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Steam in China, 13th-26th March 2009

by Richard Turkington and Keith Strickland

Baiyin, Sandaoling and Jixi

Well organised by Xiujun Liu and guided by the excellent Alan Wang, this was a primarily film and photographic trip, not least to capture some images for Keith's latest black and white collection due for publication in the spring of 2010. I'll try to get some colour photos online.

It is to the great credit of those who post reports on this website that we were able to organise such a successful trip and this detailed report is offered in thanks to them and with those visitors in mind who need to plan in detail to make the most of their trip. We made excellent use of the maps available on this website in the Steam Lines section and thanks also for these.

We were fortunate in experiencing excellent weather throughout - though from +20c to -15c; faultless travel arrangements and high traffic levels.

Birmingham to Baiyin

I travelled by KLM from Birmingham airport at 13.45 on 13th March (KLM 1428) to Schiphol arriving at 16.00 (Keith arrived from Bristol) then on to Beijing departing at 17.40 and arriving at 09.55 on 14th March. We then caught the 15.20 flight to Lanzhou (CA1221) arriving at the Baiyin hotel for 3 calm days of cloudless skies and increasingly warm weather.

For those who haven’t visited Baiyin, it offers the excellent combination of a fully equipped steam depot and workshop; an active and often busy freight yard and above all, regular passenger - and almost regular freight traffic - on a 10 km line of steep gradients on which locos - all SY - are worked very hard uphill and chimney first. These workings create some of the best photographic and film opportunities left in China.

It’s interesting to contrast the culture of different systems and at Baiyin, locos which are in good working condition, are worked hard at all times with drivers in Baiyin yard trying to beat their personal best at acceleration from a standing start!

Passenger trains run Monday-Saturday as follows:

07.35 from Baiyin Gongshi to Sanyelian stopping at Liugongli, arriving at 08.00 and returning at 08.10 arriving back at 08.25;
07.50 to Shenbutong stopping at Dongchanggau Halt but not at Liugongli, arriving at 08.20, returning at 09.15, arriving back at 09.45;
18.15 to Shenbutong, arriving at 18.50 returning at 19.15, arriving back at 19.50.

Please note: on Sundays, only one morning train runs at 07.35 but to Shenbutong stopping at all stations, then returns at 09.15, arriving back at 09.45.

Traffic was noted as follows:

15th March (a Sunday):

1581 on the 07.35 to Shenbutong and return;
1047 on the regular empty wagons from Baiyin to Shenbutong seen at Dongchanggau Halt at 10.10;
0612 shunting three coal wagons at Sanyelian at 10.30;
1013 shunting in Baiyin yard then joined by 0612.

16th March:

1581 on the passenger train returning from Shenbutong, seen at the level crossing below Liugongli at 09.30;
1013 shunting in the yard at Baiyin at 10.00;
1047 on the much delayed empty wagons to Shenbutong seen north of Sanyelian at 14.30.

17th March:

1581 on the 07.50 to Shenbutong seen at the level crossing below Liugongli at 08.05;
1047 on the regular empty wagons to Shenbutong seen at Dongchanggau Halt at 09.45 then seen returning full at the lower level crossing at 11.00.

The situation in the shed/workshop was 1470 dead at the back of the workshop; 0965 dead outside the back of the shed; 0150 dead but brought inside from the back of the shed and receiving attention; 1097 dead in the shed, the other loco seen in steam on shed was 0819.

10 locos seen in service, 7 in steam:


But where did loco 2008 get to?

Baiyin to Sandaoling

We left for Lanzhou by road to catch T295, the 16.01 sleeper to Hami arriving 15 minutes early at 06.00 to be met by the well informed Mrs Gou Li; to Sandaoling by road staying at the friendly Sanhe hotel. This is connected to the mining company's district heating system so no adjustment can be made to the red hot radiators if the outside temperature rises – which it did!

Locos are mainly JS with a few SY, we were told there are 29 locos in regular use; 3 under repair and 3 in store. They look pretty scruffy (with the exception of 8222) but are in good working condition, steam tight though with some slack in the rods. An Assistant Driver explained that the Company had suspended promotions to Driver in view of the arrival of diesels, initially 4 second-hand delivered in April from Shenyang city followed by 2 more in July/August. There was no talk of full dieselisation, one loco was receiving a full overhaul (see below) but ……..

The highlight of the Sandaoling system is the spectacle of regular banked trains of empties which are run as required from the CNR exchange yard at Liushuquan to Nanquan yard working chimney first and taking about an hour to complete the 14 km. Longer trains stop for a blow up in front of the only level crossing out on the line at about the halfway point.

Not surprisingly, loaded trains leaving Nanquan yard returned with empties but watch out for 2 coupled locos leaving tender first light engine as they are almost certainly on their way to pick up empties. You should have least an hour to get in position before they return. These trains are unmissable but may be under immediate threat if the diesels arrive in April as we were advised they were intended for these duties.

The other highlights are watching the activity in Nanquan yard including the regular shift change between about 08.00 and 09.00, and the constant activity at Xibolizhan of full and empty spoil trains coming and going.

Most trains of empties are pushed to Beiquan mine tender first but can take hours to load if they are on the left hand mine loading track being filled by a digger. Please note that all the effort is towards the mine, the full trains drift back but, before being given entry to Nanquan yard, they usually stop at the signal marked as a photo spot on John Agnew’s November 2004 map just to the right hand side of a level crossing for a dirt road (which has been removed). As the train leaves a good photo can be obtained between the two spots marked by John but from the other side of the tracks with the Tian Shan mountains in the background (weather/light permitting of course!).

The SY hauled workers' passenger train consisting of 2 converted box cars and a control wagon is now due to leave Dongbolizhan chimney first for Xibolizhan at 08.40 and arrives back at about 09.30. The loco does not run round at Xibolizhan but pushes the train back.

Traffic of interest was noted as follows:

18th March:

8314 banked by 6204 departs from Liushuquan yard at 11.35 with 66 empties (blow up required).

19th March:

8053 and 6204 arrive at Nanquan yard with empties from Liushuquan at 08.30;
8314 leaves from Nanquhan for Beiquan at 10.05 with 20 empties and returns from there at 11.50;
6204 and 6208 leave Liushuquan yard with 39 empties at 11.35 (no blow up required), arriving at 12.25;
8366 leaves from Nanquhan for Beiquan at 11.30 with 20 empties and returns at 16.00; and
8314 leaves from Nanquhan for Beiquan at 12.30 with 20 empties and returns at 17.00. Much time was available to enjoy the view of Beiquan mine waiting for these trains to return!

20th March:

SY 1304 on the workers' train leaves Dongbolizhan at 08.35 and arrives back at 09.30;
SYs 1593 and 1720 are both in the yard with breakdown trains;
6204 and 8366 leave Liushuquan yard for Nanquan at 11.30 with 57 empties (blow up required); and
6204 and 8366 leave Nanquhan yard for Liushuquan at 14.45 with 38 loaded wagons.

In the depot/works:

8368 dead outside but in service;
6435 in the depot in steam under repair; and
8040 in the works fully dismantled and receiving a heavy overhaul.

Stored serviceable in the open in the separate dump/store:

6430, 8055 and 8197.

26 JS locos seen in service, 21 in steam:

6430 (stored)
8040 (under overhaul)
8055 (stored)
8197 (stored)

3 SY locos in service, all in steam:


14 locos stored unserviceable:

1718 (SY)
5455 (with 6027 tender)

Sandaoling to Jixi

The travel marathon. Left Sandaoling on 20th March for Hami and the 23.00 double decker sleeper (N881 - with excellent running qualities) to Urumqi arriving on the 21st at 07.50. We had the unique experience of joining the moving taxi rank outside Urumqi station (they’re not allowed to stop) then on to the airport for the 10.30 flight to Beijing (CZ6901) then the 17.45 to Mudanjiang arriving at 19.40 (HU7103) for an overnight stay at the Golden Dome International Hotel.

Heavy snow overnight meant a slow early morning drive on 22nd March to Jixi staying at the truly bizarre but friendly 'National Territory Resources Mansion' hotel - not to be confused with its former identity of the 'Mansion of Land and Resources'. Resources include a 'choose your own bedroom style' brothel on the 3rd floor and a shop on the ground floor very useful for beer and light bulbs which provide light.

Jixi was superb, a good covering of snow, clear skies and plenty of traffic. For those unfamiliar with the system, it consists of 6 mining systems connected by a CNR line which enables light engine movements. Locos (all SY) are in excellent condition, including externally, and compared with most locations, more use is made of chime whistles than air horns. Local people and staff are very friendly and environments include old and new urban, wooded hillsides and open country, another 'must' to visit.

Traffic was noted as follows:

22nd March: Didao system, Hebei washery:

Constant movement of trains to and from the mines and power station and shunting at the washery and local sidings. Trains from the power station to the washery use side tipping wagons and take about 45 minutes from leaving the washery to returning. Trains run chimney first from the power station back to the washery; from Sangongli mine and from Lijing mine to the washery but both of these are downhill into the washery. An excellent photo spot is the level crossing on the line to the west of the washery where the lines diverge to Lijing (to the left) and Sangongli (to the right) – its location can be worked out with reference to Bernd Seiler’s Didao map on the website -it’s easy to walk there from the washery. Trains from Lijing have to work hard up to the crossing and whilst moving, a single line token is deposited from the loco cab on to a spiral shaped pole on the trackside. Great film/photo opportunities.

Locos seen:


23rd March: Chengzihe system focusing on the triangle to Beicheng washery:

Constant activity here and also visited Dongcheng mine for a departure and shunting. Also caught one loaded and chimney first train waiting to be called forward into the CNR Jixi Xi yard at 16.00, we were advised that the yard - including the adjacent Jixi system workshop - cannot be accessed. Locos seen:

1344 (Excellent condition with 'Youth Culture' headboard)

24th March: Chengzihe system Dongcheng shift change (saw only 0863)/triangle to Beicheng washery/Didao system, Hebei washery:

Constant activity in all locations once again.

Locos seen at Beicheng:


Locos seen at Didao:


25th March: Hengshan system - Hengshan/Lishu system - Pinggang:

Arrived at Hengshan at 09.30 to witness a banked train of empties (1095/1344) departing chimney first eastbound and 0804 shunting.

Pinggang colliery is an excellent photographic location because of the mine environment; the spoil tip on the far side of the mine and the banked trains entering the mine through wooded hillsides (though tender first). At about 11.00, 0477 was shunting in the mine then 1018 (at Beicheng the previous day) and 0590 arrived with 19 wooden hoppers and blocked the level crossing for half an hour! 0477 left with a loaded train chimney first at about 11.30.

17 locos seen in service, all in steam:


From Pinggang to Birmingham

We returned on the 20.30 flight from Mudanjiang on the 25th, an airport which only opens for this daily flight in and out. The air side Russian-oriented souvenir shop is unmissable, full marks if you can get any of the complete frozen rabbits and pheasants from the Nestle freezer through any airport!
Overnight stay at the Airport's Capital Hotel - watch out for those extra charges at check out - then the 11.55 to Amsterdam (KL 898) arriving at 15.10. An on-time arrival was appreciated by Keith who had a tight connection to Bristol, reaching there at 16.45. My connecting flight to Birmingham left at 17.40 (KL1431) arriving 17.55.

Final comments

And what more is there to say? This is 2009, but we witnessed 6 coach passengers and freight trains working flat out through mountain scenery; 60 wagon banked trains thrashing up steady gradients then stopping to blow up for a second effort, and busy and varied mining systems in contrasting natural and urban environments. 56 locomotives in service, 48 in steam and working hard, there's nothing more to say - other than it doesn't get any better than this.

Richard Turkington and Keith Strickland

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© 2009 Richard Turkington and Keith Strickland