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Steam and Narrow Gauge in China, January 2011

by Adrian Freeman

Xiaoyotou, Maogang, Jianghe, Mojiang and Shibanxi

04.01.2011 Xiaoyotou iron ore mine
This delightful branch runs off the Datong Coal Railway and was reported steam in April 2009. Since then a diesel has been purchased and of the three SY owned by this railway, two were locked away in their sheds, cold, and the third plinthed.

05.01.2011 Maogang
The lack of steam at Xiaoyotou meant we had a spare day and so went to look at Maogang, near Mao'ertuo, for the branch of the Chongqing Ferry Co. Two SY were present, 0257 cold and out of use, and 1016 in steam, sat in a yard by the Yangtze river with nothing to do. We overnighted nearby in a hotel at Luohuang which, despite its size and proximity to Chongqing, had never had foreign guests before.

06.01.2011 Jianghe
This peculiar diesel operated isolated narrow gauge railway north of Chongqing was working as previously reported. A series of trains run in convoy - in sight of each other - between a coal loader at Luoba and a coking plant at Sanlinger (“302“). We got to Luoba by local bus from Chongqing, a journey of about an hour. Locals advised us that trains of empties from the coking plant would arrive before 10am; in the event it was after 11 but five trains turned up in convoy. Apparently the crews had received a health and safety briefing at the coking plant, thus delaying their progress. A loop at Luoba allowed the trains to run under the coal loader and they were soon ready to depart for Sanlinger. We chased them by bus to Taisanshi - a place half way along the line where the line runs at the side of the road through the middle of the village - and then by bus and three-wheeler to Sanlinger.

Locals at Luoba said that this railway has changed owners recently and the new owner wants to make it a tourist operation. That may be the case, but this is hardly a tourist area so it is difficult to see how that would be viable.

07 – 08.01.2011 Mojiang
We were amazed that when we turned up at the new Chongqing Bei station at 15:30, we could get tickets for the 16:10 train to Chengdu, which took two hours to get to Chengdu on the recently opened high speed route. It was then a two and a half hour journey by taxi to Shawan, the main city close to Mojiang. I’ve stayed in the hotel in Shawan twice before, but this time the receptionist was determined that we should not stay there. After some very heated exchanges between Zebedee and the receptionist, and phone calls to the hotel manager and the local police, we managed to get in.

The following day we caught the bus to Caoba, terminus of the Mojiang overhead electric narrow gauge railway. Two lines run from the terminus - a short line to Laokuang and a longer one to Xiangyang. We were soon intercepted by the railway police/security, and following some discussion, are left to our own devices. However, the first train that appears is a managers' inspection train with one carriage. The managers take exception to us and we are soon called to the security office and told that we are not allowed to be there. Slightly odd, since on my two previous visits I had no such problems and made no efforts to be inconspicuous.

09 - 17.01.2011 Shibanxi
The journey from Shawan to Sanjin on the Shibanxi railway took about an hour by taxi. A new toll road almost devoid of traffic speeded things up considerably. At Sanjin there is a nice new(ish) hotel with views of the railway, which can be recommended. Comfortable beds, hot showers and air conditioning. Twin room cost 100 Yuan. We spent four nights here and four at Bagou. I rate the stretch of line between Sanjin and Shixi highly and it has the added benefit of the electrically-hauled coal trains from the mine at Sanjin to the power station at Shixi. The passenger train service is unchanged with four daily return workings (06:00, 09:30, 14:00 and 17:30 from Shixi) and the tourist coach a permanent feature on all trains. On most days there were four coal trains. Perhaps they were trying to shift as much coal as possible before Spring Festival. Four different locos were used during our visit, one being a former Pengzhou engine. (In November 2010 Bernd Seiler reported seeing 08 under overhaul, ex Pengzhou ZM16-4 67, and the other (72) being used for spare parts. D.F.)

C2 No. 08, ex Pengzhou ZM16-4 67, at Sanjin (10/01/2011)

A half hour's journey by taxi along an atrocious road from Sanjin takes you to the back of the mine, where there is a separate narrow gauge line with battery electric locos pulling tubs of spoil from a rear mine entrance. Extremely muddy but well worth a visit.

My last visit to this line was three years ago. Since then there have been a number of changes around the railway, many of which are a consequence of the government injecting large sums of money into the area to promote it as a tourist destination. These include:

The river/stream between Bagou and Huangcunjing has been cleaned up. It used to be absolutely filthy - grey water running between banks piled high with domestic waste. Now it has been transformed – all the rubbish has been cleared away and the blue-green water looks quite inviting! This is a definite plus. No litter along the lineside either– litter pickers were seen on several occasions.

On the minus side, the wonderful village of Bagou is dying. The school closed two years ago and this has resulted in significant depopulation. Children must now go to Shixi, where there is a boarding school. Some return at the weekend, but it appears that large numbers of families have moved away. The place is empty most of the time. The nice restaurant by the market is quiet and now shuts mid afternoon, and the market and shops short of custom. Many of the houses are now empty and it was quite saddening to see this change. Tourist plaques have been attached to many buildings and Bagou is turning into a museum, but not a living one. In the smaller village at Jiaoba, the school shut three years ago and it has also suffered similar depopulation. Consequently fewer motorbikes are being driven along the sides of the track.

A significant negative as far as photographers are concerned is the planting of trees on either side of the track. These are fruit trees, which supposedly have beautiful blossoms in Spring. They have been planted all the way from Bagou to Huangcunjing, and although quite small at the moment and without leaves during our visit, were already making some positions difficult for photography. When they grow, they will wipe out many of the views. They were evident on some other stretches of the line, too.

We heard of, but saw little evidence of, a government scheme whereby anyone with a property backing on to the railway could get a grant to smarten their property so that it would look more pretty from the train.

Despite the promotion as a tourist railway, in eight days, we saw a group of three Western enthusiasts (including Ron Olsen and Olaf Haensch – nice to meet you), two Japanese and the only obvious Chinese tourists were from the Chengdu Camera Club, who appeared on the day that snow had been forecast for the area (but there wasn’t any). Groups of teenagers at Bagou wanting their photo taken stood next to middle-aged Westerners also suggests that Western visitors are still something out of the ordinary.

Roads – a new road formation is most evident near Jiaoba, by the view with lake in the background. The hill has been built up and now offers an improved vantage point. So far, this formation is only sand – no road surface or any measures to stabilize it to prevent slippage. It may be some time before this is complete.
At Bagou, there was no evidence of a road, although we were told that a bus station will be built at the other side of the river to town. It also looks as though it will be many months before it is completed. John Raby has already provided some more up-to-date information on the road progress.

The mine at Huangcunjing was busy with tubs pushed in and out of the mine. However, the tub tipping area now has a corrugated roof over it, limiting its photographic potential. The miners canteen (follow the only remaining 300mm gauge tracks and it is in the building on the right) does some very good food.

Huge numbers of boxes, sacks and other goods were offloaded from the train at Bagou station every day. One day, two coaches were detached from the train and shunted into the loop. They were both filled to the roof with all manner of goods, every box and sack needing to be lifted out by hand and onto barrows, to be wheeled into town. This must be the last place in the world where these activities are still carried out (if anyone knows differently, please let me know!) The arrival of the road will almost certainly put an abrupt end to this practice.

Other general changes include an absence during our visit of any animals working in the area and the increased presence of concreted paths and railway crossings.

There is apparently a proposal to start the steam-hauled passenger services at Sanjin instead of Shixi. A new engine shed would be constructed here. This makes some sense – Sanjin station offers better interchange provisions than Shixi, allowing easy change between road and rail, compared to a steep flight of steps at Shixi between the road and the station platform. Whether steam-hauled coal trains would continue through to Shixi is not clear – this lower section could be entirely electrically-hauled. The electric locos can haul three times more wagons than the C2s. The line would then effectively be split into two distinct sections – Sanjin to Huangcunjing would be a steam passenger operation with some coal traffic, and Sanjin to Shixi would be for electrically-hauled coal traffic between Sanjin mine and Shixi power station. If this proposal comes to fruition, it is expected to be at least a couple of years away.

In summary, Shibanxi is still a pleasant place to spend some time, and at least in January, wasn't overrun by tourists. The planting of trees along the lineside may, however, be a deterrent to photographers – something I doubt that the relevant authorities have considered.

Adrian Freeman

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© 2011 Adrian Freeman