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Steam in China, December 2008 - January 2009

by Dave Habraken

Jalainur, Jixi & Huanan

After my 11th China Trip, it’s time to share some (maybe) useful information with you.

You might remember that I’ve asked some questions about people with sugar disease (diabetes). Well, the Belgian guy who has this disease and wanted to join me was (despite all your positive reactions) forbidden by his doctor to do so… I was now accompanied by Stefan Krings, a German railway fan whom I met at Jingpeng some years ago.

I left Belgium on the 19th of December with a TGV to Paris. In Paris, there was a very fast (or do I have to say non-realistic?) connection within the hour to a flight from Air France to Beijing. They sold me this ticket TGV + plane like this so it did sound a realistic combination, but it turned out to be pure hell…
* I had to run with all my luggage through the whole airport building
* there was quite some waiting time at the check-in desk (I had to check in my luggage in Paris as they cannot do this in Brussels at the Air France desk for the TGV)
* at the border control, there was one (o-n-e!!!!) guy on duty for some 100 people waiting
* they wanted me to perform an almost complete striptease at the security check

Finally, I made it just in time, but then the flight turned out to be delayed for more then half an hour as… there was a long waiting queue at the border control…
On the airplane, my LCD screen didn’t work and after arrival at Beijing, it soon became clear that my luggage didn’t make it to the flight (surprise…). Important lesson learned: even if a company like Air France sells you tickets with a connection between two flights / train and flight, always have a closer look if it’s a realistic one to make it.
Anyway, after 2 days and a lot of complications later (which have nothing to do with steam, except for the steam coming out of my head), I could pick up my luggage at Manzhouli airport. Situation 3 weeks later: they’ve promised me 100€ to pay my immediate costs, but the actual costs are some 130€ and they didn’t respond to my first E-mail, concerning questions about how to get my money back. Talking about BAD service!!!! Shame on you Air France!

Over to the real report now:

Zhalainuer, 22/12/08 – 24/12/08

Normally, we would have spent 4 days at Zhalainuer, but as it was impossible for us to get a ticket for an overnight train on the 20th in the evening, we had to take a daytime train on the 21st. Well, this turned out to be a perfect way to overcome jetlag. On the 22nd, we started our day at Daqiao. Business as usual here, with shift change around 7:30 – 8:00. During this time, one engine stayed at Dongfanghong to shunt over there, with dramatic light effects around sunrise. Around 8:30, this engine was joined by SY1416 (nicknamed “Flappie” by some Dutch guys) and as a double header, they continued shunting. Soon, it became clear that a train was about to leave towards the power plant, so we headed towards Shengli, from where we walked towards Erzhan (not on Florian’s map, but you can’t miss this place as there are an unused platform and station building here for the former passenger service). Between these two places there is not much potential for photography.
In Erzhan itself, there are possibilities, especially in the afternoon (before noon, poles make photography difficult). After the train to the power plant (which was pulled by “Flappie”), we continued to the opencast mine. Thanks David Longman for your explanation of some alternative routes into the opencast mine. We arrived there around 11:00 and that was early enough as before this time, the sun doesn’t reach the deeper levels anyway in this time of the year.
In the mine, it was business as usual so I’ll only highlight some details:
- the “mainline” between the control office station and Nanzhan only had one track anymore, leaving the control station. We didn’t check this out any further, but at Station 536, it seemed to have 2 tracks again.
- The new stabling point near the Control Office Station is now in service, so there is much less traffic to Nanzhan these days…
- They have found a new seem of coal, they were literally running ON this huge seem.
- The passenger train’s consist was: SY who propelled a spoil car and the passenger car up in the late morning.

For the rest, it was just another magnificent day in the big pit.

The second day, we headed towards Nanzhan to find out what was still going on there. The first half hour, things looked pretty good with 3 trains (one with steam crane, one to deliver wagons for the wagon works and the passenger train (this last one being propelled). After the passenger train left again (now pulled), things became very quiet, so we left towards Station 536. There, we saw 2 spoil trains, but as some clouds appeared, we headed for Dongfanghong instead of heading for the opencast mine as originally planned. At Dongfanghong, a double header was formed to shunt around the washery.
About the new track layout around Dongfanghong: yes, this station changed quite hard. The main difference is that you can forget making a “line shot” between Dongfanghong and Daqiao now. Next to the track between these stations, there is a dead end track for the shunting movements towards/from the washery. This track goes up all the way to Daqiao (of course at a lower level then the “mainline”).
In the afternoon, light became better again and we were lucky enough to catch another train towards the power plant at the “Bernd Seiler-position” near Erzhan station. We then headed towards the west side of the open cast mine for some easy glintshot photography :-)

The third and last day at Zhalainuer, we started at Daqiao again, where a train with empties was standing ready. So, we guessed that this one would go to one of the southern deep mines and headed for Erzhan again. Now, as I told you before, this place is better for afternoon photography, but there is one exception for the more adventurous photographer: in the former station of Erzhan, there is a high pole with a ladder attached, so you can climb it. You can then make a very nice picture with the train in the curve and Hutongs in the back. The only problem is the first 1,5m as the ladder doesn’t reach the ground. In my case, Stefan gave me a push to start this climb and it resulted in a very nice picture. The train itself was banked, but because the first engine was steaming so heavily, you cannot see this on the picture…
After this excitement of an unexpected banked train, we headed for the company’s workshop in the center of Zhalainuer (thanks Adrian Freeman for your helpful short message so we could find it). If you know the place, it’s easy to find it by road (so we discovered later), but if you don’t find it, start at Daqiao and just follow the track to the northern deep mines. You then have to follow the track that curves to the left after some 500m and keep on following this line. At a certain moment, there is an industrial spur to the left, but just continue following the same track. Some 15-20 minutes after having left Daqiao, you should have reached the place.
The workshop was already a shadow of it’s former self… There are 7 halls, but only one was used during our visit (the one to the right, used for smaller repairs). There were no big overhauls anymore, so things are definitely running on their last legs. This one used hall is MUCH to low for decent working conditions: all the smoke stays inside, sometimes making photography impossible, but most of all creating a perfect environment for some high class atmospheric shots. The best time to visit this place, seems to be between 10:00 and 13:00, as the sunbeams then shine straight trough the building.
After this very pleasant visit, we walked back to Daqiao. Just when we arrived at the track towards the northern deep mines, Flappie appeared again with a HUGH train of empties and a banker. We were completely stunned about the length of this train… It was most definitely the longest train I’ve ever seen (I’ve never been in America)… When the second engine passed us, we could already see the first engine at the other side of the tunnel underneath the CNR mainline. When we walked to the big road, just north of the CNR mainline, we could finally see the whole length of this train, we both estimated it about 1km long, believe it or not… Sadly, it took us ten minutes before we could find a taxi. When we caught up with this train again, it had just entered Tiebeikuang. Well, to be precisely: the first engine had passed the whole station with it’s train behind and the second engine made it until the entrance signal of the other end of the station… They directly divided it in smaller pieces, using both engines for this job. After a while (rather quickly in fact) both engines (one as a banker again) were used to bring a loaded train back to Dongfanghong. We asked the taxi driver to drop us off at the opencast mine and at the level crossing near Daqiao, we saw yet another banked train, this time a train towards the power plant. Incredible… We didn’t follow this train but continued to the opencast mine. At the galleries, we had less luck this day with one big cloud in front of the sun, just when glintshots could have been made…

Zhalainuer in general:
- staff told us that they will change to trucks in august 2009…
- We didn’t get info about diesels for the deep mine system, but it’s obvious with the track works at Dongfanghong and the stop of overhauls what the near future will bring…
- There is a VERY good restaurant in Zhalainuer, called the Meg Xiang Yuan Fandian, located at the Tian Er Lu (= street). This restaurant is part of a restaurant chain, so we saw on their card. They bake their food directly at your table (not hot pot) and the service was really perfect. They had a very nice tomato soup and we even got Chinese ice cream as a desert. No worries: it’s a Chinese restaurant, no KFC or something of the kind.
- The only thing we missed, was some snow…

SY’s photographed (there were certainly some more hanging around)
Opencast system: 0471, 0867, 0957, 0959, 1041, 1119, 1256, 1284, 1285, 1286,
1303, 1371, 1650, 1678, 1681, 1689
Deep mine system: 0924, 1126, 1416, 1424, 1448, 1601
Workshop during our visit: 0867, 3005, 1450

Harbin, 25/12/08

Because of the long journey from Zhalainuer to Jixi, we planned to spend Christmas at Harbin, to visit the Sofia church and the famous Ice Sculptures Festival (10th anniversary by the way). Well, those who have visited this festival will probably agree that this is an amazing sight, especially at dawn, when the lights go on. Not on the festival itself, but in the city centre, I even saw a sculpture of the most famous Belgian boy, doing the thing what made him so famous :-)

Jixi, 26/12/8 – 28/12/8 (first visit)

The plan was to stay some days at Jixi and then go to Huanan as soon as we had some reliable information about this operation. But: at Huanan, we had some bad luck (no trains during daylight for two days) so we returned to Jixi after one day and a half. In total, we now stayed at Jixi for 7,5 days and I still had the feeling, we could have stayed a little longer at this fantastic place.

The first morning, after shift change at Dongchang, we stayed at the section between Zhengyang and Xinghua and I can confirm (which was previously reported) that there always seems to be a spoil train just after 9:00. This first day, we were lucky, as we had a train with empties and the spoil train one after the other. Around 11:00, the spoil train went down to Zhengyang for a second run up the bank again half an hour later. We then continued to Beichang, where 4 engines were shunting. The old spoil hill at the east side of Dongchang is out of service permanently, quoting a signal men at Beichang. But: we didn’t see spoil trains leaving to the new mine at the other side of the river bridge either. The only spoil (?) trains we saw were emptied in the triangle on the track towards Nanchang but these seemed to be loaded by a lower quality of coal.

The second day, we started around Qiaonan, where only around 10:00, SY0863 appeared with a loaded train of some 3600 tons (40 loaded cars). After it’s stop, it took some 10 minutes before the train could get started again towards Jixi Xi CNR. A lot of slipping made us think the train would stall, but eventually it left after all. We then headed towards Didao and the good news there, is that the spoil tip high in the hills is used again (it was reported out of use in an earlier report). There was more or less one train an hour going up there. Coming back down, some trains (the same cars) were used to load coal half way between the spoil tip and Hebei. This station (more or less above the mine Lijing) is called Sangongli (people knowing some Chinese should know the distance from this distance to Hebei :-) ).
There were trains towards the power plant every 45-60 minutes. The higher tracks to the spoil tip are not so nice for pictures in my eyes, but at Sangongli, there are options for glintshots in the late afternoon.
Another interesting point (for what it’s worth of course…) is that station staff at Hebei told us that they expect steam engines to last here for another 6 years (!). The said to us that Didao will be dieselised as the very last system around Jixi. If I’m not mistaking, Bernd once wrote the same about Didao being the last to be dieselised.

The third day, we started at Hengshan, but there was not much activity at all at this system. The station master told us that they didn’t have any empties at all and he said it was really unusually calm, even for the diesels. We then headed for Lishu. I always seem to be lucky at this system and this tradition was maintained, even today without it’s best mine at Qikeng. We were welcomed with SY1118 pulling a train with empties, which was banked by SY0951 just 10 minutes after our arrival (both tender first of course). With tons of luck, we were just in time to reach a nice position to make a shot along the line. After arrival, SY1118 assisted with the loading of the cars. SY0951 took some cars up the spoil tip. After return, it was used to charge coal, which were discharged only 40 metres away from the loading facilities. There, the coal was taken by a bulldozer to charge trucks. Quite inefficient if you ask me…
In the afternoon, also SY0477 appeared with the wooden tippers and we were able then to make a picture with all 3 SY’s from this nice small system in front of the mine. When this train left Pinggang, we took a local taxi to the big road from Hengshan to Lishu and then a bus to Xinfeng. Incredibly: arriving at the toll gate near Xinfeng, we realised that the SY0477 was only near Taiping with it’s train. I suppose it must have stopped somewhere. Anyway, that was a nice extra picture, before we went to the Xinfeng station. There, the staff had a short break before they started shunting with the wooden cars and some empties for half an hour in the last light of the day.
We then returned to Jixi and took a taxi towards Huanan (350RMB, seems a little bit too much…).

SYs photographed during our first visit:
Chengzihe: SY0590, 0863, 1018, 1058, 1340, 1437, 1545
Didao: SY0407, 0950, 1205, 1213
Hengshan: SY0341, 1344
Lishu: SY0477, 0951, 1118

Huanan 29/12/8 – 30/12/8

From 3 sources (including Ameling Algra, thanks by the way) we heard that there were 2 trains a day leaving Huanan. The first one always left around 7:00 so around 6:40, we went to the depot. After we were thrown out (some Japanese could stay in however as “they rented a train one time”), we waited in the taxi for something to happen. Around 8:30, we were accompanied by Adrian Freeman and Don White (nice meeting you again, guys) and just at this time, C2 168 came out of the depot to shunt some cars at the wagon works. It turned out to be the only action of the day :-( Only around 17:00, a train was scheduled to depart to Lixin, but we didn’t wait for that one as it was already dark anyway.
The next day, everybody told us that it was going to be the same scenario with one train after 17:00. Of course, we didn’t wait anymore so we headed back for Jixi.
About Huanan: they told us, the mine will reopen after the Spring Festival. It is temporarily closed after a heavy accident in a mine at Qitaihe last summer. For the moment, they are working on a illegal base, but they need coal for the Forest Bureau.

Engines in steam were C2 011 & 168.

Map of Huanan

Jixi, 30/12/8 – 3/1/9 (second visit)

On the 30th of December, we left Huanan again for Jixi and we visited the Chengzihe system. There was a huge train of empties waiting at Qiaonan, so things looked ok. At Beichang, it was business as usual but because of some bad weather (snow, cloudy), I didn’t make many shots.

The last day of 2008 was mainly used for some investigation. We first went to Hengshan, to see that the SY’s (0341 & 0804) were having a very relaxed day at Xin Hengshan. We then went to Donghaikuang, were things were even worse… 2 SYs (0741 & another one) were standing in the yard (with a third one at the workshop near Jixi Xi). We were very friendly welcomed by the manager of the railway, but he stated that there were no trains this day. We got their telephone number (2769358) which we used the following days to ask if something happened. In our case, they took a holiday for 4 days, so we heard later, but maybe, this number can be useful for some of you?
In the afternoon, we went to the Jingtu temple: a Buddha temple near Chengzihe. For a cloudy day, this is an excellent alternative for those who like more than only steam trains.

We started 2009 at Dongchang, where SY1545 just left with a spoil train for Beichang. The other 7 SYs were taking a small break during shift change. Afterwards, we headed for the big hill next to the Jingtu Temple, where it would be possible to make nice pictures from the daily 9:00 spoilt train towards Xinghua. Well, let’s say that the first real steam action in 2009 was very impressive. We immediately saw a train of empties (pulled by SY0863) storming up the line from Dongchang to Zhengyang. There, this train was cut in two pieces and SY0863 pushed half of the train after the entrance signal. Another train, SY1059 pushing the daily empty spoil train towards Zhengyang, was then combined with the train of empties. With SY0863 in front and SY1059 acting as a banker, they tried to enter Zhangyang station but it took them about 15 minutes to do so, continuous slipping, stopping, restarting…, a perfect start for the new year!
10 minutes later, the same composition (now with their chimneys first) left for Xinghua and as we were still on the hill near the temple, we were very excited as this was a perfect position to make pictures from the whole length of the train. The sun was not shining (it was still a little cloudy) but if it had been shining, it would have been on the wrong side of the track anyway. The position of the sun is perfect from 11:00 until the late afternoon here.
After this success, we went to Beichang, where things were very quiet. It seemed, we just missed a loaded train so we continued to Didao as the big action for this day seemed to be over around Beichang.
At Didao, we found a nice position between the CNR-station and Hebei. In the 2 hours left in daylight, we saw two pairs of trains to and from the power plant. At sunset, there was also a pair of trains to/from the CNR-station.

On the 2nd of January, we headed for Dongchang again in the morning. Now, all 8 engines were here during shift change. What a sight! We saw 5 Chinese photographers, one was a girl with a pink coat, taking pictures so close to the engines that she was almost kissing the buffers…
We now headed for the big river bridge near Qiaonan as there was a short train with loaded cars about to leave Dongchang. We found a position northwest from this bridge to make a silhouette shot. This worked out well. This engine returned with a huge load of empties. We made shots from the same position, but this time, the wind caused some difficulties.
We then returned to Dongchang, where a light SY just left the yard to assist the train with empties. Coupled nose to nose (…) they then entered Dongchang. It quickly became clear that they would go to Zhengyang and/or Xinghua, so we went towards the hill near the Jingtu temple again. This turned out to be a right guess, as the train actually went to Xinghua and this time, we photographed it in almost perfect weather conditions.
After these successful two hours, we went to the electric narrow gauge system in the Zhengyang mine. The part of the network we visited (in the south-west part of the mine) is used to bring mining gear into the mine (after delivery by one of the electric locomotives, the wagons are lowered into the mine with a cable). There seemed to be a track to the east side of the mine, but we didn’t check that one out. You can make a nice shot at the southwest side of the mine buildings with the locomotives in front of it in the morning. They’re not always shunting: while one rake of cars is cut into pieces and in phases is brought into the mine, another rake of cars will be charged 300ms further to the west. This takes up to 2 hours, it seemed and of course, then, the engines have nothing to do.
After the narrow gauge action at Zhengyang, we returned to Beichang, where we saw that the yard was almost empty again (like the day before), so once more, we headed for Didao. In one hour, we had 3 (!) trains from Didao to Hebei. 2 of them were trains from the power plant. The third one was a train with empties from the CNR station.

The 3rd of January was our last day for photography. The idea was to go to Didao again for some morning glint shot photography, but some clouds made such shots impossible. However, at Hebei, we could make some shots with a very dramatic pink-red sky so we were quite pleased after all, even without glint shots :-)
Anyway, we then walked up the line to the spoil tips and just when we arrived at Sangongli, a train with empties (flat cars) was pushed up to be loaded at the facilities some 500m further to the west from this station. At the opposite to this location, this is a spoil dump of a private mine and it’s possible to make shots from up this hill with the train high above some typical Chinese houses. The sun is in a perfect position here in the morning.
We then walked in the direction of Hebei again, following the road there. Between Sangongli (or better: Lijing, as we were not following the track anymore) and Hebei, there is a village on the opposite of the road where you can make nice shots from trains between Hebei and Sangongli. As the engines push their trains uphill, trains downhill might be more interesting for photography. I know, this might shock some of you, but the air pumps of the engines are practically continuously working, as the trains go downhill quite hard. We got lucky with the wind and if you don’t know it, it seems like if the engine is actually working on the picture. Anyway, the scenery with the village is interesting. Thanks Adrian and Don for pointing out how to find the right village for their shots :-)
After 3 trains, we were satisfied about this location and we went to the western side of the CNR station at Didao. Here, we saw a train returning from the power plant and a train with empties from Didao CNR to Hebei.
We had some spare time left so we quickly returned to Beichang. For the third day in a row, things were not so busy around noon so we tried our luck at Dongchang. After some waiting, two trains showed up: an empty spoil train, returning from Zhengyang/Xinghua, going to Beichang and an empty train with hoppers, arriving from Beichang. A point of interest was that from the yard of Dongchang, we could see the Jingtu Temple as the sky was very bright. It was the first time for me that the visibility here was so good. A nice goodbye for us, before returning home.

SYs photographed during our second visit:
Chengzihe: SY0590, 0863, 1059, 1340, 1351, 1369, 1537 & 1545
Didao: SY0407, 0950, 1018 (at Chengzihe during our first visit!), 1205, 1213
Hengshan: SY0804, 0341
Donghaikuang: SY0741 (number of the second engine not known)

Returning home…

We took the bus from Jixi to Mudanjiang (leaving Jixi at 14:40, arriving Mudanjiang around 17:00). These buses now arrive at Mudanjiang next to the railway station instead of a bus station at the city border. We then took a flight from Mudanjiang towards Beijing and stayed at a small hotel near the airport. My flight home was with KLM in company of Ameling Algra (nice chat by the way). It was a calm flight with good service on board. Luckily, my luggage was not lost this time :-)


It was a superb trip with nice company (especially with Stefan and Tina but of course it was also nice to meet Don, Adrian & Ameling). The action was quite impressive in Zhalainuer & Jixi in general. Chengzihe was busy as always, we got tons of luck at Pinggang and Didao was a nice surprise at it was so busy this time. At Huanan, we got some bad luck, but of course: you can’t win them all…
In 6 winter trips, this trip was the one with the best winter weather I’ve had until now: very pleasant temperatures between -5°C and -24°C and in general not too much wind.
My main worry is that for Zhalainuer and Chengzihe (the most successful places of this tour), this was my last visit before the engines go to the SY-heaven…
More then ever is it becoming doubtful if it makes sense to visit China once more next winter… I think, this will depend a lot on Huanan. The statement that they will officially reopen the mine after the Spring Festival gives some hope anyway…
Thanks a lot to everybody who makes up reports and maps, both via the Steam_in_China newsgroup and via SY-Country. Thanks also David Fielding, who updated the steam lines section on his website again. This proved to be very useful to us.

As always, the better pictures from this trip can be found on my website www.spoorwegnostalgie.be, click here.

Dave Habraken

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