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Steam in China, 19 November - 8 December 2017

by Duncan Cotterill

Wujiu and Sandaoling

Wujiu (19 - 25 November)

We visited Wujiu from 19 – 25 November, using Mr Xiao as driver and staying in Wu’erqihan at the Linyuan Hotel, same as last year. Most of the railway activity was centred around the new mine, Shengli Kuang, south west of Wujiu town, which saw trains on 6 of the 7 days we were there but usually only one train each day in daylight. There was also a daylight train to the Sankuang loading point on one day. We were aware of overnight work at both Sankuang and Shengli during the time we were at Wujiu but it wasn’t observed. Neither Yikuang or Erkuang loading points appeared to be in use and we saw no trains to either. The same two locos that we saw last year were in service, SY1225, looking much scruffier than last year, and DF4DD0288, the line’s only diesel. SY1134 and SY1546 were in the shed at Wujiu in very similar positions to last year and initially we assumed they hadn’t been used in the meantime. Later Mr Xiao showed us pictures of SY1546 in use in July 2017 and we were told by railway staff that the steam locos were regularly rotated, with each being used for about 4 months every year. Apparently, the plan is for SY1225 to remain in use until Spring Festival 2018, when it will be swapped with one of the others, presumably SY1134. During our visit last year, the SY used to go to Yikuang to coal but this year it was coaled by a front- end loader at the watering point, not far east of Wujiu station. Ashing out still took place at the west end of the station.

The diesel was used on all trains to or from the CNR exchange sidings at Meitian and also on some internal workings between Wujiu and Sankuang or Shengli Kuang. It would usually deliver empties to the small yard just north of Shengli Kuang and collect the loaded wagons from the same place, leaving the SY to shunt them under the loader. On at least one occasion the diesel performed the shunting as well. We had hoped that the SY might work trains between the yards at Shengli Kuang and Wujiu but we only saw this happen on two occasions, once in each direction. The rest of the time the wagons for Shengli were worked directly to or from Meitian by the diesel. Likewise the diesel worked empties for Sankuang from Meitian to Wujiu where steam took over, propelling the wagons tender first uphill to Sankuang and returning chimney first downhill with the loads, which would be diesel hauled from Wujiu to Meitian. We were also aware that the diesel had been to Sankuang overnight on at least one occasion. The timing of trains varied considerably from day to day and depended mainly on when CNR delivered empty wagons for loading. The loader at Shengli is aligned roughly north-south and activities were almost impossible to photograph between around 09:30 and 11:45. The light was best in the afternoon with few shadow problems until just before sunset. The Shengli branch appears to be fairly level and the loco didn’t have to work particularly hard when shunting the loader or moving wagons to or from the yard. Trains to Shengli usually consisted of around 50 wagons, each of which took around 4 minutes to load when things were working smoothly, so a train could be loaded in 3 to 4 hours, or it could take all day if there were problems with the loader, as there often were. Unlike some loaders, each wagon only made one pass here with coal being added or removed later at Meitian to balance out loadings.

When there wasn’t any work for the locos they returned to the shed. Even with Shengli Mine to work, as well as Sankuang, there were long periods of no activity and the operating plan seemed to change frequently and at short notice, making it risky to stray far from Wujiu when the engine had no planned work. One day there was no traffic at all and on another it was cloudy but the remaining 5 days were largely sunny. Temperatures were as low as -36C first thing in the morning but rose to a balmy -20C or so by mid- afternoon. Our driver reported -44C the day after we left and said -50 or below was fairly common in mid-winter. Wujiu isn’t the busiest or most photogenic steam operation in China but it’s probably the second best now, after Sandaoling, and it’s a nice place to visit, despite the cold. You do need patience to get the most from a visit as there’s lots of hanging about waiting for something to happen.

Sandaoling (27 November - 8 December)

We spent 11 days at Sandaoling, arriving early on the afternoon of 27 November and leaving on 8 December. Despite the dire predictions there was little evidence of significant change since last November, although there were probably slightly fewer trains overall. There were still four coal trains working in the opencast pit every day. Loading was still taking place at the blue loader at Xikeng and by electric shovel from piles of coal closer to Ba’erzhan. Trains were still going to unload at the Xuanmeichang washery and the Jianmeixian unloading point between the workshops and Nanzhan. Most importantly, the locos were still being worked hard. We saw five JS in use in the opencast mine, JS.6224, 8167, 8173, 8190 and 8225. JS.8173 replaced JS.6224 on 30 November and then JS.6224 replaced JS.8190 on 7 December. The two most capable engines, JS.8167 and JS.8225 worked throughout. Shift change still took place at Dongbolizhan between 08:30 and 09:00. The last train in would usually arrive before 08:30 and the first one out usually left around 09:00. The “passenger" continued to run as a light engine to Ba’erzhan, nominally at 08:40 but in practice as soon as the passenger (singular) turned up, often just after 08:30. It was usually back at Dongbolizhan by 09:00. The locos took water at Dongbolizhan during the shift change but coaling took place at Xikeng during the day, as determined by the loco’s needs and the availability of a front end loader to do the coaling.

Most trains loaded at the blue loader at Xikeng but the electric shovel towards the Ba’erzhan end of the Xikeng sidings loaded some trains as well. Counting from the south, the shovel loaded trains on lines 1 or 2. Locos were usually coaled on line 2. Line 3 was used by all trains to/from the blue loader. Line 4, which used to be the through line to Xibolizhan, wasn’t used by coal trains but a light engine used it to go beyond Xikeng one afternoon and returned with an assortment of wagons. The number of trains using the shovel varied considerably from one day to the next, with 4 or 5 on some days and none on others. The loader could produce anything between 5 and 10 trains between 10:00 and 18:00, usually with gap of up to 2 hours at lunchtime. The shovel often started loading at the beginning of the day’s operations and once got a train away at 10:10, earlier than anything the loader managed. However, it always seemed to finish around 16:00. After that all trains loaded at the loader. The busiest day at both the loader and shovel was the Saturday with a total of 15 loaded trains dispatched in just over 7 hours. When the management’s away the workers can get on with the job! The worst day was the first Wednesday with only 7 loaded trains in a similar period. If all went smoothly the shovel could load a train in 45 minutes compared with 25 to 30 minutes at the blue loader. All the trains we saw leave the loader went to the Xuanmeichang washery and almost all the trains from the shovel went to Jianmeixian. The first loaded train of the day usually left the pit around 10:20 to 10:40 but it was 11:30 before anything ran on one day and there was never a train out before 10:10. With four trains in service most of the time congestion was an issue, particularly if all four were shuttling between the blue loader and the washery. On numerous occasions uphill loaded trains were held at signals, sometimes because of poor regulation of empties but often for no good reason at all. In similar situations in previous years, one or even two trains would be taken out of the circuit and parked up at Dongbolizhan but all four usually remained in use this time.

We had several visits to the Nanzhan side of the operation but, as usual, it wasn’t worth the effort. Three afternoons waiting on the line to Beiquan Erjing didn’t produce a single train. The short uphill section leaving Erjing is currently a building site with all the potential positions ruined and the going away shot for empties with the shan behind looks straight into the shiniest pylons I’ve ever seen. We did see JS.8358 and JS 8366 shunting at Nanzhan. Trains to Liushuquan and Shadunzi seemed to be more frequent than before but all were worked by the DF8B diesels. DF8B.0247 and DF8B.0250 were seen in use. The through trains to Shadunzi appeared to change engines at Nanzhan for reasons unknown. The weather was remarkably good during our visit with clear skies almost the whole time. There was a cloudy spell for a couple of hours one morning, but only after the most spectacular sunrise, and we also had one cloudy afternoon but that was it for poor weather. The Tianshan were visible on all but one day and often as clear as I’ve ever seen them. Although it didn’t feel too cold (after -36C at Wujiu it probably wouldn’t), we only lost the exhaust on one train the whole time we were at Sandaoling. There were very few other photographers around most of the time we were at Sandaoling, a couple of Brits with Mike Ma and another with Jun were the only other westerners we saw. There were a few Chinese enthusiasts but generally in ones and twos and we didn’t see much of them. One large undisciplined group turned up on the Sunday morning at Dongbolizhan, after the best light had gone, and spent half an hour getting in each others way as they photted every rivet on one of the locos. I suspect a camera club rather than enthusiasts as they clearly didn’t know how to behave safely around locomotives. Fortunately they didn’t stay for long. Another large group, this time from Hong Kong, turned up on our last morning but seemed much more clued up and weren’t a problem.

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© 2017 Duncan Cotterill