I have photographed Chinese steam for over twenty years. ChinaRail steam has gone, and this year would see the last of most of the remaining industrial systems.
The trip started at Beijing Railway Museum, but next day an early morning flight was taken to Yinchuan to see the Gongwusu Local railway. Set in desperately poor surroundings, it's a stark contrast to modern Beijing. Despite just shuttling coal to China Rail sidings, there were a lot of photographic opportunities. The railway people ran their SY engine the first day and the standby JS on the second day, to give us variety.
The short distance to BaiYin turned out to be a ten-hour overnight train journey. The location wasn't deprived, but in a semi-desert area and the valley up the mines had little vegetation in late winter. The railway runs passenger trains from its own station in BaiYin. BaiYin Nonferrous Metals mines for copper, aluminium, lead, zinc, gold, silver and nonferrous metals, with a production of around 420,000 tonnes of non-ferrous metals, 3,000 tonnes of gold and 100 tonnes of silver a year. We were given the run of the whole line and workshops, apart from the mine itself. At over 7,000 feet, the crisp, sunny weather was ideal for photography. The gradients were steep, producing volcanic effects from the SY's chimneys, safety valves and cylinder drain cocks. Paths led up to high vantage points on either side of the line.
After Baiyin, Yaojie, proved a disappointment. The power plant still had a working SY, but a brand new DF7G Diesel had taken over the shuttle from the coal sidings. However, the trip looked up when we reached the Shibanxi line after flying to Chengdu and a five hour bus journey, twenty miles of which were on a rutted track ready for re-surfacing. After a good night's sleep the next three nights were at Dr Chen's hostel. Dr Chen is a lovely man and his beds and food are excellent, but he is the first to admit that his hostel (£5/night) is lacking in sophistication. However the valley is beautiful. Near Panda country and very green, it's very fertile and wetter and more cloudy than Manchester, but far prettier! The 3-foot gauge railway with C2 0-6-0 locos is quaint, built in 1946 to serve the coal mines at the top and near the bottom of the line, established in 1938 as Sino-British joint venture. China's only underground coal mine exhibition occupies an odd corner of the top mine.
Our next call was at Jiangyou to see the Local Steam Railway, there. Typical hospitality with one of their three or four SY's put in steam for us. Because of the recession, the diesel would have been enough for the day's work, but we had come to see steam. At the end of the shift we were taken to see the dumped locos, including a SY being used as a steam generator.
Next on the list was a recently discovered mining line, its one return train a day operated bizarrely by a single QJ engine, one of the last working examples of these aristocratic giants, designed for express passenger and heavy freight trains. Its condition was a credit to those who maintain it. Just before it returned with a train of empties we were ordered back to the hotel by the local chief of police, accompanied by six embarrassed Bobbies and observed by a dozen railway staff totally gobsmacked by the ranting. We were on the public roads, not trespassing and the policeman refused to give his name and number, which tells its own story. We were told that if we did not leave the area, we would be arrested and our photographic equipment confiscated, itself an illegal act, but discretion being... etc. we took the bus. I went to a nearby temple in the afternoon where our reception could not have been friendlier.
The tour concluded at the Jarlainuer open cast coal mine, almost as far north as you can get in China and on the Siberian border. The pit itself is said to measure 6km by 3.5km and be 650ft deep. In any event, it is possible to count up to 14 working galleries, in 30ft-40ft steps, so it is huge . Not long ago it had 59 working locos, but that is now down to about 23, 15-17 of which could be seen in the pit and others around the deep mine system, with a few in the workshop. Saved recently from total closure, the new company is converting the operation to lorry. Tracks are being lifted and roads built. It is obvious that the scale of working will be greatly reduced. Meanwhile, the local authority has invested in much tourist infrastructure to build on the low cost shopping trips by the Siberian Russians. Steam will finish at the end of July, so this trip was really the “last chance” to see real working steam.
Ken Geddes 12-5-2009