The International Steam Pages
Shibanxi Heaven DVD
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Back in late 2001, I first visited the narrow gauge railway at Shibanxi in Sichuan, south-west China. At the time it was barely known, but since then it has rightly become famous. The railway is some 20km long with 6 tunnels, a reversal and constantly changing semi-tropical scenery including both rural cottages and decaying 1950s Mao era brick flats. Steam operation is in the hands of Chinese standard C2 type with mainly 4 wheeled coaches and wagons constructed locally.
Shibanxi Gold - The best steam narrow gauge railway in the world on DVD as it evolves into a sustainable operation (2008-2011).
Ours are not the only reports, but they do contain a good impression of the kind of material included on this double DVD. Click below for the appropriate report:
The images in these reports are entirely stills from our video record:
Thanks to the full co-operation of the owners, the Jiayang Power Company, and many people and organisations in the area, the contents of the DVDs include:
We believe in going 'the extra mile' to get our material ....
The material for these DVDs was filmed by independent film producers Rob and Yuehong Dickinson who spent more than a month filming here on three extended visits between 2004 and 2007. It was recorded in DV-AVI format and the result is a broadcast quality film, on two DVDs (60 minutes each part, coal trains and the passenger train). Like 'Logging Off', 'Sweet Spot' and 'Battlefield Heroes' this is not just another steam video, it is a total record of a way of life that has barely changed since the railway was opened nearly 50 years ago.
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Shibanxi – now there’s a name to conjure with and it’s one that, on the basis of this DVD by Rob and Yuehong Dickinson, most certainly will not disappoint. There are simply some lines that stand out from all the rest, where everything, the motive power, the scenery and the general ambience are “just right”. For me it was the Cibatu–Garut–Cikajang branch in West Java, which was home to the PJKA’s last Mallets and which climbed fearsome grades through rice terraces and palm trees. I’ve never visited the Shabanxi railway, but from this excellent DVD it very much looks like it could have easily vied with Cibatu as an all-time favourite.
The Shibanxi railway is a 762mm gauge coal railway some 50km south of the tourist trap of Leshan with its giant Buddha in Sichuan province. It was built for no other purpose than to carry coal from mines to a power station. But it runs through a very isolated part of China with few or no roads and the local community is almost totally dependent on it. So, in addition to the coal, passenger trains are also operated.
Trains are worked by a small fleet of grubby standard class C2 0-8-0s. Now the real charm of the railway begins (at least for the Western gricer, I’m not so sure the locals would be so convinced): the passenger vehicles are small, crude homemade four-wheel “boxes”; unlit and without any glass in the windows they wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Bosna-Bahn in the 1880s. One “coach”, a little longer than the others is used to convey general freight, goods bound for market or being taken home, as well as livestock. And, as the film shows, room can be found in it for coffins too.
This being south-west China the scenery is attractive and lush (not all of China is QJs, barren Karst and sub-zero temperatures) with rice terraces and thick forests. It climbs steeply (in places), has horseshoes, a reversing point at Mifeng, numerous tunnels, and more often than not runs right through the centre of the small towns and villages it serves. It is in brief the quintessential narrow gauge railway, still steam worked and still doing the job it was built for, in quintessential rural China. Here people are living out their lives in ways not entirely dissimilar to their parents and grandparents.
But the DVD reveals more than this. Much of it is devoted to the coal mines at Hungcun and Yuejin, the former a small, almost pre-industrial mine, and the latter much larger with electrified railways and more modern equipment. Operations at rural Hungcun are primitive to say the least and relied heavily on human muscle. Watching the film it becomes easy to understand why the Chinese mining industry has the worst accident rates in the world.
This is then a railway which seems to have everything the narrow gauge steam fan could wish for: great scenery, rundown steam locos, eccentric rolling stock, trains running down streets and through markets, all locked in a time capsule about to disappear. The film captures this perfectly, far better than I can describe it in words. It is lovingly shot and, whilst inevitably the steam-worked trains are the focus of attention, the people who live and work along the line are given due and respectful attention: this is not just a bit of “local colour” cut into the film for the amusement of long noses.
Shibanxi Heaven is a remarkable film of great charm and at the same time an historical document of a way of life our post-industrial world is indifferently sweeping away. The film is excellently shot, in addition to being well and unobtrusively narrated. It comes in the form of two DVDs, one given solely over to the coal trains and mining operations, whilst the other concentrates on the passenger workings. The latter appropriately enough concludes with a traditional Chinese funeral – how many of us will make our last journey behind authentic narrow gauge steam? Shibanxi Heaven is an intelligent and sympathetic piece of film making. It can be wholeheartedly recommended.