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Steam in Central China

by Adrian Freeman/ John Tickner

Datong coal railway, Shibanxi, Mojiang & Ma'anshan

A strange time of year perhaps to do a grice, but the theory was that there would be a mixture of weather conditions from heavy rain to bright sun, and that there would be working animals in the paddy fields. In the event, neither was true. The weather was mainly overcast and the paddy fields had been planted 2-3 weeks earlier.

We took up an offer by Finnair for flights from Manchester to Shanghai for £341 (both outward and return flights were half empty).

Sun 23.05.04 Flight arrived Shanghai Pudong 0650. The Maglev (Magnetic levitation) has recently opened, though its operating hours are from 0830 to 1730. Loitered until the first departure. The 30 km to Luocheng Road was completed in seven and a half minutes, with a cruising speed of 431 kph. Quite remarkable - especially for China, although it is debatable whether the 1.2 billion dollars cost could have been better spent elsewhere. Changed to the Metro at Loucheng Road and proceeded to hotel in Nanjing East Road.

Mon 24.05.04. Took 1120 flight to Chongqing, where I met up with our guide, Zebedee. Today's Chongqing Ribao newspaper reported that the city's last trolleybuses ran yesterday. We caught the train to Ganshui, spotting SY1109 at a cement works at on the way (possibly at Xiaba). Met up with John Tickner as expected here.

Tue 25 - Wed 26.05.04: Datong Coal Railway

Traffic was light with no loaded coal trains crossing the river bridge between 0600 and 1300 on either day. Xiaoyutou, the terminus of the branch, is interesting with a substantial ore loader (like a big version of the limestone loader at Baiheshui on the Pengzhou narrow gauge or the coal loader on the Huangjinggou narrow gauge). However, traffic on the branch is infrequent. We were lucky to see a train being loaded here on the Tuesday, but it then sat there for five hours before departing for Maniutan, where it dropped off the hoppers and proceeded to Ganshui with a single empty boxvan. There are locomotive maintenance facilities at Xiaoyotou in the form of two shed buildings on the same track, each only large enough to accommodate one engine and separated by a level crossing. SYs 0344 and 1271 were receiving attention during our visit.

John had explored the line the day before I got there. The main line terminates at a mine at Beiai. It runs through a gorge from Beiai to Qinqidao, where the line’s headquarters is situated. The gorge here looks scenic, but the line follows a river for its length and appears to be downhill all the way for the loaded trains, which run smokebox-first.

Steam is predicted to last a further two years, before diesels are purchased.

On the afternoon of 26th we took a bus from outside our hotel in Ganshui to Chongqing in order to catch the 2108 departure to Chengdu as the late afternoon train we had originally hoped to catch has been incoveniently retimed from the April timetable.

Thur 27.05 – Mon 31.05.04 Shibanxi

We took a taxi from Chengdu station to Qianwei, where we booked into the Tian Bo hotel, which offered a standard room for 180 Yuan for stays of three nights or longer.

The future of the line seems secure, at least for the short term. There is no longer talk of the line’s closure, although one local said that they would like to see it shut, as they would then get a decent road. Different priorities! The railway is instead being promoted within China as a tourist line, and to this aim changes have already started. By the time that these are complete, it is quite possible that nobody reading this report would wish to go there anyway.

Changes to 31.05.04 include the following: Shixi – refreshment kiosks on the platform demolished and site cleared. The buildings on the opposite side of the line were in the process of being demolished. Sanjin/Yuejin – all the buildings on the opposite side of the line from the coal loader have been cleared away (I understand that this had been done by the beginning of the year) and the area has been converted to a ‘park’. Several rows of trees have been planted and the area concreted over. The ‘park’ was surprisingly popular and on an evening with hoardes of people milling around. A new railway office building has been constructed towards the mine end. All stations on the line (except Xianrenjiao) have new blue station nameboards, which look like motorway signs – sheet steel and tubular posts.

The timetable was due to change on 1st June with the two morning passenger trains running later. Old times off Shixi: 0530, 0930, 1400, 1730. New times: 0700, 1030, 1400, 1730. Also from this date the halt between Shixi and Sanjin was due to close with a new halt just beyond the horseshoe curve (between Mifeng and Xianrenjiao) to open. On Sunday 30th May the 0530 train made a trial stop at the position of the new halt. Following restart, considerable slipping ensued in the pouring rain before the summit was reached. By Monday evening the new halt was complete, comprising a red painted stone marker at each end and a new blue nameboard. The new stop is called Caiziba (rape plant platform). Total outlay probably less that 100 Yuan. In the UK, the simplest new halt costs in excess of £1 million.

The wagonway between Ding Xing coal mine and the railway at Huangcunjn was out of use but intact and appeared perfectly useable as did the associated mine buildings. The tunnel mouth into the mine was sealed off with stone blocks and the weighing machine in the weighbridge building has been removed. We were told that the coal mine was to reopen in two weeks time under new management.

The passenger engine was always no. 9 and no. 7 ran permanent way trains on the evenings of 27th and 28th May. On the 28th the smokebox of no. 7 was adorned with a red silk bow as it hauled its p.w. train. This must have been a leftover from a wedding train it had taken as far as Mifeng earlier that day.

During our visit, three groups of Chinese tourists visited the line, and a TV crew from Chengdu spent a couple of days filming on the line to promote it. In Sanjin, we were shown a DVD comprising two Chienese programmes about the line (one featuring Barry Burns and Dave Whitfield – you’re now film stars in China, guys!)

We were told about other forthcoming changes to the line from a variety of sources, and consequently more, all, some or none may actually happen. They are as follows:

The headquarters of the line will move from Shixi to Sanjin. A more modern station will be built at Shixi. Bagou station is to be 'modernised'; what this will entail is not clear.

The line is to get new coaching stock and a brand new C2. The existing locos are considered to be worn out and so a new engine will be built locally to the same design. It should be completed by the end of the year, although construction has not yet started. A new rake of six coaches, with glass windows and seats facing/opposing the direction of travel is also to be built locally, with completion forecast for October. They are supposedly to be used for tourist trains, but how these will fit into the timetable is not clear. The implication is that the existing stock will continue to be used on normal trains, but whether it can avoid a repaint remains to be seen.

Fares are to increase for locals. A return for the full length of the line currently costs 5 Yuan; this fare will double. The fare for foreigners will remain at 30 Yuan and there was some debate about whether Chinese tourists should be charged more than locals. Whether the fare for pigs will increase wasn't ascertained.

Tues 01 - Thur 03.06.04: Mojiang

If you refuse to consider non-steam operations, avert your gaze now. From Qianwei we took a taxi to Shawan for the Mojiang railway. The journey took 1 hour 50 mins and cost 260 Yuan. We booked into the Hong Xuan Hotel, which cost 150 Yuan for a standard room.

Mojiang is unchanged from previous reports (see Bernd Seiler's reports and map), with its fine collection of coaching stock/cattle wagons, and camouflaged electric locos. The railway passed from government to private ownership in March, but we were told that the new owner has no changes planned other than a new company logo on the locos. The coaches retain their distinctive weathered rust finish that has served them so well. The timetable is shown below - all trains may be used by the general public.

Caoba - Xiangyangzhan

Departure Caoba

Arrival Caoba




3 coaches



6 coaches



3 coaches



3 coaches




Caoba – Laokuang

Departure Caoba

Arrival Caoba







12 coaches



6 coaches



3 coaches



12 coaches



12 coaches



12 coaches



3 coaches



3 coaches










Of the two lines, the short one to Laokuang has many more trains, and the longer set of 12 coaches only runs along this line. The one intermediate station on the Laokuang line - Xinjing - has a small coal mine with wagonway and tubs, although they are moved around by cable rather than hand.

Thur 03.06.04 Zebedee having departed, we took a taxi to Chengdu airport for 1740 flight to Shanghai. Thence we transferred to Shanghai station and took the 2342 train to Nanjing. It was a slow train and selected on the basis that it would give us as much time on the train for sleep, and a minimum connection time (1 hour 20 mins) at Nanjing for our onward train to Ma'anshan. In the event the train was 1 hour 25 mins late and did not recover any time during the journey, so we missed our connection in Nanjing by five minutes.

Fri 04.06.04 Ma'anshan.

Instead we took a bus to Ma'anshan, but the bus station is not very convenient for the station - the Ma'anshan buses don't depart from the main long distance bus station, but a smaller one on the opposite side of town. From there, however, the journey time is under an hour. We took a taxi to the Post and Telecom Hotel, as suggested by Ronal Olsen. It is close to the station and at 140 Yuan for a standard room it seemed quite reasonable. Some of the staff could also manage a little English.

We then made an exploration of the system by taxi, starting at the yard at the start/end of the industrial/steelworks system. This was busy with two SY shunting, both with smokeboxes coupled to the wagons. However, making our way through the industrial area failed to produce any other working SY, and although there are some older buildings, they are mixed in with newer concrete or clad structures. As far as we could see, there were no views comparable with those at steelworks such as Anshan or Handan. We also investigated the branch to the jetties by the river, where iron ore is brought in. From our short visit, it appeared that the majority of trains were diesel-hauled, mostly by GK1, with the SYs confined to odd shunts here and there. The stabling point contained 7 SY: 0053 (05.1967), in steam; 0054 (05.1967), cold; 0729 (?.1973), cold & very dirty; 0788 (1974, no month shown); 1337 (12.1984), in steam, 1670 (11.1989), in steam, with brass numbers & 1733 (11.1992), in steam. All appeared to be built in Tangshan. Diesels GK1 0025, 0049 and 0101 and DF7C 5688 were also present. Seen elsewhere on the system in steam were SY 0784, 1551 (06.1987), 1552 and 1644 (03.1989). Other diesels seen were GK1 0015, 0024, 0034, 0053, 0109, 0112 and DF7C 5656. Unfortunately SY 1715 was not seen, so we were unable to confirm its origin. The external appearance of many of the SY was very good, but the levels of steam activity during our visit were low, and most of the workings seen were smokebox to train.

Sat 05.06.04 Shanghai.

We cut short our visit to Ma'anshan and took the 0600 train to Nanjing, changing there to travel on to Shanghai. Nanjing station was a total disaster - the station was being completely rebuilt, and the forecourt was dug up. The direct route between the building work from station exit to ticket office was flooded and the resultant detour was very inconvenient. However, we managed soft seats on T701, arriving in Shanghai just before midday. We checked into the Zhongya hotel on Meiyuan Lu, very close to the main station (and metro) and excellent value at 285 Yuan for a standard room at such a good location as this. From the 21st floor we had a good view across to the modern skyline of the Pudong district. Some phots in the afternoon of Maglev to contrast with pictures taken earlier in the week.

Sun 06.06.04 Shanghai - home.

The Finnair flight departed Shanghai Pudong at 1010, too early to be able to catch the Maglev, which doesn't start until 0830, so instead took the airport bus, which runs every half hour from outside the main station with a journey time of approx. 1 hour. Flights fine, arriving Manchester approx. 1700. It is fair to say that the quality of sunlight whilst on the train from Manchester to Leeds was far superior to anything we had seen over the previous two weeks, although I didn’t see as many women carrying baskets of greenery on their backs.

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© 2004, Adrian Freeman , email: adrian.freeman@onet.co.uk