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Steam in China - 26th Extreme Steam Trip, 30th March – 12th April, 2008

by Michael Rhodes & Vernon Murphy

Baiyin, Sandaoling, Jixi

30th – 31st March – BA038, from T4 but 1hr 40 mins late never the less! BA are losing the plot. We landed at 1038 on 31st, and missed our connecting flight from the massive new Chinese T3, so we rebooked on 31st March onto the CA1121, 1555 to Lanzhou. After arrival in Lanzhou, we drove to Baiyin and stayed in the refurbished Baiyin Hotel – refurbished it might be but the waitress surreptitiously opened our beer bottles with her teeth in the main hotel restaurant – China!!!


1st & 2nd April – First some notes on the industrial activity at Baiyin – there are 4 smelters. The plant at Sanyelian produces zinc and some steel. The smelter to the south of the main yard at Baiyin is a copper smelter and was under repair during our visit, the smelters to the north & east of the main yard produce zinc. Heading south out of Baiyin and beyond the copper smelter the line heads for an aluminium plant. Coal for the various smelters comes from mines around Jinyuan, 60 kilometers away. This operation was formerly steam, but for the last 4 or so years coal has been moved by truck. Now to the operational patterns at Baiyin – these are pretty constant up the line to Shenbutong and seem the same from all 3 of our visits, dating back to 2005. On top of that there is a morning and afternoon trip to the plants south of Baiyin main yard, and a second diesel trip to The “805 metal factory” which is not part of the Baiyin mineral company. We were assured several times that Baiyin Mineral Company has no plans for diesels and certainly the major rebuilds underway in the engine depot would tend to support this.

Trains on the Shenbutong line are as follows:-
Departing Baiyin   To   Traffic
0740    Shenbutong   Passenger
0755    Sanyelian   Passenger
0940 – 1000    Shenbutong   empty ore tipplers
1030 – 1100    Sanyelian   empty acid tankers and general freight
1215    Baiyin Xinzhan   single carriage school train
1400-1415    Sanyelian   coal (often top and tailed)
1515    Shebutong   Passenger
1615    Sanyelian   Passenger

Of course one can work out the return trips for most of these, making the line up the valley quite busy with 14 trains a day in daylight in April.

During our visit we saw the following locos in action:-
SY0612, 0965, 1047, 1470 & GK0117
And the following on the depot under repair and steamable:-
SY1013, 1581, 1583 & 2008

Top and tailed coal arrives at Sanyelian on the Baiyin system

Map of the Baiyin system surreptitiously snapped in the main control tower

On 2nd April we took the bus to Lanzhou to catch T295, the 1601 to Hami. Security at Lanzhou station was intense as the Lhasa train was in and there were police everywhere making sure nobody took pictures of anything!! I sneaked a great shot from the overbridge of a Lanzhou to Beijing, just to prove it could be done, but hid my camera pretty sharpish there after. We arrived in Hami at 0611 on 3rd April after a lovely ride, over the Tianzhu base tunnel and out west.


3rd April – We drove straight to the Sandaoling system, our second visit. First we based ourselves to the west of Liushuquan station – the line was very busy with 10 freights and 3 passenger between 0715 and 0915. At last JS Nos. 8366 & 6204 arrived to pick up empties and made a stirring sight as they toped and tailed the train of 46 empties at 1045. The weather was dire and the “heavenly mountains” were invisible. A second trip of empties ran at 1430, after which we retired for a wash to the Sandaoling Hotel – 2 star but very clean and comfortable and highly recommended.

Between 1700 and 1900 we photographed various spoil trains around Xi station and had a good chat with the staff there. Locos observed were SY1720, JS 6205, 6223, 6430, 8040, 8173 & 8194. The opencast opened in 1968 and it was thought it would last 100 years but life expectancy is now just 10 years at most. The mine loads 90-300 coal wagons from China Rail each 24 hours, and working backwards this gives an annual output between 1 and 3 million tonnes.

Dinner was in a muslim restaurant just across the road from the Sandaoling Hotel and rates as one of the best meals I have ever had in China. We had curried lamb with naan bread, beef in peppers, mini naan with beef and onion, aubergine in sweet chilli with pak choi and all washed down with a 1996 Changli red wine.

4th April – At 0930 we visited the workshops which were very quiet and many of the derelict locos seem to have been cut up for scrap. We found JS8055, 6435 & 8189 under repair. A cursory inspection of the east end of the pit revealed the derelict ballast of 4 big yards, totalling more than 40 tracks, all of which were lifted in 2006. We were fortunate to catch SY1729 on a trip to mine 1, as the line here had been closed for 3 weeks for track laying to a new loader. Then between 1200 and 1500 we captured two lots of empties leaving Liushuquan, the light was once again atrocious with a sort of hazy sun and a background “fug”. Again we spent an hour or so in the yard office at Nanquan main yard and chatted with the staff – apparently there are currently 38 locos allocated to the opencast side of the operation as compared to 80 a decade ago. The line working from Nanquan has a separate allocation of six locomotives which are SY1729 & JS6204, 6208,8053, 8358 & 8366. Further quizzing of the local guide Mrs.Guli, revealed two interesting facts:- she was expecting 100 school teachers on an educational visit from Urumqi shortly after us and secondly, she had recently escorted railway officials from Datong around the system because they were providing parts and advice to keep the steam fleet running. Certainly she was an excellent local guide and knew all the locations and workings very well.

50 plus empties leave the yard at Liushuquan CNR station, bound for Sandaoling

4-5th April – Basically a major journey, Hami to Urumqi by rail on T881; CA1296 Urumqi to Beijing (and yes they confiscated our whiskey from HOLD BAGGAGE!! – it was 12 year Balvennie as well), transfer T3 to T2, HU103 Beijing to Mudanjiang and bus to Jixi where we clocked in at the Golden Dome International Hotel at 1930. Still aggrieved at the loss of our whiskey, we decided to give the plush lobby bar a visit before dinner – one shot of whiskey was priced at 400 RMB (£25)!! Discretion was the better part of valour and we opted for beer, but the bar had no change, so it took over 30 minutes to purchase/negotiate a beer from the bar tender – four star bar this was not!


6th – 10th April – this was spent on the various Jixi systems, but mainly Lishu, Didao and Chengzihe. It has been very well reported but some snippets below:-

Lishu system – SY0477, 0590 & 1118 were working this system during our visit. SY1118 was newly outshopped from Jixi Xi workshops and looked splendid – it arrived at Lishu on 3rd April after a 45 day overhaul. On 6th April we were told that trains to Qikeng colliery (the most scenic branch) had ceased the day before, but for 1000RMB they would run us a train – we declined their kind offer and lo and behold at 1530 SY0590 headed up to Qikeng and we set off after it. Weather was dire but we got some nice shots – 48 hours later on 8th April we revisited Qikeng to photograph the railbus at the loader and 50 yards of track had already been lifted – we were lucky on this one.

Operation of the system is basically that surface coal from Qikeng, and coal collected at Lishu station must travel to Pinggang mine for washing (using wooden internal user wagons). On top of this coal, Pinggang mine itself produces approximately 500,000 tonnes coal each year. A fairly constant feature seems to be “top and tailed” empties from Lishu to Pinggang leaving at approximately 0830.

Top and tailed empties leave Lishu for Pinggang colliery

Last train from Qikeng, 6th April, Lishu

Same spot 48 hours later and the track has gone, typical the sun has come out!

Didao system – SY0407, 0950, 1205 & 1213 were working the system which was busy with spoil traffic up the hill from Didao washery. We also explored all the way to the power station and captured a nice evening shot of empties from Didao CNR to the washery – this would be a great place to explore again when it is colder and the exhaust stands out more on the climbs to the spoil tips.

Evening empties make a fine sight as the "dew point" has just changed to give steam. Leaving Didao CNR

Chengzihe system - Traffic much as on our previous visits with SY0341, 0863, 1058, 1340, 1351, 1437 & 1545 in action. This was our first time here above freezing and it was noticeable how little exhaust even the loads of empties from Jixi Xi CNR made – one SY fairly strolled up the bank with 50 empties in tow, not so much as a puff of steam with the temperature at 15 degrees.

Sunny morning at Dongkuang mine

Blowing smoke rings as the sun sets, single SY and 50 empties cross the river at Jixi Xi

Hengshan system – blue diesels noted as we passed on our way to and from Lishu and just a single SY idling on the stabling point.

10th – 11th April – at 1600 on 10th we made our way back to Mudanjiang airport for the Hainan Airlines flight to Beijing. We were due out around 2030, but around 2000 an announcement proclaimed the plane had been diverted to Harbin because of high winds. Stuck 2100 kilometers from Beijing with a 1000 flight the next day to London!! Vernon and I wandered out to the airport car park – not a puff of wind! No idea what was going on but the advice was to stay put and we eventually left Mudanjiang approaching midnight, the plane having been flown over from Harbin, now the non-existent wind had subsided. We eventually crashed at 0300 in the Holiday Inn before getting back to the airport for BA1038 home.

A tremendously enjoyable trip, even if the weather was warmer than anticipated and there were very few clear days. Even if things were photographically a bit disappointing, the trip itself was great fun and there is still quite a lot of steam to be seen. It was especially poignant seeing the last ever train to Qikeng colliery.

Michael Rhodes & Vernon Murphy

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© 2008 Michael Rhodes & Vernon Murphy