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Steam in China - March 2004

Hechi, Jianghe, Weiyuan, Shibanxi, Nanpiao, Huanan and JiTong

by Ken Hojnacki

Jim Hutzler's Rail Study Tours brought me back for three weeks of steam, arriving in Beijing on March 6. The next day, we flew to Guilin and headed for Hechi by bus.


March 8 found us at the Hechi engine depot well before dawn. All engines are JS class and we found 8283 and 8287 cold near the turntable, 8290 and 8284 were in the new shop building and 8375 was hot in front of the office building/depot. All engines were grimy, with some smokebox rust, perhaps from not being properly painted. Just after 7am, 8285 arrived with the southbound freight train. The locomotive cut off and ran to the shop while 8375 coupled onto the train and took it toward the China Rail interchange.

The weather was typical Hechi haze but the sun kept trying to cut through. Around 10am, north of Hechi, we caught what appeared to be an engine numbered 8576 (but is most likely 8376 with bad number board paint) on the southbound passenger train, then 8285 on a northbound freight.

That afternoon, we were to take the passenger train north to Pingzhai. Due to an unfortunate accident involving one of our group, we only took the train to the junction at Puluo. JS 8375 pulled the coaches and one coal gondola from the Hechi station up to the engine depot, where it set out the gon and then headed for the enginehouse. 8290 added a string of gondolas and took our train the rest of the way north. While in the Hechi main station, we observed a number of different China Rail diesels passing through or working in the yard.

We met 8288 on a southbound freight waiting for us probably at Guangnan or Sanmei. At Puluo, we photographed the passenger leaving for Pingzhai, then watched the maintenance of way folks rebuilding a tamper. Lots of speeders and other equipment around, as well as several motor cars. It appears that the motor cars are laid up at Puluo and no longer operate a passenger service on the branch to Shangchao (not confirmed). On our way back to Hechi by bus, we caught a northbound freight pulled by 8373.

The next day, we caught the southbound passenger around 10am north of Hechi, and then a northbound freight. After a wait of around two hours, we caught another southbound freight before heading back to the engine depot to see what was happening there. A northbound freight left around 5pm but nothing else happened.

On March 9, we boarded the all day/night train to Chongqing, where the narrow gauge activities began.


We arrived at the Jianghe coal mine in mid-morning to just catch an electric mine lokey pull two cars of stone blocks out of the tunnel. The cars were cut off and the lokey disappeared. Two men unloaded the car while we "conversed" with the natives. An older electric lokey was in what appeared to be the old enginehouse; hadn't been run in some time by the way it looked. After the men finished unloading, they pushed the cars back into the tunnel and we left. We did spy one of the internal combustion "critters" at a coal loader down the line so we headed to a town our guide called Fushin (the town with the street running and overhead aquaduct). We had lunch there and enjoyed watching the locals watching us. We were there several hours when suddenly, a sander car that was stored in a shed at the mine end of town was being pushed down the main track. Two critter-hauled trains pulled by engines 4 and 6 then followed very slowly. We chased them to a couple of lineside locations, then we headed off to Weiyuan.


Despite reports of unfriendly railroad officials and police problems, our local guide assured us he had arranged a tour for us. So again at 0-dark-hundred we drove some of the worst roads we saw to arrive at the mine complex and enginehouse before daylight. Warily we followed our guide to the enginehouse and watched the fireman firing up one of the C2 0-8-0s, #31 I believe. While it was still dark and without any lights, the engine then came out and headed to the loading track where waiting hoppers were filled with coal. Once full, we headed for the Badong curved viaduct for photos as the train headed to Nihe and back. Haze was apparent here, but not as bad as Hechi.

We had been told a second train might operate but when back at the mine in Huangjinggou, we were told no more pictures unless we chartered a train. The crew put the engine back in the enginehouse while we and our guide dickered with the manager. For our group of 12, a reasonable fee bought the train for another run. As soon as arrangements were finalized, the engine came back out, spotted and loaded more empty coal hoppers, then set them over on a yard track. The engine crew did some maintenance on the engine while the comely female welder building up flanges on car wheelsets, moved her work so the "parlor car" could be removed from the enginehouse. While she did this, we inspected #32 in the enginehouse, and the remains of several more locomotives and a minute turntable.

The crew spotted the parlor car and coupled the loaded hoppers onto it. Having talked my way into the cab, I got to ride with the crew while they hooked onto the front end. While most of our group went into the village to get the great shots there, the engineer offered me the throttle and, with his help, I ran the train thru town to the stop after the runby was completed. The sun was coming out and we had a couple of great runbys going to Nihe.

At Nihe, the cars are unloaded two at a time over an under track pit. When completed, the parlor car was tied in near the end of the empties and we headed back, with even better runbys. The engineer was getting the hang of it and poured on the steam. We had to tell him to stop whistling so much, though. We had several runbys on the way back. I could not make out the number of the parlor car but it was outfitted with two wonderful rattan settees that would make porch dwellers in the US green with envy. The ride, however, was not exactly Water Level Route quality. The manager and two assistants rode with us the whole way, several members got cab rides between runbys and we were not denied any request having to do with photographing the train or the facilities. Anyone planning a trip down this way, I would be happy to get the name of the local CITS guide who was responsible for making this happen. A very worthwhile opportunity where we got all the photos we wanted and the manager got to haul another trainload of coal without an out-of-pocket cost for him.


On March 13, we rode the mid-morning passenger train from Shixi to Huangchingjing, enjoying the scenery and hearing that C2 working hard. Our local guide told us the regular freight had been abolished 20 days earlier and any freight would be hauled by the passenger train. When we reached either Shenzhenjiao or Zaiziba, we noticed two gondolas on a siding, loaded with all kinds of household goods. Our guide said that if a family was moving from one of these isolated towns, they would do so by rail. Sure enough, when we reached the end of the line and headed back, we stopped and coupled onto those two gondolas. We were then a mixed train to Sanjin, the site of the big mine and end of the electric railway. There, the gons were set off on a siding and what I refer to as the moving company of 5 Men, Two Gondolas and a Truck proceeded to offload someone's worldly goods, all under the watchful supervision of two women who freely shouted orders to the men.

I stayed at Sanjin until the next passenger train back to Shixi and watched the electric loco working the coal loader. Between that and the many inquisitive children who flocked around, it was a really interesting time.

There was another locomotive that was hot but we were not allowed access to the enginehouse so could not see it. There were also two cold locos alongside the enginehouse, again not accessible. On the 14th, everyone having enough of the Shibanxi in the hazy weather, we visited the nearby Leshan Grand Buddha, almost 70 meters high, carved into a hillside. It was then plane to Beijing and train to the Nanpiao Coal Mining Railway.


On March 16, we spent the day on the Nanpiao Railway. This time the haze resulted in a different feeling. At the various locations, all I could think of was that this is what the coal mining regions of eastern Pennsylvania must have looked like in the 1930s. Everything (including us, eventually) was covered in coal dust and soot. Yes, the locomotives are very grimy. You could hardly see the red on the drivers! The action wasn't constant but when there was action, you could expect two or three locomotives or trains within a relatively short period of time. I wasn't able to keep track of all the SY locomotive numbers but we also saw what was identified as an elderly BJ Class diesel hydraulic on one coal train. Watching the 4pm departures of two passenger trains plus freight engines shifting around brought visions of Boston & Maine moguls heading up the branchlines north and west of Boston.


On March 17th, we stepped off another train in Jiamusi for our bus ride to Huanan. And it was COLD! Arriving at the engine depot, we found C2 0-8-0 043 hot on one enginehouse track and 041 on the adjacent track, undergoing a hydrostatic boiler check by hand pumping the pressure up. Further back in the enginehouse were #168 up on jacks with all wheels and running gear removed with the tender from 011 behind and on the other track, engine 011 with 168's tender. 043 later dragged 041 out of the enginehouse so the hydro water could be drained from the boiler.

While the weather was sunny, the winds were blowing a recent snow around so badly that the line was plugged in a number of cuts and one locomotive, 044, was trapped at the far end of the line by the drifts. Engine 004 arrived from out on the line as the sun was setting, placing the next day's activities in question.

The next day dawned sunny but still windy. We went down to the depot and arranged to chase a train to Xiahua, the halfway point. 043 assembled several empties that would be needed at the mine when the line opened and we got the crew to stop after each runby so we could drive ahead and set up for the next shot. The wind caused some problems not only with the sound on video recordings but also blowing the smoke and steam all over. After waiting at Xiahua to see if the line might be cleared, the railroad decided to call it a day and we did, too.

We were making plans to find another target for the 19th as we didn't think we would be able to run our planned charter trip because of the drifts. However, the railroad assured us by noon, we could probably proceed south. So off we headed in a larger bus, a big mistake, on the parallel road to Xiahua. Unfortunately, this bus driver didn't realize the road bridge was not next to the railroad bridge and promptly put the front of the bus in the ditch. Luckily, we were only about a kilometer short of Xiahua so we walked. 004 was waiting there with yesterday's empties destined for the mine. We waited about two hours when the two railbuses arrived from the south. One of the railbuses took the snow shovellers home and the other took our group ahead of the steam to Li Xin. We had a number of great runbys until reaching Li Xin, where the 044 was waiting to take its train of loads to Huanan. Our railbus left after 044's train, finishing a great day of riding and shooting this interesting narrow gauge line.

An overnight train brought us to Changchun, home of our primary guide Lou Yong Mei, we paid a brief visit to the Changchun Tram terminal, then on to Tongliao and Chabuga.


Our first train sighting was east of Fu Jü at 3:45pm on the 20th. Between then and sundown, we saw three trains, all steam hauled.

On March 21, the morning passenger train was caught at the station in Chabuga and while we did not go directly into the engine depot, no diesels could be seen. Traveling on to Daban and Reshui found only steam in operation, with a large number of engines hot in Daban. The 7030 had fresh paint, apparently just emerging from the shops.

The next three and a half days were spent on the section between Jing Peng and Reshui. The road bridge east of Reshui is out and driving the riverbed is an adventure, so we only made one trip to Linxi for cab rides. Traffic was fairly heavy and all steam except for the usual nighttime diesel passenger.

We did obtain some cab rides but the crews were more paranoid than last year, putting up the solid sheet metal window covers on the jumpseat windows and keeping us away from other windows when passing thru certain stations. We were not able to film our meets because of this.

As reported in the Steam in China newsgroup, we did witness various forms of running a doubleheader east from Jing Peng to Shangdian, then sending one engine back to Jing Peng to help a singleheaded train over the summit. The Big Show was its usual grand event but diesel talk still looms over our steam haven.

We saw our last steam as we drove thru Linxi on our way to Chifeng and the train back to Beijing.

Ken Hojnacki

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© 2004, Ken Hojnacki