position each time I rode on the railcar.

Stopping at every station, and anywhere in between where people waved us down, the passengers seemed to consist of railway workers going on or off duty and villagers returning home from Xinglongzhen or going to…….well at that stage I still didn’t know where they were going as I didn’t know where the railcar was going myself. The car was rarely full and I think I was the only one aboard travelling all the way that trip.

Just after nine we reached Dongxing, 72 kilometres from Xinglongzhen, where the little car immediately ran round the triangle and then pulled up on the far side of the yard to let the passengers off. The driver turned the engine off and I realised this was as far as we were going. My immediate concern was if and when we would be returning. Turned out we would be with official departure at 12.40. At the same time I learnt scheduled departure time from Xinglongzhen was supposed to be 06.25.

The far side of the Dongxing yard is not overly photogenic……

That afternoon the railcar arrived back at Xinglongzhen just after four but observation over the next few days showed arrival time could be any time between three and five.

The next two days I photographed the comings and goings around Xinglongzhen. I was enjoying myself so much I decided to spend an extra couple of nights and planned to again travel on the railcar.

The Big Railcar

On my second morning the little railcar headed off to Dongxing but then just after eight a big car, same as the one I’d travelled on in 2007, was waiting at the departure area. The driver wasn’t sure where it was going (?)…..he reckoned either Waxing or Zhouxiang and it headed off just before nine with three ladies on board.

The car was back a couple of hours later: empty apart from driver and his helper. A similar trip was done the following afternoon so I assumed the big 46/47 seater cars were now only used for staff transport.

On my last morning at Xinglongzhen I was still trying to get a good shot of the little car leaving the shed. I had sufficient time to get the photo and then have breakfast before catching a China Rail train so headed out with camera only. I was pleased with the result but then the little car went down the other road, pulled a big car out and jump started it before returning to its own place in the shed and shutting down.

My simple brain told me the big car was doing the Dongxing run today and I wanted to ride it! Racing back to the hotel, I thrust another night’s money at the receptionist, grabbed my day bag and headed out again. I reached the railway at 06.25 to find no big car waiting but other people, who looked like potential passengers, milling round. The car turned up shortly after and everyone climbed on board whilst the crew and I headed off for breakfast. We were half an hour late away but then time really doesn’t matter overly much on the narrow gauge and breakfast is an important meal!

At Dongxing we pulled up on the main and most passengers got off apart from the half dozen railwaymen still aboard. I went to get off but was motioned to stay and soon we were underway again to more points unknown. Turned out we were going to the next station, Xinming, another ten kilometres away to drop off the last of the railwaymen before reversing back to Dongxing and the usual stopping position. 

Daling station on the way back to Xinglongzhen is typical of stations along the line with a crossing loop/siding on either side of the main.

Overall I’d done well with the passenger service: two trips to Dongxing and return in the little railcar and one to Xinming and back in the big car. When I finally left Xinglongzhen I was well pleased with myself!

Log Trains

There seemed to be a couple of empty logging trains leaving Xinglongzhen during daylight hours each day. It was reasonably easy to work out when this was going to happen: there would be a long rake of empties in the yard and an engine, other than the one on yard duties, would be pottering around in the servicing area for up to an hour before departure.

Once away it could be anything up to thirty hours before that engine would be seen at Xinglongzhen again. As you can imagine it was almost impossible to predict when a logging train was about to arrive.

My friendly railcar driver had shown me, using the FarRail map, that logs were being loaded out at Erhe (95km) and Taiping (117km). This could leave the section from Taiping onto Heping, a further thirty kilometres which was still in use in 2007, with no traffic. I wonder if this is the case……

Xinglongzhen Yard and Sidings

There are some interesting photos opportunities in the yard and sidings especially the contrast between the high rises of new China and the ng railway of old.

Shunt Loco 45 brings log bogies from the repair shops.

45 and a loco soon to head out with an empty log train swap wagons. The box car was to go out on the log train so there may be some general traffic on the line.

Moving empties out from the unloading gantry.

This statue always reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi.

“Sometimes I stands and thinks and other times I just stands!”

The Track

What are track conditions like on the line? It looked pretty rough but then I was there in early spring and I imagine maintenance had been minimal over the cold winter season. There were certainly signs of frequent derailments: damaged sleepers and a lot of logs and wagons alongside the track.

On the positive side though the railcars did the morning run between Xinglongzhen and Dongxing ten to fifteen minutes faster than they had back in 2007. Admittedly there were now fewer passengers using the service so station stops weren’t as long but it still seemed a good effort to me. The other positive sign were the track gangs out and about replacing sleepers and at one station I counted eight bogie wagons of sleepers waiting to be unloaded.

In parts, including Dongxing yard, the track looked quite reasonable…..

…..but just outside of Xinglongzhen the method of levelling the track was interesting to say the least….

…..and in the sidings at Xinglongzhen it left a lot to be desired. After the front bogie of the little railcar derailed at this spot the sleepers were replaced the next day and the track levelled in a more usual manner.

The Xinglongzhen track gang heading back to town…..

Judging by the number of new sleepers laid this must have been a major derailment.

I saw two of these cranes: one based at Xinglongzhen and the other at Dongxing. I imagine their primary task, after a derailment, would be to help clear and reopen the track. Once that was done, between trains, they would shuttle back and forth rerailing and reloading the wagons. Most stations had a number of these loads waiting in their loops for collection.

A track gang stands aside for the railcar to pass.

The Xinglong Hotel

There are at least two hotels in Xinglongzhen but the Xinglong Hotel is a mere five minute walk to the narrow gauge railway. The 160Y a night in 2007 had increased to 280Y by 2013. Now 280Y is expensive by both my standards and those of rural China but it was convenient, clean, tidy and everything worked: something you can’t say that for a lot of hotels in China.

The Future

FarRail believes the line will close after the 2013/2014 logging season but it is China we’re talking about and anything is possible. After all it’s amazing the railway has lasted as long as it has and I’d like to think there is a few more years’ life left in it yet. One can only hope……. 

Rob Dickinson