The International Steam Pages

Huanan - Narrow Gauge Finale?

Steam on the narrow gauge in China is in full retreat, faster even than on the standard gauge. I took a late Autumn trip to grab a bit of the action while it was still available. After my second visit to Java in September, I had little time for thought before I joined up with Heinrich Hubbert in Jiamusi on 21st October 2003. Suffice to say that my getting there at all had been fraught with unexpected difficulties and my problems were not over by any means. On the other hand, as often happens, times of negative experience made the positive experiences that followed even more enjoyable. At Huanan, my wildest expectations were far exceeded and with the railway surviving into late 2004, I had to make a return visit. Several groups have chartered trains here, but for me (as always) that has to be second best to the real thing.

It may help your reading of what follows to know that trains of mainly 8 empty coal wagons leave Huanan roughly every 4 hours hauled by one of  three active locomotives (the railway now has six of which it seems four are immediately serviceable). After crossing a flat plain, an incoming full train will be crossed at Xiahua. From here the line climbs steadily through open country past Tuoyaozi after which it becomes increasingly wooded eventually negotiating a horseshoe curve to a summit before it drops to Lixin. Here there is a triangle and, after turning, the locomotive will bank the next full train to the summit. The locomotive will then take its train tender first downhill to Hongguang where coal from up to eight small mines is transferred from road trucks to an earlier set of empties which are then taken back to Huanan as described above. This means that a casual visitor may find very little apparent activity in Huanan itself - apart from the time when a locomotive is being serviced between trips, the shed and its yard will be locked and bolted. The railway traffic office next to the storage sidings across the road (and behind the police station{!}) can advise when the next train is due.   During our stay, we found that there was usually an empty train through Tuoyaozi between 04.00 and 06.00 and during the daylight two further empty and up to three full trains over the summit. We found that occasionally locomotives on full trains returned to Tuoyaozi quicker than expected, they must have been turned at Xiahua. As you will see this is all extremely photogenic..... Smokers should note that there is a total {and enforced} fire ban in the forest area. Click here for links to other Huanan reports. Some of the railway's wagons display their interesting history, this one comprises the body of a coal wagon (note disused coupling housing) perched on a set of old log wagon bogies needed for their brake gear:

Hybrid coal wagon

As arranged, my favourite China guide Mike Ma was already in Jiamusi when I got there on K339 and on arrival at Huanan by train 6452 we transferred to the Forestry Guest House. This had been recently renovated and getting to grips with the modern plumbing resulted in my covering one bedroom floor with water from the shower.  A quick afternoon visit to the depot revealed 011 getting ready to take out some empties with, as expected/hoped, two more locomotives (21043 and 044) out up the line. We were given the royal treatment for dinner from the tourism section of the Forestry Department and I caught up on some much needed sleep. It had been raining in the area for a few days and 22nd October dawned a little brighter. Arriving at the station for the public 08.00 railcar we were greeted with the news that it had been replaced (owing to non-payment of track charges) by an internal 07.00 working - running every other day - which had already departed and would we please like to report to the transportation section to pay the new visitors' fees. Instead we jumped in a taxi and headed for Xiahua where we found the railcar and 011 waiting for 21043 on fulls. 

Xiahua departure (21043)

At this point, we were politely but firmly informed that we could not travel on the railcar to Lixin as planned, but the new head of the transport section required us to pay a mere Y3000 for the privilege of being transported up the line.... 'Pay-to-view' has obviously reached Huanan.... In the event this was definitely a case of serendipity, we ended up far better off than we had originally expected. After attempts at negotiation over the phone failed, our taxi was hastily called back. We watched 011 leave in the gloom, then our taxi took us up to Tuoyaozi where we waited for the next full train with 044 to come down. Fortunately, it was delayed by the returning railcar and the train caught the only few minutes of acceptable light all day ... 

Tuoyaozi departure (044)

Mike quickly arranged for a 'home stay' and we based ourselves here for seven days to make the most of the more photogenic (and less accessible) parts of the line. The facilities while scarcely meriting a star award (more than adequate food, beer, electricity but with outside 'toilet' and no bath house) were far better than the alternative of Lixin and infinitely preferable to commuting by taxi from Huanan more than an hour away. The original plan had been to try for the autumn colours, but owing to my second Java trip we were too late by at least a week. Instead we encountered early winter conditions as overnight the temperature plunged as the skies cleared with a biting west wind, but not before the hills had received a dusting of snow. So on day 2, we walked to the summit (6-7 km, 1 hours) and on down to Lixin (2-3km, hour), photographing the trains as we went, before walking back to Tuoyaozi. It was a great day's gricing.

21043 climbing out of Tuoyaozi with empties: 

Climbing out of Tuoyaozi  (21043)

011 + 21043 on Lixin bank when we were taken by surprise:

Lixin bank (011 + 21043)

21043 approaching Lixin from Hongguang

Approaching Lixin bank (21043)

21043 taking water at Lixin

Water tower at Lixin bank (044)

21043 + 044 leaving Lixin:

Leaving Lixin (21043 + 044)

044 as banking engine from Lixin

Leaving Lixin (044)

On day 3, the weather and the trains were less co-operative. We chartered motocycles to take us to Lixin (Y20 each) and walked back. This is 044 at the summit first thing.

Morning at the summit (044)

011 approaches Lixin with gold mining tailings behind.

Lixin arrival (011)

011 nears the summit with 044 banking

Midday at the summit (21011 + 044)

Having dropped the banker and pinned the brakes, 21011 heads gingerly down the hill.

Descending from the summit (21011)

The temperature went up in the evening as it clouded over. Next morning (day 4), it was again colder and snowing. We said goodbye to Mike who, having set us up superbly, could now go home. It was time to stay in and get some work done on the lap top to pay for the trip... On the other hand when you have a train (with 004) running outside the front gate you cannot ignore it:

Tuoyaozi main street (004)

And during the lunchtime break here was 011 in the Tuoyaozi landscape.

Tuoyaozi panorama (011)

Day 5 was another clear day which started very cold. 044 made it to the summit just before dawn, so we headed beyond Lixin to wait for 011:

Lixin approach (011)

After a quick sprint up the bank, I found a spot which was 'not quite perfect' for 011 banked by 004:

Lixin bank (011)

Lixin bank (004

For me one of the highlights of the visit was the 25 minute sound show put on by 21043 as it wound its way to the summit with empties as were waiting in the horseshoe:

On the horseshoe (21043)

I was feeling my age (and also quite thirsty) so we headed back to base, but not before enjoying the remaining autumn colours near Tuoyaozi with 004.

Tuoyaozi  approach (004)

As usual the train stopped outside the village to release the brakes which had been pinned on for the steep descent, allowing me a double shot. From here it wasn't far to go to start on our third (24 bottle) crate of beer... 

Tuoyaozi main street (004)

Day 6 was a mild autumnal day with at best hazy sunshine, turning to drizzle in the afternoon, hardly prizewinning conditions. I put a dent in my work (and the crate of beer), going out when the trains came. This was 044 on the short uphill section for fulls leaving Tuoyaozi:

Tuoyaozi panorama (004)

And 044 again outside our residence just an hour later:

Tuoyaozi main street (044)

Finally, 004 in the gloom at the end of the day as a queue of bullock carts came back from the fields: 

Tuoyaozi main street (004)

Day 7 is best skipped, mostly South China grey and drizzle without the benefit of a mild temperature and a long gap with no trains around midday. I did a lot of work and at least our taxi driver turned up on time to whisk us back to 'civilisation'..... 

Huanan sunset

To complete my misery, the staff of the Forestry Guest House turned the water off an hour early in the evening although I was able to wash off the accumulated grime next morning - when the sun came out to mock us on our departure for Sichuan. How do you pass 60 hours on Chinese trains? Don't ask! Actually if you really want to know it wasn't that difficult, we got the beer flow just right, we bumped into English language instructor John Delaney on the train south from Beijing, one thing led to another and not only did we get a free night's accommodation in Chengdu, we found our way to a Halloween disco night and consequential Chinese lessons. Next stop was the narrow gauge system at Shibanxi, with guaranteed impossible photographic conditions it was the ideal spot to lay up for a few days to just enjoy good old fashioned train watching....  

In summary, paying Y3000 might just about be OK for a fair sized group, but not just two of us with limited means. If you like what you see here and fancy a few days up the line, please contact Mike Ma ( (link broken 1st November 2019) who can make all the necessary arrangements for you at a very reasonable cost.

Regrets? Primarily that the management here are going down the same road as many others (I could voice an opinion over how and why this has happened but it would involve biting the hand that pays for my trips). It would have been nice to take some pictures at the ends of the line to show the coal transhipment but this was impractical - at Huanan this occurs about 500m west of the station (from a short visit it seems into trucks rather than standard gauge wagons) and we had no easy way to get to Hongguang. I would also have liked to see some log wagons in use but if that still happens then it would have been too early in the season. We were advised against trying to ride the trains without authorisation, as one of the drivers had reportedly been disciplined for allowing someone in the cab. Nevertheless we found everyone very friendly and helpful apart from the transportation chief and the 'security officer' on the railcar. Special thanks go to the the family in Tuoyaozi who welcomed us into their home and fed and watered us at strange hours for a week. 

Rob Dickinson