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Steam in China, February and March 2009

by Jeff Cartledge

Gongwusu, Baiyin, Yaojie, Sandaoling, Jalainur

Here we go then, with the report of our last trip to China, which you might say was planned, for most of these systems, as our farewell tour to them. Yaojie became a farewell visit, upon the shock sighting of 2 new diesels, but Baiyin, since Bernd's good news that the diesel order has for the time being been put off, might not now be & another visit could be possible in the future.

Sat 14th Feb. Birmingham to Amsterdam with KLM, then onward to Beijing with China Southern, whose onboard service was so poor, they even made KLM look good.

Sun 15th Feb. As we could not get soft sleeper tickets to Wuhai, on T.No.1133/1136 and still being jetlagged & not being prepared to put up with any more sleepless nights, listening to the incessant noise the Chinese make in hard sleeper, we stayed overnight in Beijing.

Mon 16th Feb. Dep Beijing 13.25 on T.No. K177.

Tues 17th Feb. Arr Wuhai at 05.45 found somewhere for breakfast, they made egg & bacon rolls (this, though we didn't know it at the time, would turn out to be the highlight of the visit here), booked into a hotel & off to Gongwusu Coal Rly.

Gongwusu, 17th, 18th Feb.

In two days here, the only workings we saw were from the washery to China Rail yard. No traffic was seen to Mine #3. Whilst the rails to here, could not be said to be unused, it was obviously not frequent use. It could be seen that workings to the open pit had not happened for a long time. If you like lorries and dust, this is the place to visit, for all coal seems to be transported by them, to all points of the compass. They bring the coal to the washery, tipping it into what was at one time, the rail hopper discharge shed.

As with most systems in China, nothing really happened, until China Rail arrived with empties.
JS 6250 was the loco in service.
JS 6249 was in steam as standby.
SY 1351, SY 0934, JS 6251 were all stored inside the workshops & all appeared to be serviceable.

At the end of the second day, we departed Wuhai, 20.10 on T.No. 2635, hard sleeper only available, but I must have picked up the gene, that the Chinese have, whereby they close their eyes & immediately go to sleep, no matter where they are. Well I didn't go to sleep that easily, but if you have enough beer, followed by enough glasses of single malt, sleep will normally follow.

Baiyin, 19th to 24th Feb.

Arrived at 05.49. managed to get booked into the Wancheng Hotel, sorted our permits out & still got up the line, well in time for the morning passenger & then the goods to Shenbutong. After lunch the depot was visited, where SY 1097 was undergoing a major overhaul. This is a Yaojie engine, but as in a few days time, we were to discover that Yaojie now has 2 new diesels & plenty of stored SYs in good condition, I wonder why this engine was being overhauled for them. Maybe it isn't, has Baiyin bought this engine & they were overhauling it for themselves. No proof, just seemed a logical conclusion, but then doing logical things doesn't always seem to be the way on Chinese systems.

SY 0612, 0819, 1013, 1047, 1583 were seen working.
SY 2008 was inside the shed, the fire having only recently been dropped. It was reported a couple of days later as receiving attention, its superheater tubes being removed.

SY 0965 & 1470 were stored in the compound next to the workshops.
SY 1581 was not seen.

The goods (tipplers to the top), along with the morning & afternoon passengers ran every day, apart from Sunday, when I cannot confirm that the morning Sanyelian passenger worked, but the afternoon one, some 50mins after it's scheduled time, had not been seen, so maybe on Sunday it does not run at the moment.
Traffic to the smelter at Sanyelian was almost non existent, only one train being seen. Also the movements in & out of the main yard were very sparse, with none of the hours of shunting tanks, that is usually seen.
The weather was a lot warmer than on previous visits at this time of year, being ok for the morning passengers & the goods, if it came up as soon as the passenger had got back down to Baiyin, but if it got too late & one day it was after midday, the exhaust was gone.

Yaojie, 25th to 27th Feb.

The first day we saw one light engine & two trains from the smelter yard, down to Yaojie, with three trains going back up, all coal. The whole of the second day & third day, up to midday, when we left for Lanzhou, no trains ran at all, in fact on the third day, there was not a single wagon in either yard, for either system. The big shock though was when the shed at Yonghong was visited, to find two new DF7G diesels, 5195 & 5196, being fussed over by the railway staff, no doubt proud of their new locos.
SY 1402 was in service.
SY 0633, 0737, 1321, 3020 all stored in the shed yard. All seemed to be in good condition.

The bottom section, both trains down the gorge & to the mine, were being worked by one loco DF7G 5166, which I think shows the amount of traffic, or rather lack of it, being handled. The other 2 diesels, 5163 & 5186, were out of use inside the shed, as was SY 1713. SY 0990 was stored outside in the yard, whilst SY 0362 & 1103 were abandoned in the shed yard. Another SY & the JF were dumped in a compound at the southern end of the yard.

Sandaoling, 28th Feb to 4th March.

The main purpose here was to finally get those banked train shots right & I'm pleased to say it was accomplished, mainly with the help of a train, which ran every morning, around 8 o'clock, which being that far west is sunrise. One morning it left a little too early & it was too dark, but was only a single loco, on 35 empties. If they left too late, with the sun being behind the train at most positions, it also becomes a problem, but they got it right most mornings.
Some stopped just below the road crossing, others blasted straight through, but observing those that stopped, the air pumps were working hard & they did not build the fires up whilst stopped, so it seems that they are not stopping for a blow up, leaking air pipes & dragging brakes seem to be the reason.
There was also a train later on, loads used to go down any time after 11 o'clock, usually coming back between 12 & 1 o'clock. It was warm enough now, so as not to get any exhaust, beyond the first couple of miles, once the fire they had built up at the yard, had burnt through.
Loads again went down around 5 o'clock in the evening, but often the loco would return light engine, twice it did not & another loco to assist came down, once making a nice sunset run, the other time they left it too late & it was too dark, even just to video them.
As others have reported & we where told the same, the diesels have been ordered, so it's only a matter of time before this spectacle has also gone.

Surface Locos.
SY 1729, JS 6204, 6208, 8314, 8358, 8366.

Workshops. 2nd March.
SY 1304 & 1593 were the yard shunters. JS 6205 in steam, was having a union link pin replaced. JS 8167, in steam, was having a very bent combination link replaced. JS 6436 was being stripped for a major overhaul, whilst JS 8053 was having a steam test, valve events being set etc. JS 6206 was in the yard in steam, probably having brought to the workshops one of the locos seen receiving attention.

Open Pit Locos.
JS 6205, 6206, 6223, 6261, 8055, 8076, 8081, 8167, 8173, 8189, 8190, 8193, 8194, 8195, 8197, 8198, all these were noted working spoil trains. JS 6224 & 8027 were the only 2 of the coal train locos recorded, there were of course far more locos working coal trains.

A lot of spoil trains were not going out of the pit to the tips at Xibolizhan, but were going to the southern end of the pit, tipping inside it. Also at the southern end of the pit, front end loaders & trucks were bringing out coal from a seam here at the very end of the pit, which they were taking to a siding at the side of the line that goes in & out of the pit. From here it was being loaded into tipplers to go to the washery. A similar set up could also be seen about halfway along the pit.
Mr Fu of the open pit company said that they had no intention of following the surface lines & buying diesels, which would make sense, but sense doesn't always prevail does it.

From here, our original plan was to go for pay our yearly homage to Shibanxi, but although we had visited Jalainur only a few months ago in November, we took the attitude that although Shibanxi is a wonderful line, it should be there in 12 months time for us to go there again, whilst Jalainur will not be, not unless you are into Chinese trucks of course.

So it was overnight on T.No.T296 from Hami to Lanzhou, then an Air China flight to Beijing, for the daily Hainan Airlines flight the following day to Manzhouli. 2 hours of heaven, compared to getting cabin fever on T.No. 1301.

Taxi from Manzhouli airport was offered at Y200, got him down to Y120, but it wasn't until we started to remove the bags from the car, that the hidden meter, finally became available, which came to Y98, to Zhalainuoer Binguan.
No amount of arguing would get them to drop below Y200 a night, which is way over the top for this place, with a room that had the worst musty damp smell I have ever had to put up with in any trip to China & I promise you as long as the sheets are clean I'm not fussy. Ameling might have got hot water at 19.30, which he was made aware of when he booked in, but we were not told & it now doesn't come on until 21.30 to 23.00. The timing we worked out had been set as the time you would most likely not have a shower, having just returned full of food & beer, thus cutting the hotels costs for them. When the hot water came on, the room heating went off, until six the next morning as well, which when you are paying over the top, is not on. For nearly 2 days, we had no water at all, this according to the hotel was due to the town's water plant being broken, funny the restaurant over the road had running water then. The hotels remedy to this was, "I suggest you buy bottles of mineral water", not we will give them to you, because of the inconvenience, however, following a volcanic style eruption, that left the staff in no doubt I was not taking anymore s**t, many flasks of steaming hot water, that the staff had obviously got, to keep themselves happy, were then made available for use by customers, that are paying. This place has got only one thing going for it, it saves that drive to & from Manzhouli.

Jalainur, 7th to 12th March.

Surface Lines.
2 DF7G, 5198 & 5199, were in use, though no pattern could be found to their workings, so we could avoid them. They seem to work either of the surface lines as required, also they shunt the washery yard, where they cause the biggest problems to the steam workings, as if one of them is about, it will work the loaded trains up from the bins. Although SY 1601 still loads the wagons under the bins, once they are full it's mostly the diesel that drags them up into the headshunt & down into the yard. The best it seems you could hope for was 1601 coming up into the headshunt with its 4 tippler barrier wagons. Of course once we had got this into our heads that this is how it now works, we got caught out & 1601 drags the train up on its own, much to the delight of the coal pickers, who are not impressed with the new diesels either, as it goes up the gradient far too quickly for them to climb aboard the wagons. We did see 1601 handle the train on its own a couple of times, splitting the train & doing 2 runs, whilst once, although we were over at the open pit at the time, the twin exhausts of a doubleheader could be seen, so it can still happen.
It has been said that these diesels are not that powerful, but we witnessed one of them being called upon, whilst in the middle of shunting loaded wagons, to be sent down the bins to pull up a loaded train. So it came back up with the 2 loaded wagons it was shunting, SY 1601 along with its 4 tipplers, then 20 loaded wagons as well, which it eased up the gradient only opening it up a couple of notches. The only assistance being given by the SY was keeping the airbrake pressure up. I believe these locos are rated somewhere around 1800KW, so once the crews get used to them, you will have to accept that they are going to pull trains an SY could only dream of doing. At the moment though, any working to anywhere can be steam or diesel. It seems to be based on what locos are available, as in the past.

Surface Locos.
SY 1126, 1416, 1448, 1450, 1601, 1618.

Dumped Locos.
SY 0613, 0614, 0682, 0795, 0953, 0957, 1192, 1234, 1257, 1258, 1371, 1374, 1401, 1449, 1496, 1586, 1600, 1617, 1619, 1690.

Locos dumped in compound where the big electric shovels are, next to the dumped lines.
SY 0794, 0924, 1424, 1688.

Locos seen in use in and around the pit.
SY 0471, 0867, 0959, 1041, 1119, 1193, 1240, 1284, 1285, 1303, 1375, 1376, 1587, 1650, 1663, 1654, 1664, 1678, 1681, 1689, 3005.

Open Pit.
The coal hopper I saw being built at station 510 when I visited in November, along with its water column, is now in use. As I thought at the time, this was being built so trains need not go out to Nanzhan to be serviced. No spoil trains go out through the S curve anymore, all now tip back into pit itself, with 3 tipping lines at the southern end of the pit & 2 tipping places on the western side.
The line out of the pit is now single track up from station 510 to station 518, where it returns to 2 tracks, but these are both single track, as the points at station 528 have been clamped in position, so the line on the left is used for trains heading out towards station 536 & Nanzhan, the line on the right, next to the pit, is used for spoil trains heading for the tipping line at the end of the pit. The lines above the S curve, as they enter station 536, have both been cut & moved over, so the up line now connects into what would have been the down line. The line that comes in here, around from the washery is still well used, tipplers going to get coal from the loading bins at the washery for the servicing points in the pit will of course use it. These, along with the empty passenger coach, explosive train & works trains with cranes, are the only things we saw go up through the S curve now, oh and the plough that put in a fleeting appearance once.
There seemed to be 8 coal trains & 6 spoil trains in use, though there were always spare tipplers around at station 510, so they could run more at night, when the locos being used on works trains etc. are not being used on those duties.
Apart from one day when the wind was evil, so the dust was flying everywhere, the big disappointment for us on this visit was despite it being blue skies & sun for nearly all the day, around 3 o'clock as you were coming up to that golden hour when you get that glorious light as the sun goes down, it would get hazy & cloudy. So despite getting ourselves down into the bowels of the pit, where they were loading the coal, for those shots I had never seemed to have got right, the sun was getting blotted out & the shots looked like I'd gone back to using Ilford FP3. I couldn't laugh it off & say to myself this time, well I'll just have to try when we come again, as there will probably not be a next time, will there, as hard as that is to believe, with all that was going on.

After all those weeks we had been travelling around, with nothing major going wrong, there had to be a sting in the tail, didn't there. Thurs 12th, we awoke to snow having fallen in the night, but that evil wind was back as well. Though it didn't seem too bad in Jalainur, when we got to Manzhouli airport, it was whiteout, you could hardly make out the outline of the buildings through the blizzard. It was obvious our flight would not be going in this, but aren't the Chinese wonderful at helping you out in these circumstances. The airport is of course, as might be expected, locked up & not a soul is to be found to help out with those turning up for the flight. Their logic would of course be, no flight, airport not needed. After finding the airline office in Manzhouli, to confirm what was blindingly obvious, the flight had been cancelled, it was decided that rather than try to get onto the following days flight, for if that was also cancelled, we would then not be able to get to Beijing in time for our return flight home, we would get an overnight train to Harbin that night. We were lucky here in being able to get soft sleeper tickets, then get a train from Harbin to Beijing the following day. Thanks here to Mike Ma for making a couple of phone calls to contacts he has in Harbin, to make sure we had tickets for the Bullet Train D28 the following day, rather than risk being able to get them at the last minute. It's still an eight hour grind on this train though.
I always put a free day in Beijing in the itinerary before the flight back home, if for no other reason than just to unwind after a long trip around China, but of course it can be used in case problems arise, which they did & it saved our skins.

The flight back with Air France through Paris was probably the best I've had for room & service in cattle class, but the farce we had with security at Charles De Gaulle was beyond belief, with nearly every item in my camera bag having to be removed & x-rayed separately. I did ask the gentleman why it was that everywhere else in the world they had x-ray machines that the rays could penetrate my bag, but a so called high tech nation like France, couldn't make such a machine, did he not find this was embarrassing for his country.

I am sure another trip to China will follow, but it would seem it's not going to be visiting systems with lots of others nearby that you can move on to, should one of them let you down. Very soon it's going to be trips that will mean travelling from one end of the country to the other, to make a decent trip of it. Still it's working steam & has got to be better than those polished freaks my local preserved line would dish up.

I can't think of anything else, so regards till the next one then.

Jeff Cartledge

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2009 Jeff Cartledge