The International Steam Pages

Far Rail China Steam Summary 2006

The following originally appeared in Far Rail's (Bernd Seiler's) newsletter in June 2006. You can subscribe to it by visiting their website,

There are still great steam operations to be seen in this large country. The locations have been organized by the classes used, and largely from north to south. We will only mention some of the places with steam. There are many more in industrial complexes with few just a locomotives and or with little traffic. Visits to these places are normally not worthwhile.But there are also lines of which it isn’t known if any steam is in use.

The last giants: QJ class

The last QJs, and there are less than 30 left, will disappear from regular service within the next months, likely by year end. All locations can require a lot of patience to experience a moving train.

JiTong line
For those who haven’t realised it yet: it is over! Any railway enthusiast who has missed this line, has missed something in life. But there still are (note the “still”):

Daba – Guyaozi
The last highlight for standard gauge long distance workings. The line in the desert offers many good positions beside the long bridge over the Yellow River. Five QJs share the work with two diesels. On average there are one to three uphill steam trains during daylight.

Operations now are all fully electric. The planned extension of the line won’t be operated with steam. All the QJs have been sold to scrap merchants.

Pucheng – Baishui
Despite of the fact that there are three QJs and only one diesel, it can take days before you see a good steam hauled train. Traffic fluctuates and the diesel locomotive is used extensively. The line is attractive and has steep parts, bridges (even a steel lattice girder bridge) and a tunnel. Sadly the nearby cement factories pollute the air badly.

Wuxian and Qin Xian
Both the lines to the north of Changzhi were dieselised in 2005. 

No recent information about this coal line to the north of Changzhi. In 2005 it was served by QJs, with regular banked trains. 

This coal mine north of Mianchi (west of Luoyang) only uses one QJ for shunting and as spare. If the only diesel fails, the steam loco will return to line service. The 17 km long branch to the state railway offers a lot of possibilities with a tunnel and bridges.

Xin Mi
This line is situated some 40 km south of Zhengzhou. Besides two QJs they use a minimum of two diesels, depending on the amount of traffic. So the opportunities to see steam are getting rare. The end of steam is close, as they want to purchase another diesel in 2006.

Luohe – Fuyang
Now fully dieselised.

Pingdingshan – Yüzhou
After the first five diesel locomotives arrived only the deflectorless QJs remained in service. These are used on the flat line to Yüzhou. Although the staff stated that these three QJs will be used until 2008, I don’t believe they will survive much longer. All southbound trains are chimney first. One or two pairs of trains run daily, but there is no fixed schedule. The other QJ (with deflectors) has been under steam as spare in the depot but didn’t haul a single train in January 2006.

Tienchun (Zaozhuang)
The state railway forced the management of this local line to replace their steam by diesel. In the beginning of 2006 one or two QJs have still be under steam for spares, but with the arrival of the next diesel loco this will be over as well. The line is about 80 north of Xüzhou.

The coal railway sold all QJs at the end of 2005 – probably to a scrap merchant.

The coal mine line some 90 km south west of Yüzhou wanted to replace the last QJ by diesel in May 2006.

This coal mine in the Shandong province is replacing their QJs step by step. Most of the trains are already diesel hauled. It is expected that by the end of the year the last QJ will be put aside. The countryside is flat, the roads are bumpy and the trains run at high speed, so it is unlikely that steam fans will get many good shots on this system.

Nenjiang – Luzhou
This is the last known QJ operation in southern China (Sichuan province). Only if their diesel fails (which happens maybe only once in three months) the QJ will take over the single pair of freight trains daily. The line is beautiful with rice paddies, mountains and bridges, but road conditions allow a maximum two pictures of any one train.

The Mikado for mixed purposes: class JS

This type of locomotive just lost one of its best operations: Yuanbaoshan near Chifeng. But there are many more survivors than QJs. The JS class might be the last surviving steam class in China as there is a huge open cast mine (Sandaoling) which will use steam for more than ten years from now.

Huludao – Yangjiazhangzi
During daylight you have two, and in summer three pairs of limestone trains. A very steep gradient, where train often struggle, and a turntable make the line interesting.

The coal mine system of Pingdingshan has more than a dozen of JS’s in use. Sometimes you can see a double header, rarely a banker as well. Outside of Pingdingshan some nice countryside shots are possible while in and around Pingdingshan and at the mines, industrial backdrops are predominate. Exceptional: a wintry sunrise in the depot, when up to ten steam locos are lined up and getting prepared for the morning duties. One or two SYs are used as well.

Hekou Nan – Liujiaxia
The line through two gorges of the Yellow river is spectacular, sadly it offers only a singe tender first operation during daylight. Only in mid-summer do you have the chance to get the chimney first operation in the gorges.

Open cast mine Sandaoling
The open cast mine near Hami on the Lanzhou – Ürümqi line relies totally on locomotives of the JS class. Beside a very few SYs all operations are done by JS class engines. At the moment they are planning to set up a workshop to carry out their own heavy overhauls. In the recent years the management bought JS’s from several other lines to fill up their own stock. They expect to use steam far longer than 2010. A drop of bitterness: almost all trains in the open cast pit are banked, and the chimney facing towards the train. The trains are all push-pull trains with a semaphore signal car at the other end. The worker’s trains are tender first as well. Anyhow, on the connection line from the state railway (Liushuquan) to Nanzahn the trains are operated chimney first. The line is steep and demands much from the locos and their crews. On the steep gradient several trains struggle in the endless moon-like landscape. You need a permit to visit this open cast mine.

Shankou – Yamansu
Some 100 km east of Hami, a mineral railway is located. The four JS serve the few trains in a wide and open landscape. There are some gradients as well. Trains from Yamansu are tender first and so it would be wise to combine a visit of this line with Sandaoling. 

The Mikado for industrial use: class SY

Developed from the JF design, the SY became a very popular and robust locomotive for industrial use. There are still plenty of locations all over China using this class, but only a few are really scenic. Here is a selection of interesting places (which starts with bad news):

Steelworks with SYs

Anshan and Benxi
Both steelworks changed to diesel and electrics completely.

The smaller steelworks near Yebaishou is still using a handful of SYs.

Beside SYs they also use some JS engines. As there no permits for entering the steelworks are issued, and all line work is in the hand of diesels, there is no need for a visit any more.

With almost 20 steam locomotives in use, Baotou is a must for the lover of industrial sites. In addition, in Baotou you’re relatively free to visit the slag tip, where molten, red glooming slag is unloaded. These trains are still steam operated. The permit you get is limited to some spots only, but normally you can extend the area while visiting the steelworks.

Half a dozen of SYs remained in service. Although the steelworks do not issue visitors permits you can make shots with nice steelworks scenery from a nearby level crossing.

This steelworks in the Shanxi province issues permits to visitors. About ten steam locomotives are in daily use. Beside SYs they also use locomotives of the JS class. The line to the mines (80 km long) is dieselised, but can see occasionally steam hauled trains.

Ma’anshan is one of the bigger steelworks of China. More than 20 steam locomotives are working in a large industrial area. Although many of the lines cross public areas, photographers are only allowed to take pictures with an official permit. The ”sensitive“ part of the steelworks is off limits.

Besides new arrived diesel there are about ten SYs in daily use. The steelworks issues permits to visitors. Panzhihua is far away from all other (known) steam lines, located some 350 km northwest of Kunming.

Shuicheng is close to Liupanshui in the Guizhou province and also far away from any other steam location. This steelworks uses about ten SYs beside several diesels. It’s possible to take some shots from outside without permission as several lines passing public areas.

SY-operated coal mines

Open cast mine Zhalai Nuer
THE highlight amongst coal mines served by SYs is Zhalai Nuer at the border with Russia. Up to 30 steam locomotives bustling up and down, push and pull trains through the levels of the mine. Sometimes you can see five trains in action at the same time. An SY with a red star and full smoke deflectors which is serving only the deep mine around the open cast mine is especially attractive. The open cast mine is coming close to being exhausted, so it is planned to shut down it in a few years.

Only worth a visit together with Zhalai Nuer because all uphill trains are tender first. The turntable is out of use. Of four locos in service two are still SY, the other two are diesel. Passenger trains.

Almost all passenger trains are running with steam, especially in winter. Most of the railway network is electrified, so there are only a few steam hauled freight trains. Anyhow, many industrial spots, a recently opened new cookery (served by steam trains) and a reasonable amount of passenger trains making it worth a visit.

No competition for SYs here so far. There are about 20 steam locomotives serving different coal mines. Some trains are double headed. Typical coal mine backdrops, some of them likely with horses and some rural countryside scenes to the farer mines are on offer.

Although they already use one diesel, all freight trains are hauled by SYs. About four locomotives are in daily use in a flat, sometimes slightly hilly, agricultural countryside. Normally the diesel is serving the passenger trains.

Only three to four SYs remained in services after all freight operation was dieselised in 2005. But there are plenty of steam hauled passenger trains making it well worth to visit Tiefa. Out of four lines two have particular photographic potential, with highlight including a short tunnel on the Faku line, and the church at the end of the branch to Wangqian.

The three old diesels operating more than 50 % of all trains, especially the freight trains to the far end of the two lines. Anyhow, the passenger trains in the morning and the afternoon are often handled by steam. There are usually two to four SYs in service. The line offers much potential with arch bridges made from stone, nice mountains around, and many little mines along the line, at least one of them with their own electric narrow gauge supply line.

Beside the almost electric-only served open cast mine, there are deep mines as well. These deep mines are connected with non-electrified lines, which are served by steam. There are only a few trains per day, while many engines are sitting in the depot and doing nothing or shunting at the washery. Highlight is a beautiful SY with smoke deflectors.

More than a dozen SYs are employed in this mine. Anyhow, most of the service is done by GDR-built electric locomotives, and many steam trains are tender first. Remarkable is the Christian church just beside the railway tracks. 

The line through the very scenic gorge is dieselised now, and only in case of a failure of the steam locos is there is a chance to get steam on this particularly beautiful line. The spurs to the two mines in the town are still in the hands of SYs as well as the line to the power plant north of Yaojie. Due to the cement industries there are about 250 days with heavy pollution per year.

Other Industries

Probably most spectacular operation of SYs happens on the mountain line into the loess mountains north of Baiyin. Passenger and freight trains are on this line. Freights, sometimes, even stall on the steep gradient. For the last – and most interesting – part of the line you need a permit from the authorities of the factory. This permit will be issued without problem if you travel with a guide. Beside the mountainous line there are industrial and suburb backdrops. The visibility in the industrial sites can be limited due to air contamination.

Steam operated narrow gauge lines (class C2)

We’ll have to say good by to the indestructible class C2 0-8-0 steam locomotive, not because they will be replaced by diesel, but because they will close their remaining lines.

High in the north of China is Huanan, the last forestry line with steam. In addition, this is the last known narrow gauge line in the world which operates steam hauled and banked trains. Trains of eight wagons transport coal from several small mines to Huanan. An average day sees three pairs of trains during daylight in a fantastic rural, mountainous countryside. Problem: several times a year they shut down the line, sometimes for more than two months. A shut down for sure is the New Year’s break (normally end of January to March).

For a decade this railway has had no scheduled steam service. Nonetheless, it’s possible for the last time in the logging season November 2006 to March or April 2007 to charter a steam locomotive for a scheduled logging train. The opportunities with this loco are somewhat limited as it is running on its last legs. Anyhow, 2006/7 is the last possibility ever to operate a steam hauled logging train in China.

Closed in 2005, locos are stored in the shed.

This short line serves a brickworks on an interesting track passing a brick arch bridge over ponds and climbing up to the clay quarry in a deep loess cutting. If the line is operating, some six pairs of trains a day are normal. Sometimes they have long breaks, for example if it is too wet to work in the clay quarry.

The line is wired and poled but has a charming wooden unloading facility and a unique depot which is worth the visit alone. Almost under military field conditions they even carry out heavy overhauls. Four pairs of trains are usual.

Weiyuan (Huangjinggou)
The fate of this really beautiful line hangs by a threat. Only one pair of trains in the morning connects the coal mine with the unloading facility near the power plant. Mentionable is the big viaduct and the run through the market of Huangjinggou. The line can be closed any time.

THE gem amongst the remaining narrow gauge lines: reversal station, several tunnels, rice paddies and hair pin bends in a rural countryside which is not developed by a road. Four pairs of passenger trains a day plus – if you’re lucky – one pair of coal freights giving much potential to the line. The first four kilometres are electrified, but the other 16 km see pure steam operation. The line should have been closed at the end of 2006 and replaced by a road, but they just postponed the date.

There are two more steam operated narrow gauge lines known, but these two are off limits. On is in the steelworks Licheng (Moqiu) which does not issue permits to foreign visitors. The other is Dashiban east of Guangyuan (Sichuan). The line connects a prisoners’ camp with coal mines and transports coal as well as prisoners. The line is scenic but any attempt of a long nose to take pictures there could be lead to a longer stay in a not so scenic surrounding. All attempts to get a permit, even through the local government, failed.

No one can say how long it will be worth visiting China for steam. For sure, it is still worthwhile to go there now. There is nothing in the world that can compete with the real steam offered in China. And there will be nothing in the future that can outshine China’s steam operations in these coming last months. The only thing absolutely certain is that the above list will be much shorter by next year. It’s time to get off of the sofa now!

A small gallery about remaining steam operations in China is published on the external site Have a look!

Rob Dickinson