The International Steam Pages


Case Notes - Steam in China Part 1
Brief Encounter

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

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For other tales in this series see:


In 1998 I purchased a Lonely Planet guide to China, but my housemate, Elspeth got there first and spent a year working at Nanjing University. Elspeth travelled by train and took a few photos for me, this is an American built KD7 2-8-0 528. By the time I visited steam was reduced to a few classes.

After the tanks had crushed young demonstrators I lost interest in China. It was not till December 1995 that I overcame my revulsion. By then the Chinese people had been appeased, Premier Deng told the nation that “to make money is good!” My first overnight train journey was a packed train full of hard class passengers whose trip was fuelled by dreams of money: this was the China I came to know in the 6 trips there. The first 4 in winter followed by two short autumn visits, which were entirely shot on video.

David Thiessen did the organizing for the first couple of trips, we used guides organized by a Chinese Travel Agency which also supplied rail tickets for long distance trips. This worked out considerably cheaper than being with a tour group. By 1999 I was able to dispense with guides as travel became somewhat easier.

Our first destination was Tongyuan. Arriving late at night at the small unlit station, we were met by the local police officer who drove us to the hotel in a brand new Japanese 4wd; perhaps he was moonlighting? China was changing from a closed society to one experimenting with economic change and gradually opening up to foreign tourists.

28th December 1995, Gangtang station, the crew of a QJ pose for the camera. Despite the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution most Chinese we met were curious and friendly.

I had been told Zhongwei was the last “great show” , it had finished the previous year. We were in search of steam action on secondary routes and spent two days on the Mengyuan – Fenglingdu section of the Houma to Yuci line.

My first shots of Chinese steam were taken from the banks of the Yellow River near Fenglingdu . A lengthy bridge supported by 23 piers and with tunnels at both ends spanned the semi frozen river. We could not get close to the bridge as it was still guarded by the military, eventually such guard posts were abandoned and photography became easier. Ice was forming over the wide river as winter set in, but this was a gentle introduction to the freezer that was N.E. China in winter.

Fenglingdu Bridge over Yellow River, 29th December 1995, a double header crosses the Yellow River to Fenglingdu.

At Fenglingdu station we found another double headed QJ freight in a siding with wagons still being unloaded. At this time many wagons were still timber bodied. The engines whistled for departure to Mengyuan, but people continued scurrying across the tracks in front of the huge locomotives, the drivers opened cylinder cocks and then sure footedly and with plenty of noise got their train underway. The train engine, 2695 was lined out in white and looked smart with gleaming red wheels; hidden behind the smoke deflectors was its Giesl chimney which was a common fitting in this area. The Chinese claimed they were a local innovation.

Diesels were now in charge of all the passenger trains on the line, a year previously they were reported as steam hauled. Ominously we found a DF4 diesel sent for crew training, steam succumbed not long after  A DF4 on crew training duties heads a freight towards Mengyuan, 29th December 1995

A SY 2-8-2 in the early morning light at Handan, 30th December 1995.

At Handan we had a lengthy wait and the young guide suggested we visit the local steelworks. Our early morning visit saw plenty of SY activity on this unofficial bash and when we were later thrown out the guide was unabashed. He was part of a younger generation capable of making decisions. Middle level management was staffed by people who had lived through the trauma of the Cultural Revolution when making the wrong decision could be fatal, they often seemed paralysed.

The huge plant was being partly demolished as steel workers negotiated the rubble. SY 0119 was waiting with its air pumps panting as its hoppers were loaded with hot ore slag. SY 1208 working hard passed, the heat pulsating out from the hoppers, causing thoughts of what would happen to human bodies if the molten ore splashed out! I watched the train shunting, the low sun, creating a beautiful glow, thanks to the pollution. This was SY 1208 in the yard area.

YJ 2-6-2s were restricted to lesser duties as SY class superseded them. 313 was in steam at the Handan Steelworks depot.

From Handan we travelled to She Xian to follow up a report from a contact that the area beyond was mountainous and a new line was being built.

At She Xian station we found JS 5103 employed as station pilot, it had raised deflectors and cowls disguising its chimney. Many engines of this class were fairly new, they had short lives many being replaced by redundant QJs. JS 5103 at She Xian, 30th December 1995.

A double header for Handan was ready for departure. The exhausts from the locos were near vertical as they slowly dragged the train round a curve and through the cutting at walking speed to top of the grade. It made for a good video, but whilst the scenery was pleasant with hills as background, there was also a significant amount of pollution from the local steel plant and other industrial enterprises. QJs 2633 and 1352 both fitted with Giesl ejectors (as were most of the QJs seen in the Handan area) leave She Xian, 30th December 1995.

31st December 1995 was an unsuccessful day as far as photography was concerned, but it was an interesting one pursuing our hobby. Our aim was to check the new line being built from Xuanzhong, and the existing line that headed east and required double heading.

There was not even a village at Xuanzhong, but we found a small station perched on a hillside ledge with a taller hill overlooking the station. We headed to the twin tunnels and climbed the hillside above them. This was a spectacular location, but harsh light made photography difficult. JS 5031 arrived tender first with a freight from She Xian, but it dropped the wagons in the yard before proceeding light engine through the tunnel bore of the new line.

Traffic was disappointingly sparse; but freights remained steam and were taking helper from here as reported, however the passenger had gone diesel. This was not looking good if such remote lines were being dieselised. Slight compensation was the arrival of the JS on a train of hoppers from the new line.

Xuanzhong QJ 2633 is ready to depart to Handan 1st January 1996.

The Red Cap station mistress invited us in out of the cold, my mouth dropped as we were shown the waiting room which had plush armchairs and a huge poster covering a wall of a sunny Caribbean Island; what was going on? Why had so much money been spent on a small station in a remote location? Why did this lowly station also have a superintendent? He told us some members of the Party hierarchy visited the area which was associated with the Long March, this little station was setup for VIPs.

Back at the hotel David prepared for a night photography session that saw us back at She Xian station where two freights were ready for departure towards Handan. QJ 1711 had a decorated smoke-box with a propaganda message, indicating an elite crew had charge of the engine. It first pushed its train back down the yard before a series of chime whistles announced departure and it quickly accelerated towards us taking a run at the grade out of the yard. We were showered by sparks from the fierce exhaust as the engine flew past, its crew leaning out from the cab enjoying their show!

The second train had two QJs in a tender to tender combination, but we did not get to photograph it as the station police arrived and began to interrogate the guide and driver; who had failed to obtain their permission to photograph.

We seemed to get out of the scrape with only the guide suffering loss of face and I spent the night indulging in a traditional rail-fan New Year; too much alcohol!


Rob Dickinson

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