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Steam in China, August  2016

by Roger Croston

Fuxin and Pingzhuang

In view of speculation, rumour, counter-rumour, hearsay, guesswork, supposition and varying stories about the status and presumed imminent demise of steam traction in both Fuxin and Pingzhuang, I decided to make a flying visit and go and look for myself. As the Chinese say, “seeing is believing.” Whilst I was there in March this year, there was a very noticeable reduction of steam hauled trains; in fact there was an overall reduction in train numbers in both places. It now seems that this was probably due to an extended Chinese New Year “Spring Holiday” with a slow drift back to work, low immediate demand for coal, as well as heavy maintenance and inspection of coal mine workings. After a five day seminar on Tibet in Peking and an academic visit to the mainly Buddhist monasteries of Wutai Shan (Wu Tai Mountain), I made an individual trip to Fuxin and Pingzhuang hiring the ever reliable Mr Liu Xuejun as guide with a Mr Ma as driver.

Fuxin, Sunday 7th & Monday 8th August.

As soon as we arrived, with the mercury at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, at 3.35 p.m. we found SY1378 ready to depart, tender first, from the open cast pit having dumped a load of spoil. She returned at 4.20 p.m. with five wagons which were tipped and the train departed 25 minutes later. We next visited the main spoil heap above Wulong Mine to see SY1460 running downhill at 5.10 p.m. with two ash wagons having not tipped. SY1210 followed at 5.30 p.m. with one ash wagon still full – there seemed to be mechanical problems with the tipping wagons. SY1460 reappeared uphill at 6.30 p.m. to dump stone spoil and returned downhill ten minutes later, with a good glint shot to be had. So steam activity seemed to be back to a good rate, especially on the spoil heap. As noted in an earlier report, the picturesque circular signal box, with its hand cranked road barriers, at the start of the hill climb has sadly been demolished and most of the rubble carted away. Further uphill, where the locomotives stop before climbing and after descending the spoil heap, there is a brand new, shiny white concrete road truck weighbridge, as yet not commissioned. This seems to be for a new coal yard development here. The area downhill to the left with the maize fields, poplar trees and abandoned houses has now been completely bulldozed, heavily landscaped and reclaimed, with much tree planting, so as to be totally unrecognisable. Photographs from low down, silhouetting trains through the tall poplar trees are a thing of the past. In summer the spoil heap is astonishingly transformed from its bare wintry wasteland into what is almost a nature reserve, despite the daytime temperatures reaching the mid 90s Fahrenheit. Following recent very heavy rains, the entire area was covered with a green carpet of wild flowers where numerous butterflies, birds and dragonflies happily flit about. One had to watch where you put your feet, however, as holes and gullies were totally hidden by lush vegetation. The two main settling ponds were well filled (by road tankers roaring up early morning to disgorge their loads), so that good reflection photographs could be taken, with glint shots in the evening possible. High temperatures, naturally, negated much show of steam, but most workings uphill were under glorious towering banners of jet black smoke. On Monday 8th of August SY1210 ran down the spoil heap at 5.40 a.m. with SY1395 Zhu De climbing at 6.40 a.m., returning at 7.05 a.m. – running without any plastic film covering the General’s portrait which allowed for clear photographs of the image – thence to Wulong mine, departing at 7.15 a.m. light engine for Wulong Yard. SY1818 departed Wulong at 8.45 a.m. to reach the top of the spoil heap 35 minutes later. SY1195 was noted to be now dead. SY1319 was seen at Wulong Mine with five loaded coal trucks running to Wulong Yard. SY1210 was up the spoil heap at 11.50 a.m. with an ash train and was down 50 minutes later. SY1319 was up the heap at 12.30 p.m. The pattern of the previous day at the deep pit was not repeated and we waited in vain between 3.30 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. and so missed good activity up the heap where we arrived at 4.50 p.m. just in time to miss SY1460 ash train running down, with SY1818 following ten minutes later. (We had been delayed by a loaded road coal truck having turned over on the narrow, muddy road above the big pit. Luckily we were not passing it at the time or we would not he here to tell the tale – how these trucks can be made to tip over on flat roads is always an amazing feat of gravity (or impossibly stupid driving!) The stories that heavy rails were to be laid up the spoil heap for use by diesels are quite unfounded. All three lines at the top of the spoil heap were in use. A new blue and white control (?) hut has been built next to the lower line and tipping is being extended at the lower end with a large area recently bulldozed clear to allow for tipping here. It was reported that there was a lot of spoil heap tipping throughout night shifts. Furthermore, it was reported that as long as Wulong Mine is in production, four steam locomotives will run daily. If the mine closes, only one steamer might survive. The above detailed timings are given to demonstrate the level and frequency of steam activity. Locomotives seen working:- SY1210 Sunday, Monday SY1319 Monday Zhu De SY1395 Monday SY1378 Sunday SY1460 Sunday, Monday SY1818 Monday

photographs by Liu Xuejun

Pingzhuang, Tuesday 9th August.

Arriving at Pingzhuang we were surprised to find two SYs in use, SY1425 and SY1764, along with a so-called “Western Melon” green diesel. The Gushan Erjing (No.2), Gushan Yijing (No.1), Gushan Sanjing (No.3) and Gushan Lijing (No.6) mines were not working as they were undergoing mine safety inspections. After servicing and much yard shunting at Zhuangmai depot SY1764 headed with empty stock for the deep mine at Wujia, departing there 1.30 p.m. with a load of 30 x 60 ton wagons which she hauled to the depot (the mercury now at a temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit). From there she took the train to China Rail Interchange arriving at 2.30 p.m. After a long wait in the village near Wufeng, she returned with empties at 4.10 p.m. Returning to depot, she collected another loaded train to take to China Rail and returned at 4.55 p.m. light engine to depot to rejoin SY1425. The village at Wufeng has been transformed throughout– indeed ‘gentrified’ - beyond recognition by local government with all roads newly laid in concrete, all garden and house walls have been rendered and painted white, while all roadsides have now got crenulated three foot high walls running on each side, painted in grey and white in imitation of the Great Wall of China. Every verge has been planted with trees and flowers and all rubbish heaps have been removed – to be replaced by concrete bunded designated waste collection points. The spaces and areas between the houses have been surrounded by kerbs and the municipal parks department has been busy planting trees, shrubs, bushes and flowing plants. I do hope that they have a maintenance budget and workforce to maintain this splendid refurbishment. A whole new photo opportunity is now available as old shots cannot be repeated. It seems that two SYs are kept in steam, with one loco doing most of the work, with the second loco on standby or mostly yard shunting. The green diesel also ran to and from China rail. Management reported the possibility of a third SY returning to service later this year on economic grounds. The washery at Zhuangmai depot closed six months ago because the nearby open cast mine has been worked out and has ceased production. I have given detailed timings, which I hope are not too boring, but they are given to demonstrate the good level of steam traction found. Certainly there was much more activity than in March this year with very few periods of inactivity.

photographs by Liu Xuejun

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© 2016 Roger Croston and Liu Xuejun