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Steam in China, December 2014

by Dave Habraken



Together with my fiancée Lingling, I planned to visit Sandaoling from Wednesday the 24th of December until Tuesday the 30th of December 2014. Soon after our initial plans, Ameling Algra also wanted to join us, as his plan to visit Rongshan had to be cancelled after the closing of this railway. It was a superb visit bless with good weather and virtually no wind. Ameling, thanks once again for the nice company :)


In general, traffic was considerably high. 

In the workshop: JS8197, 8366

One engine at Nanzhan recently received a fresh layer of paint, so this engine was quite clean. However, the job was not finished as the numbers were missing on all 4 places where they are supposed to be. Looking at the head plate however, it was clear that the second number was definitely a 3. This leads me to the conclusion that this engine should be JS8366 or JS8314. As I only noted this missing number on the last day when we were about to leave Nanzhan, we couldn’t ask the crew about it’s real number anymore. Any help to find the right number for this engine would be much appreciated.

JS8173 stayed on the passenger train during our visit except on 2 occasions:

On our first afternoon at Sandaoling, we asked about the coal traffic to Shanduzi. Station staff at Nanzhan told us that on the 1st of December, the decision has been made only to use diesel for coal traffic on this line. We saw some trains leaving Nanzhan and effectively, they all were very long rakes with one DF8B to haul them.

Shift change between 8:00 and 9:30 in Dongbolizhan was fantastic, as the blue hour happened exactly in this period. What a show to see 4-5 steam engines side by side in the first sun rays everyday.

On all occasions, the passenger train from Dongbolizhan towards Baerzhan only transported 2 passengers. On the last day of our visit, we asked staff at Baerzhan about the future of this rather inefficient train. They didn’t answer us literally about this passenger train, but they told us another interesting story: the mine wants to buy an old green passenger car to install a passenger train service for staff on the line from Nanzhan towards Shanduzi. Now, they bring staff there by buss and this is too expensive. However: this plan already exists some time, but apparently, they couldn’t realize it yet. Even if only one person told us about this: let’s keep our fingers crossed …

As stated by Duncan Cotteril (thanks for your great report, it was nice to read it just some weeks before us visiting Sandaoling as well), traffic intensity between Nanzhan and Erjing could vary considerably. On at least 2 days, there were 2 40 cars trains (of course top and tailed) from Nanzhan towards Erjing. On one day, these 2 trains run in less than 3 hours! On this day, after the arrival of the second train, there were 3 engines shunting at Erjing but soon, one of them left with empties towards Yijing. We asked about traffic to Yijing in general: this mine is still used for rail traffic, but a lot less intense then Erjing. We can confirm this with our own experiences, as this one train was the only one we saw on this branch. But “of course”, we missed the departure, due to some wrong information by the driver.

Peter Haworth already mentioned in his trip report (thanks for the interesting literature!) that some coal trains don’t go to Xuanmeichang but go via Dongbolizhan and Jichangzhan to another unloading facility. This place is called Xuanmeixian (not to mix up with Xuanmeichang!). We witnessed these trains too, especially in the afternoon, when 2-3 trains ran here every day. These trains are loaded at Xikeng with coal of a lower quality for private selling. The loading process is done by bulldozers and not by the big blue loader. Of course, this goes a lot slower, count minimum an hour to load such a train. Also interesting about these trains is that at Baerzhan, they have to shunt from the loading track into the station and backwards on another track towards the blue loader, before they can actually leave towards Kengkouzhan.

The area at Xuanmeixian where these trains are unloaded offers some very nice picture opportunities, especially when an empty train is leaving as it has to work rather hard here (chimney first!). From an uphill position, you can see the loco compound in the back, but also Nanzhan and the track between Kengouzhan and Xuanmeichang.


We visited the workshop on Christmas day. At the gate, we could immediately gain access after asking for permission. Some time later, another company security guy showed up asking for our permission and wanting us to leave. Lingling calmed him down and together with him to take care about our security, we could continue our visit.

Workers told us, they were about to close the workshop for 30 (!) days as a holiday. A big steam crane was finishing some work, and eventually pulled a smaller steam crane out of an adjacent building. We were lucky enough to see the 2 steam craned behind JS8173. This engine had to shunt the two cranes into the workshop itself, where they would stay in case of need during this holiday.

In the workshop itself, we found JS8197 without it’s wheel set. JS8366 was being overhauled. What a difference with my previous visit, when the hall was completely filled with steam engines being maintained…

Other practical information:

We stayed at the San He Binguan. Breakfast here starts at 8:30, which is of course too late for the shift change at Dongbolizhan. But: if you leave this hotel and turn left, some 100m down the road, there is a noodle bar where you can have a breakfast in time. They were already in business before 7:30.

In November, Lingling contacted the mine about a photo permission. They stated, there were some changes in management about to happen, so they couldn’t issue a permit for our visit. But: they also let us know gently that probably nobody would bother us about this permit. They also said, a guide was not strictly necessary, especially as Lingling was with us. This made me a bit nervous, as Xinjiang is still a more sensitive region, so we didn’t know what to expect from encounters with the police. The first evening at the hotel, the police showed up, but they just wanted to see my passport. We told them, Ameling was already sleeping (as it was 22:00 when they showed up) and we could convince them not to disturb him. They just wanted to be sure, we were there to see the steam trains.

Against the end of our visit, more and more Chinese tourists were visiting. Western New Year is now more and more considered as a public holiday, so this also lead to more visitors at Sandaoling. As stated before, most of them don’t care about other visitors and at Dongbolizhan preferably stand so close that you can ask yourself if they want to kiss the steam engine instead of taking pictures. However, they never walked from Kengkouzhan into the open mine. After us seeing there, one of the guides made some complaints to our taxi driver that she was losing income as we were there without a guide. The day afterwards, when we were at Kengkouzhan and after this guide saw us again from a distance, some company security showed up. They didn’t ask us about a permit, but they did ask us to choose another position “further away from the tracks, as it was almost 2015 and they didn’t want an accident at the end of 2014”. I wonder if “by coincidence” this guide would have anything to do with this? We were just heading back to the car anyway, but it was a bit ironic, as the day before, 20 Chinese tourists ruined our picture and video at Kengkouzhan like flies on a horse’s arse when a train was leaving and them running all over the tracks in all directions.

As previous visitors wrote that they couldn’t enter Nanzhan, we asked about this in the signal box on the first day we were there. The guy was a bit surprised by this question, as he had no objections at all in us taking pictures. The days afterwards, we took quite a lot of pictures at the east end of this station on a big space between the tracks (where you have a fantastic view on the cement factory) and nobody seemed to care about us being there.


Our visit at Sandaoling was the bomb! During my first visit to Sandaoling in 2009, I really had to cope with terrible weather conditions, which left a rather bad taste afterwards. This time, we were blessed with fantastic weather and we could witness lots of steam action. Before our departure to Sandaoling, I told Lingling this would definitely be my last visit here, as it is a very long journey from her family at Nanjing to Xinjiang. But: at the end of our visit, she said herself, she wants to go back next year. The interesting conversations we had with local people of all ethnicities, the compactness of the system and of course the nice amount of steam action: these are all reasons to go back. However, one truck driver told us, the opencast mine company has already ordered more then 30 new trucks to haul coal out of the mine. If this is true, this will of course have its effect on the use of coal trains... Of course, we hope this information will prove to be wrong, so the steam trains can run for some more years from now.

Let’s see if we can visit China again next winter and if we will end up in Sandaoling again, or choose to visit another destination.

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