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Steam in China, August 2013

by Michael Reilly

Guangyuan (Rongshan)

I visited Rongshan from 30 August - 1 September. Air China flies daily to Guangyuan from Beijing (and from Guangzhou) and this is much the quickest and most convenient, if not cheapest or most reliable, way of getting there, at least from Beijing. There is also a large range of hotels available in Guangyaun, many of them bookable over the internet through agencies such as C Trip and China Travel Depot. I stayed at the Lizhou Hotel, booked via C Trip, paying RMB138/ night including breakfast. It was clean and comfortable, with plenty of hot water. It took about 25 minutes to get to Rongshan from the hotel by taxi in the morning but around 45 minutes coming back, when the traffic in the city was heavier. The no 8 bus also runs from Guangyuan to Rongshan roughly every 15 minutes throughout the day and the terminus at Rongshan (Rongshan cun, or village, on google maps, not Rongshan shichang (market)) is only about 100 metres from the railway station.

Officially a permit is required to visit. These cost RMB 80 per person/day and are obtainable from the tourist office in Guangyuan (address: Yu Cai Lu Nan Duan, Jin Xiu Huayuan, tel 0839 3304721). I was issued with permit no 5 although for some reason the accompanying souvenir 'Visiting Card' was no 25. I was asked to show it by the controller prior to boarding the morning train on 31 August. Apart from this one occasion, I was able to roam at will throughout the valley and the railway facilities over all 3 days with no more interest shown in my presence than I find normal in rural Chinese locations away from the tourist sites.

On all three days locos in use were C2s nos 211 and 218, with 219 in the depot. Inside an adjacent shed was SY 1434 with SY 1305 dumped outside. Locked in another shed behind the ng running shed was an electric loco in pristine yellow and white livery, but possibly minus pantograph, and a passenger carriage in green livery, also in pristine condition. Externally, all three ng locos looked in dilapidated condition, as is often the case in China, but 211 sported a brand new brake pressure guage and the other guages in the cab also looked new. On the other hand, 218 appeared to need attention to wheel tyres as it was very prone to bad wheel slip, irrespective of the driver and whether it was on the line or shunting the unloading hoppers. The coal is of very poor quality (again as on other Chinese lines), requiring heavy use of the blower and fireboxes to be cleaned after every trip.
Operations on all three days included two return passenger workings and at least one additional coal train. But the only consistent point throughout was in the first outward working in the morning. Both locos came off the running shed at around 0710 and together worked the morning departure at 0740, one heading the train, one banking. The consist of this train included one passenger carriage, one converted from a guard's van, a 'proper' guard's van, at least one flat bed truck and a variable number of empty coal waggons. There is also an afternoon mixed working, in theory at 1530 (but see below), the return of which on all three days was passnger only, due back at rongshan at 1740. On 30 August this traimn eturned on time. On the morning departure on 31 August there were twelve empties, which were all dropped off at Shanziba, both locos then proceeded to Yujiabian, where 218 ran round and returned almost immediately with the passenger carriages, leaving at 0855 and stopping at Shanziba to collect some loaded wagons. The train was back at Rongshan by 0925. 211 remained at Yujiabian and returned later in the morning with loaded wagons from there. By lunchtime there were more than 50 wagons filling the sidings at Rogshan and awaiting unloading. This may have caused shortages at the mines, for at 1415, nine empty wagons were cut out from the rake going through the unloading hoppers and taken off up the line, with the passenger carriages, almost one hour ahead of the scheduled departure time. The only passengers seemed to be three teenage girls, along for the ride and taking photos of the locos on their smartphones. This train returned at around 1640, again almost one hour ahead of timetable. The loco then returned up the line almost immediately with another rake of empty wagons.

On 1 September the morning departure ran to 21 wagons plus a transformer on one of the flat beds for good measure. After overnight drizzle, and with the aforementioned problems with 218, this posed a challenge for the loco crews and the train was brought to a stand short of Shanziba while steam was raised. Wagons were again dropped off at Shanziba before both locos and train proceeded to Yujiabian, where arrival was at 0910. The first down train left at around 0945 with loaded wagons from the mine at Yujiabian, stopping to collect more on the way at Shanziba and eventually returning to Rongshan at around 1030. The second loco remained at Yujiabian and had not returned to Rongshan by mid-day.

Before going I had harboured doubts about whether Rongshan would really live up to some of the reports. In the event, if anything it surpassed them and I am delighted I went. The countryside is delightful, with what must be one of the cleanest rivers in China running beside the railway and the scenery and train workings evoked comparisons with the Welsh narrow gauge in its heyday around a century ago (including the use of home made sleepers, made by hand at Rongshan!). Yujiabian station, set in a gorge and accessible only by a rickety suspension footbridge, is a gem. And the sight and sound of a long narrow gauge mixed train with a banker on the rear struggling uphill is surely unique today. As the Michelin guides would say, worth the journey, definitely.




Michael Reilly

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2013 Michael Reilly