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Steam in China - October 2002

by Mike la Plante and Ron Olsen


Hunting safaris in Africa would always strive to catch the "Big Five". Today, those of us who travel to China for steam strive to catch our own "Big Five", the QJ, JS, SY, narrow gauge C-2 and the steam crane. On this trip, we were successful.

October 22, Tuesday

My traveling companion Ron's contact at the China Rail Publishing House had learned that #1 and #4 were in-steam and running at Dahuichang. He called a friend with a car and we drove out, only getting lost once. We set up near the midpoint of the line and waited. After a half hour with no action, we decided to walk down towards the shed. As advertised, # 1 & # 4 were in-steam with loaded trains, but nothing was happening. #2 was dead in the shed. Apparently there was some problem in the plant, so we took a few pictures and left.

October 23, Wednesday

We planned to visit the Beijing February 7th (Erqi) Locomotive Works, which is actually very near Dahuichang.
Our first taxi let us out at the wrong place. A local offered to take us to the right place for 10 kwai and off we went. This also turned out to be the wrong place. It was the rolling stock factory, not the loco works, a few miles north of where we wanted to be. Our third taxi finally got us to the right place.
After the normal confusion at the gate, a young engineer came out to give us a tour. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the buildings but could outside.
Our guide told us that there were about 5,500 people employed there and that they turned out about 150 DF7 locomotives per year. We saw the fabrication and machining of Diesel engine blocks from plate, as well as the manufacture of locomotive trucks, camshafts, crankshafts, wheels, tires, drive shafts and so on. They are also doing quite a lot of repair/rebuild work and have just finishing a new building just for that. We saw several that had just been rebuilt including DF7 0004 (1985) along with several single-end cab units (DF7D?). We also saw DF7 5547, the newest one. We even found the prototype Beijing Diesel, BJ 3001, still in use as the shop switcher.
The big treat was finding brand new DF7G AC0001. It had been rolled out, but was not quite finished. It didn't even have builder's plates yet.

October 24, Thursday

Our overnight train from Beijing arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule at the old South Manchurian Railway depot in Shenyang. As we exited the depot, we discovered that it was snowing! There was no guide to meet us and Ron was concerned. I explained to him that this had happened to me before and was not unusual. When the guide finally arrived we hired a taxi for the day and headed out for Beitai. We passed the steelworks at Benxi but did not see any steam, only some GKD (?) diesels in the 5xx series and not lettered for China Rail.
Our taxi driver stopped several times and asked the way and we finally arrived in Beitai and found the offices of the steel mill. Our guide talked our way in and we got a tour of what turned out to be a rolling mill. We later discovered that this is a separate operation from the steel mill but apparently sharing the fleet of SYs. We saw at least 5 in- steam within the plant.
We found a hotel that overlooked the Jiwuduan and bid our guide and the taxi driver farewell. We spent the rest of the day checking things out and saw at least 9 other SYs working. The crews were very friendly and they told us the local passenger train stopped at the station about 1 km away, a fact our hotel staff appeared ignorant of. As I expected, hotels overlooking railway yards have good points and bad points. I heard horns, whistles, air compressors and exhausts through most of the night.

October 25, Friday

We went out to a day that was rapidly becoming brighter and clearer (and cold). We walked down toward the steel mill. Just about 7:45 am there was a burst of activity as 3 or 4 trains consisting of an SY and several cars rushed into the steel mill, one after the other. The morning passenger train also arrived from Benxi, hauled by DFH3 0045. I noticed that they appeared to be charging at least 3 of the 4 blast furnaces we could see.
We continued walking down to the large bridge at the end of the steel mill (53 km milepost). Nothing appeared to be going on so we walked back and continued on past the Jiwuduan (55.2 km milepost). We kept going for another 2 or 3 km but there was nothing of interest and we headed back to the yard. We also saw DF4 1043, 1616 and 2121 on China Rail trains.
At the Jiwuduan, there was an engine in steam (we never could see the number) along with a large (150T?) crane, also in steam. We took some pictures and headed back towards the bridge. Some official looking types asked us not to take pictures and to leave. We stopped to watch a 15T locomotive crane working on building a spare switch. The officials followed us and told us to stop taking pictures, even though we were no longer on railway or steel mill property. We walked away from them and crossed to the other side of the bridge and they went away.
We bought tickets for Anshan and off we went. The first stop was Anping. If we had paid more attention and realized how close it was, we would have taken a taxi there and spent a few hours. We saw 3 or 4 JSs in steam across the yard from the station, including JS 8252.

October 26, Saturday

Some of the other China Rail locomotives that we saw in the Anshan area included SS4 7016 and 7021, DF4D 0257, and ND5 0425 and 0316.
Since we never connected with our guide to tour the steel mill, we decided to ride the trams (one of the few places in China that still has trams). The tram line has 1950's cars with bow collectors. They are Chinese built but definitely look American. The line no longer runs south of the railway station but does run north about 2 to 3 miles. It parallels part of the steel mill and we could see a few 3-unit electric crocodile locomotives and a plume that could only have been an SY.
We left, heading for Chifeng, with no easy way to get there. We wound up going north to Siping, then west to Tongliao and finally down to Chifeng.

October 27, Sunday

We arrived in Chifeng and walked down the street to the bus station. A bus for Yuanbaoshan was just leaving and we jumped on it. About an hour later it dropped us off near the main power station.
We walked down to the new power plant hotel and found out that there were no rooms available. A taxi passed by and we took it to another hotel, also with no rooms available. We deduced some sort of convention was in town, but never did learn any details. The third hotel we went to did offer us a room and we took it. It was probably the shabbiest hotel I have ever stayed in.
We dropped out gear and went out to explore. We walked straight down the street to the railway yard, climbed over the fence and started walking. Even though it was Sunday, we could see 2 JSs working and could hear another one in the distance. The 2 we could see were obviously being put away for the night. Ron tried a few pictures but I thought it was too dark.
We watched GKD1 4008, obviously from the power plant, take a rake of cars through the scales and into the plant. We also later saw another GK (?) 0442.
At the hotel we had planned to take showers before dinner but that option was gone, so we headed back out. We passed several small restaurants and decided to check out what appeared to be another restaurant just up the street from the Jiwuduan. It was a fateful decision.
We went in and were ushered into a private room that could have held a dozen diners and ordered dinner. While we waited we asked about rooms, but none were to be had. The mysterious convention again. For some unknown reason, the beer was green but it tasted fine. Ron and I both agreed that it was the best meal we had had in China so far.
Somehow the question of getting washed came up and we discovered that there was a bathhouse on the premises. After dinner we were led into the back. Since we were both filthy we didn't waste any time. There were real showers with gushing hot water, a large hot tub, a sauna and, as a bonus, a Chinese masseur. Words are inadequate to describe how good this felt after a week roughing it in China.

October 28, Monday

We headed for the road bridge to catch the departure of the 7 am passenger train. It was in the yard with another JS and the sun was just high enough to take pictures as it departed. We climbed down to the yard and took pictures of the shunting. Ron started talking to the crew of JS 8249 (Datong 1987) and they invited us up for a ride. Off we went with a cut of cars with another JS on the back, headed for the China Rail interchange. We stopped at the mine yard where we dropped off the other JS and then continued on. We talked with the crew about how powerful the JS was. They said 2500 HP. I said they must be small Chinese horses, not big American horses and everyone laughed.
Dropping our load of empties, we assembled a train for the return trip. We eventually wound up with about 35 gondolas full of coal and one filled with pipe. Our JS worked hard up to the mine yard and then drifted down to the power plant yard, a total trip of about 6 miles. It was a great ride and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
Right after we arrived back, the passenger train returned from Anpingou and we got a few more pictures. Since nothing else seemed to be going on, we decided to walk back up to the mine yard, getting there about noon.
After about 45 minutes, we had just decided to head back when a JS came up with a load of empties for the mine. The mine branch is uphill (2%?) for over a mile and would feature some hard working. We ran up it and found a place to take pictures and got some good shots.
As we continued to wait, a second train of empties came up to the mine yard. Once again, we ran down the branch, farther this time, and got some great pictures of hard working. Soon after, the last JS came down the branch light and began switching the mine yard. While it did, we started walking back down towards the power plant and were able to catch the return train working up towards the summit with another good-sized train. We even caught another train as we continued our walk back down to the yard and back to the hotel. Ron called the taxi driver who had brought us to this hotel and made arrangements to hire him to drive us around and bring us to Chifeng and then to Daban.

October 29, Tuesday

We took our time getting ready, figuring that we could easily get there for the passenger train's departure. Unfortunately, the 7 am train actually departed at 7 am and we were about 2 minutes too late to get any pictures. We took a few pictures in the yard and around the Jiwuduan. We saw JS 6246 inside the shed. It had just come back from overhaul and had not even been steamed yet. We headed back to the hotel to meet our taxi driver. He was waiting for us so we checked out and headed out.
We planned to head for the top of the mine branch, as the crew in the yard had said there would be a train of empties heading up around 9 am. As it turned out, the place we headed for is only a mile or two from the hotel, on the main road. We scouted out photo locations, Ron wanted the top of the hill and I picked the road crossing about 500 meters down from Ron.
The train arrived much sooner than I had expected, just about 9 am. I got some great shots of it coming and going and got showered in cinders at the same time. Ron had a similar experience, as he almost forgot to take the dark slide out of his 6x9 camera. This more than made up for missing the morning passenger train. It was our best steam experience so far.
We were at the Daban Jiwuduan in less than three hours and went out to take pictures. We photographed the ready tracks out front and them the repair area out back, the three sheds with three tracks each. We saw two QJs just back from overhaul (7002 and 7063), not even steamed yet, and two more (6375 and 7038) just being prepared to go for overhaul to Bai Cheng, near Harbin. It was incredible. In one day we had seen three literally brand new steam locomotives.
Walking down to the yard, we got some great shots of a double-header heading west, with the sun glinting off the boiler. We also got a single QJ heading east from the other end of the yard. We even got some pictures of engines in silhouette at the Jiwuduan and later some night photography. The effect of the "cathedral of steam" was certainly impressive, though.

October 30, Wednesday

We went out to catch the 7 am morning freight and the 7:10 am morning passenger train. We watched the passenger come in and then the double header for the freight come down to the yard, but there didn't appear to be a freight waiting. The passenger train departed and the double header just sat there. The yard switcher, QJ 6984, however, was rapidly putting a freight train together.
A freight came in from the east and a double header from the west. Only then did the early freight finally depart. It was bright and clear and we got some great shots. We went back to dorm to plan our next move. We checked the departure board and decided to walk up the line to the west. A double header arrived from the west and then one from the east about 45 minutes later.
We had just decided to head back when we heard another whistle coming from the west. It turned out to be a power move; double-headed QJs moving light back to Daban. As we walked back, yet another freight came in from the west. This only proved to us that the departure board was more of a wish list than an accurate schedule.

October 31, Thursday

I left Ron at Daban and headed back to Beijing. At Chifeng, while waiting for the night train back to Beijing, I went to see if the secret restaurant under the station that we had found last year was still in business. It was, but I also discovered another secret. When I was done eating, they escorted me to another part of the underground area that turned out to be a separate waiting room for train passengers. The best part was that we were let onto the train at least 15 minutes before those in the upstairs waiting room. This may have been due to the fact that this train originated here and was already in the station.

November 1, Friday

After checking in to my hotel, I went down to the Internet caf‚ and was very disappointed to find a message stating that the opening of the new railway museum had been postponed from today to tomorrow, the day I fly home. This means I have basically lost a day I could have spent in Daban. I decided to try and find the museum anyway.
On of the staff suggested I take a bus uptown towards the museum and then get a taxi. I did it (and the conductor was very helpful, making sure I got off where I wanted to) and got a taxi. The driver did not know about the museum and made several cell phone calls trying to locate it while we drove around, taking a tour of northeast Beijing. We finally did get to some railway place with a steam locomotive of some sort (0-6-0T?) behind the gate, but we couldn't get in and they did not know about the museum either. It might be worthwhile for someone to try to figure out what it was that I did find. I think I was north of the test track. After that, there was nothing left to do but get ready to fly back home.

November 2002,
Mike la Plante

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© 2002, M.LaPlante , email: MLaPla3308@aol.com