The International Steam Pages

Xilin Mineral Railway

The Xilin Mineral Railway is about 80km north of Nancha, so is readily accessible from a popular enthusiast destination. The atmosphere was very different from our earlier narrow gauge experience on the Yabuli Logging Railway. If there was anyone in the town who spoke English, they kept well out of our way. The hotel was a single story building with basic facilities. Unlike most small Chinese hotels, it was smell free, suspiciously so as was confirmed when we found that the only toilets available were of the very public and unlit variety round the corner. Even approaching the huge holes in the floor was hazardous in the icy surroundings of frozen urine, although the extreme cold must have reduced the threat to health. Free enterprise had reached Xilin and there were 3 small restaurants in the station approach where once again a combination of gesticulation and the Lonely Planet Guide produced excellent cheap food.

Although there were reports about the railway, maybe even 6 trains a day, none had actually bothered to mention its location. So I had an unscheduled visit to the metal works north of the town where I found 32 immaculate SY 2-8-2s but no trace of the narrow gauge. An hour or so later, station staff directed me to its terminus perched high on the hill west of the station. By now serious traffic had ceased for the day and there was just time for a load to be shunted along the high embankment to the transshipment shed before the light failed.

Further arm waving and hand signals established that activity started at dawn and before 7.00 I was back at the yard. Here all the crews were friendly and within seconds I was in a warm cab heading a load of empties for the mine. We clattered along at a fair pace along a broad valley before entering the main crossing point, where we waited for a loaded train as the rising sun glistened off the icicles dripping from the loco. All too soon we were at the triangle in the valley below the mine shadowed by the surrounding hills. Clearly operations were not going smoothly as we huddled around a coal fir in the operations room for hours and hours. Finally, word came that a load was ready. As normal, the empties needed two locos for the steep climb, one at each end. A further delay was caused when a tender derailed at the top at the point where a reversal is needed to get to the mine proper. I watched the rerailing while one of the locos fetched the load before returning to Xilin as the light failed. Clearly this was another extremely interesting system, although my companion who had stayed in Xilin had scarcely seen a narrow gauge wheel turn all day.

The next day was one of those perfect days we all experience from time to time. Everything ran to time, a succession of empties ran out from Xilin, although the icy condition of the dirt road made chasing difficult. By midday the first loaded trains were returning but as these were downhill for the most part they were of marginal interest. We struck out for the mine and discovered to our surprise that it was an underground system with overhead electrification. This was previously unreported and was greeted with incredulity back home. There was little sign of life (or security) but we resisted the temptation to penetrate beyond the large doors which closed off the underground section. By now our driver was complaining about the lack of lunch, so it was time to head for home, picking up a double headed loaded train on the final climb to Xilin.

The toilets had proved too much for my companion and after the early morning empties he returned to Nancha, while I went to complete the picture at the mine. Again there were problems at the top. Eventually among all the toing and froing in our warm haven, 2 loco crews slipped out unseen. Whistles alerted me to the problem and there was barely time to get the taxi to the small gap near the summit where the sun still penetrated. Two electric locos had now appeared. The sun was falling fast as I returned to Xilin past yet another loaded train. An early dinner was in order before the local QJ passenger returned me to the comparative comforts of Nancha. Fortunately, the forests and outdoor long drop behind the ops room provided better facilities than the frozen cess pit and I was able to come out smiling.

Rob Dickinson