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RyPN Articles June 1, 2006
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Smorgasbord of Steam, Second Serving

Anybody who thinks the age of steam is over in China is welcome to their opinion, but my experience in March of 2006 was again a smorgasbord of steam. True enough, it can no longer be enjoyed Lazy Susan style the way it was last year. Good steam locations are getting fewer, and further apart, and more work and travel are required all the time. However, it is still worth it to some of us. Not only that, but it looks like it will be worth it for a few more years yet. Like last year, this trip started in Beijing (if you don't count flying from Denver), but all but one of the locations visited were different. They will be presented in chronological order, and observations will be mostly confined to the admittedly narrow perspective of steam locomotives and taking pictures of them. That is not to say that nothing interesting happened in between photo shoots.....

One of the very last active members of class JF in the enginehouse at the February 27th Wagon Works, near the now closed Dahuichang narrow gauge on the edge of Beijing.

March 16 --- Feb 27th Wagon Works in Beijing. Nobody has ever had a kind word for this place, for good reason. Not only did they charge us 200 Yuan per person to go inside and photograph their dead JF, but they gave our guide a hard time, and limited our visit to 40 minutes. One of us was not allowed to take video, and another was prohibited from smoking outdoors in the engine shed area. This last even though there were two SYs working and a steam crane fired up, and cutting torches in use.... oh yea, maybe the JF will be back in service sometime in May. This is the least hospitable place I have visited in China. While I insisted on coming here because I just had to photograph their JF, I can probably live without a repeat visit, and most people could probably live without coming here in the first place. If you have a little time to kill in Beijing, the Dahuichang narrow gauge is still available for private steam locomotive rentals. They are nice folks, and your business might help to extend the life of these little engines.

Unusual dual headlight SY 0732 is another of the Feb 27th Wagon Works locomotive fleet.

QJ killers. DF something diesels. I could look up the model numbers and road numbers easily, but who cares ?? Much as I hate to admit it, these things do an excellent job, and the guys working on them are all nice and clean instead of greasy, dirty, wet, and slimy. --- As luck would have it, this was the best picture I got on one of the great steam lines remaining, the Pingdingshan Coal Railway. Between the fog, the smog, and what sunlight there was being from the wrong direction, many visitors besides myself have had a hard time getting decent pictures here. But, there's more to life than train pictures....

March 17, 18, and morning of March 19 --- Pingdingshan. Mostly cloudy skies, but great action observed with five brightly painted QJ Killers, gobs of busy JSBs, two SYs, and poor old QJ 6450 working as the shop switcher. Crews were extremely nice, even though a driver was recently fired because he let a visitor run the engine. Cab rides were no problem, but please keep in mind that any employee on this or any other Chinese railroad needs his job worse than any of us need a souvenir or a chance to drive. Admission to restricted areas was 100 Yuan (about $12 USD) per visitor per day, and well worth it.

PDS is unique because it is the only place where all three of the remaining standard China Rail steam classes still work together. Badly beat up QJ 6450 with a four axle tender is the shop switcher nowadays. Here she spots a JS with non-functioning air brakes.

Her crew are 30+ year veterans, and like almost every railroader that I met in China, they are happy and proud of their craft. Fortunately, QJ 6450 ran out of coal on the second day of my stay, so we had to take a little cruise out to the nearest coal mine and top off. Otherwise, I'd have only gotten to ride her for a few meters.

Inside the adjacent running shop, are a JS getting a boiler wash, and standby QJ 6690.

The backshop holds two JSs getting new tubes, and a third which is getting a complete overhaul. This is still a busy shop during the week on day shift, despite recent photographs which appeared to indicate otherwise.

Pistons fitted with new rods and rings are probably not sitting in this spot anymore.

Same for these freshly faced off driving boxes and pony truck bearings.

It looks to me like they are planning to keep some steam engines around for a few more years.

For some time now, everybody has been wondering if this will be the last engine to get the whole enchilada.

Late model JS can be distinguished easily by the roller bearing tender trucks and Laird crossheads. You know, I didn't quite manage to get a picture of any of the dozen plus engines I saw working when they were actually pulling a train, smokestack first in decent light. The time of year with the clearest weather is the end of February/beginning of March for this Henan Province area.

Central Station in the town of Pingdingshan has passenger workings going in both directions. JS 8030 waits to take one of the 3 times daily trains west to Baofeng, while east end power SY 1687 is just barely visible in the distance sitting clear of the main line.

Earlier JS class have Alligator crossheads and friction bearing Andrews tender trucks. Even though I don't have any dramatic sunny action shots from PDS, It was well worth a visit, and is well worth another someday if I can swing it. Everybody who goes there loves it, and thinks the people there are first rate, too.

I'll let this muddy overcast shot get by because it gives you some idea of the shift change parade at the locomotive shop. Estimates vary, but PDS has at least 16 active JSs, 2 active SYs, and 2 active QJs. The two QJs I saw did very little, but there are several recent reports that another QJ or two works the branch running north to Yüzhou mine. These particular members of the species are said to be genus deflectorless. Maybe if I'd been a little smarter, I could have found out for myself....

Located near Pingdingshan in Henan Province is the adorable Yinghao Coal Railway. The last train of the week coasts into the junction of Xianyang with a string of empties on Sunday afternoon.

Light engines are stationed here to pull loads up the short, steep branch from the mine at Liangwa. Sometimes these turns doublehead, but not today. This must have been a sharp looking little outfit when it was built in 1962. Just IMAGINE the track repaired, raised, and leveled, and all the bricks and broken tiles patched up in all the buildings, and all the engines painted up real pretty....

This is the little classification yard, and one leg of a tiny little wye track built in a Rice field behind the station building splits off from the main line at lower right.

March 19 --- Yinghao. One empty coal train and a few light engine movements were all we saw, but it was still fantastic. The workshops were busy with running repairs and one engine being built "brand new" from the best old parts of the many old C2s that could be found laying around. Most employees were making new mine supports and repairing mine machinery.

Everything is crooked and catty-wumpus about this little line nowadays, including 28 tons of rolling wreckage carrying #15.

This is the inside of the workshop compound at Huangmen, which must have resembled the shops of the Salzkammergut Lokalbahn when it was new!! This engine still runs, but she looks just like the various nonfunctioning ones....

Even on Sunday afternoon, there was a pretty good crew working on a "brand new engine made out of old pieces."

The machine shop and welders were busy with locomotive repairs and mine machinery as well.

Some new injectors went onto the brand new engine made out of old parts.

So far as I know, the C2 0-8-0 is the only Chinese class to have roller bearing rods.

Reports in QJ country state that this engine is now working as #04.

Used tube sheets... maybe storm drain grates of the future??

I just can't help thinking that I could get one of these in my garage.

Road engine #15 takes water while #13 shuffles back to the shop.

This driver looks like he's glad he doesn't work in one of those underground coal mines. The people here are as friendly as they look.

Yinghao Coal Railway may be in a dirt poor area, and about to close, and going broke, but it's charm is undeniable. Somewhere in all that corrosion it says engine #13.

Plenty more old parts available for construction of new locomotives. The old sand tower still works adequately.

For those who understand, no explanation is necessary. For those who don't, none is possible....

Everything is here --- two engine houses, machine and welding shops, material storage, basketball backboard, motorcycle parking, and Chinese flag.

March 20 --- Yinghao wasn't running trains Monday morning because the mine wasn't working. Instead, the coal was moving by truck, so we left there early and stopped at Yima on our way to Xingyang. The small open pit mine was very abandoned, and the workshops and yard looked pretty desolate. Water was dripping from the standpipe, and one track had the rust rubbed off it, so I think an engine was working somewhere nearby. We didn't waste time looking for it because Xingyang was working, and what a beautiful little line that is !! Of course, the trick is to get there on a sunny day.... when the trains are running.

The other narrow gauge treasure in Henan Province is the brick works railroad located at Xingyang. The line is only a mile or two long, but has the most beautiful scenery you could ask for. The track twists and turns in every which direction so that a person could take advantage of different light angles all day long. Of course, I didn't get much light here, either, but the aqueduct which supplies the Canola fields behind it would be in deep shadow on a sunny day.

This line is becoming famous for its arch bridge, spanning a publicly accessible fishing hole. It is one place where you most definitely do not need to pay any entrance fee or obtain special permission for taking train pictures. They can only demand that if you enter the brick factory itself. You can again spend all day here shooting all angles from both sides of this bridge. Trains run every hour or so, and you can climb the bluffs on the east side of the lake if that appeals to you. Mostly I just watched the train, and that was a very pleasant experience without fooling with my camera.

This is their pit track and freight yard. Hard to tell it, but this was a nice little piece of railroad once upon a time, with concrete ties, signals, and some fancy brick retaining walls and arches in the deep cut. I suppose it must be admitted that appreciation of scenes like this is far from universal.

This is pretty universal, though --- a seat by the window with a whistle , throttle, reverser, and brake handle all located within easy reach. What I haven't figured out is why Chinese narrow gauge engines drive on the right like ours, but the standard gauge power drives on the left....

This is one of the unloading points on the city end of the Xingyang line. The other end is a swampy clay pit, located on the far side of the big bridge. Anybody who visits Pingdingshan should try to visit here and Yinghao also. The weather should be favorable (or not) for all three during the same season.

March 21 --- We stayed in Xingyang until mid day. Without going into all the details, we rode China Rail from Zhengzhou to Shenyang, and had some time to kill before catching our next train to Mudanjiang. This has to be at least a 1000 mile trip because Mudanjiang is clear over by the Russian border, near Vladiovostock. Again, I hate to admit it, but it's probably worth it to fly when you have these great distances separating steam locations --- the extra expense is offset by the fact that staying away from home costs money per diem, anyway. That being said, China Rail runs a fine railroad, with plenty of comfortable passenger trains, and it's a lot more fun that flying. It also does my heart good to see so many people riding the train.

March 22 --- I'm pleased to report that Sujiatun Steam Locomotive Workshop is still working, but there are many less employees now, and the place is deathly quiet compared to last year. Three SYs were being repaired, and Fuxin SY 1012 had been finished and all dolled up, and was locked inside the little shed. Access was no problem, and the hostlers cheerfully ran the GJ tank engine a little bit for us, even though they weren't going to use her until after we left. Fuxin is reported closed now, with 20,000 people out of work in the mines there. Again, the light was lousy, so I spent my time talking to the hostlers and riding on the engine. For pictures taken at this location last year in better times and with better light, please go to the first installment of this article.

Every time I travel somewhere for steam locomotive photography, I have certain pictures I would like to get. This is just about the only time in my life that one of these schemes has worked out just as I planned. See above. Built in Datong in 1970 and 1974, these two QJs at the Mudanjiang power plant were probably the oldest remaining in service in 2006, and both featured high deflectors, four axle tenders, and classy brass number plates.

Even when they're not doing anything, QJs make it look impressive. Early in April, both of these majestic locomotives were reported out of service.

March 23 --- Mudanjiang. For 300 Yuan per visitor, we were allowed to enter the premises of the power station and provided with an official chaperone and company vehicle. Our visit was only supposed to be for 40 minutes, but they relaxed that a bit, permitted cab rides, and even took us back to the engine shed when the light suddenly improved so that I could get a nice shot of their two very early QJs side by side waiting for something to do. By the time anybody sees this, the rented China Rail QJ killer is probably already there, and they will have finished for good. Both QJs were used during our visit, but mostly for one car moves. The cement works also charged us 300 Yuan apiece to view their one live QJ. No babysitter or vehicle was included, but cab rides were. There was really nothing for the engine to do at the time we were there, but the crew made a few moves over to the water crane and back to spot just to be nice. The news here is that the QJs will not be replaced with a diesel because the cement factory will be closed before too long.

In general, heavy industries in China do not let train photographers inside the compound. Both the industries visited in Mudanjiang charged a high entrance fee and offered very little action. But, they were nice to us and they made sure that we were taken care of, and only one of the two still had steam running by the time I got home. I'll gladly do it again if I ever get the chance, and if not, it's been good.

Under all the dirt and grease and scuzz beats the heart of a majestic QJ.

Two of the four service tracks full of SYs starting day shift at Chengzihe station, of the Jixi Coal Administration.

March 24, 25, and morning of 26 --- JIXI. The city of Jixi is a few hours drive from Mudanjiang, and is surrounded by coal mines and a network of very businesslike industrial railroads which use SYs exclusively. This place has it going on, yes it does. Stay here for a week if you can. Plenty of track speed train miles, free access to the right of way, some trains doubleheaded, a few with pushers, and friendly crews on all parts of the system. This may change soon because they are supposed to be setting up a permit system similar to the one at Tiefa. Already some of the workshop leaders are watching the crews closely, so don't be too eager to ride or drive the engines. The guys are as nice to us as they can get away with. This system is definitely worth paying to see, although we were too cheap to cough up $50 each in American greenbacks just to visit the workshops. Probably it will seem more attractive as more steam lines close.... A real treat was the freshly overhauled SY 1437, decorated splendidly for the Young Pioneers. In the China Rail compound, Iron Bull QJ 6800 was off limits, and the guards told us that we needed to get permission to visit her (I guess that should be HIM) from the Harbin office of the China Rail Police. At least they are jealously guarding him.

First in, last out.

Many Jixi engines have decorations, including these. SY 1351 and SY 1437 swap empties and loads at Xinghua mine on the Chengzihe system

Unfortunately, I didn't get to stay in any of these places long enough to begin to figure out the scheme of operations and learn my way around. After repeatedly giving out the advice to stay longer in each location and visit fewer of them on a single journey, I always do the opposite. At Zhengyang mine, the switch tender cranks a power switch over by hand for sparkling SY 1437.

Despite rumors to the contrary, Jixi looks like they plan to use steam for a little while yet. Decorations honor the Young Pioneers communist party youth group.

At Qiaonan station in the afternoon, we caught SY 1437 on another turn, this time with helper SY 0863.

Before the coal load can leave, a cut of empties has to clear the plant. I should have tried some pictures inside the Qiaonan operators office, showing the Desktop PC dispatching working alongside ancient telephones, telegraphs, and signals. We had to take our shoes off in there, but the guys again couldn't have been nicer.

Back at the Chengzihe service tracks, the engines have just returned from day shift, and the night shift firemen are getting their power ready.

A little later, the driver grabs the gangway railing with his grip slung over his shoulder, and takes charge of the locomotive. Then this place got real busy with lots of people carrying lanterns and lights, and it started snowing, so I gave it up after shooting half a roll. That's why they have bars in hotels.

The next day we had bad weather until just before sunset. Usually there are coal pickers with donkey carts at this coal washery, but it was too cold and windy for everybody except the one poor lady in the background.

The weather cleared up after dinner so I decided to photograph the last part of shift change instead of the beginning. There were only one or two flood lights functioning in between the yard tracks. It was so dark down there, that I thought that all of the engines had already left. Finally I saw them after getting within about half a car length from the first SY out. It just so happens that I showed up right as SY 237's driver tried her headlight.

Then, it was the guy in front of him trying his backup light. Shortly after that, we tried the bar again....

This is the station and yard of the Hengshan system, which has a half dozen or so engines based there. These empties are being doubleheaded as a way of cutting down train movements for simpler signaling, and for collision prevention purposes, rather than because of tonnage.

Located a few hours drive from Jixi is the world renowned Huanan Coal Railroad, a narrow gauge built as a logging line which now serves the coal mines in a national forest area.

This is said to be the best narrow gauge in China, and the light was the best I had on my trip so far, but nothing was moving, and nobody was around.

Apparently, coal car bodies have been fitted with disconnect trucks having drawbars linking them underneath the center sills.

This would be some picture with an engine on the turntable, wouldn't it ?? The ones locked in the shed were all fixed up and painted nice, too, not rust buckets like some of my favorite lines use...

I should have stayed in Jixi another day, but if I had, I'd think I missed something for the rest of my life by not coming here. You know they would have had an engine working....

March 26 --- Huanan was closed, all locked up, nobody around, so we continued on to Hegang. This is another system like Tiefa and Jixi which provides coal for the parent city's power plant. It is located relatively close to Jixi and Huanan, so it is logical to visit these three lines in succession.

Hegang has plenty of both steam and electric action, and passenger trains, but of course the weather had turned sour on me again. This turn connects the Fuli mine with Jipei station.

A person could do very well by spending a little time on the platform in Jipei station. It's a world class train watching spot, unless you like diesels.

March 27 --- On the whole, Hegang was great, but it would be better for pictures on a sunny day. Access was no problem, employees were friendly, and there was plenty of serious action, both steam and electric. No QJ killers here, or at Jixi, either. I'd love to try it again someday. But after only a couple of hours, it was time for the long haul to Harbin, and then up by the Russian border to Zhalainouer. Not very good planning on my part.

Walking down the steps from the headquarters building to the bottom of the open pit coal mine at Zhalainouer, this is the first level with a lot of rail traffic. The little building is station 510, dispatching center for this operation, and waiting point for the employee passenger trains which descend far below.

This place gets pretty close to serving steam to you Lazy Susan style, considering it's 2006. There are usually at least two dozen engines all going at once within an area of 3 or 4 square miles!!!

March 28 and 29 --- ZHALAINOUER!!!!! I can't rave enough about this place. To begin with, the access fee was a very nominal one time charge of 100 Yuan for as long as you can stay. Everybody there, management and employees alike, was as nice as they could be. The pit itself looks to me like pictures of the Panama Canal construction project, and I counted as many as 16 trains visible working at one time. No QJ killers here, either, but maybe 40 SYs work the various systems, and at least half a dozen steam cranes, including two that fill the coaling stations. Again, the trick is to hit it on a sunny day, and it sure helps if the ground is still frozen, too. Most trains are wagons first or tender first, but there is so much going on that a person can cherry pick what he wants to photograph. In fact, nobody could cover it all, anyway. I was able to get repeated run bys of engine first passenger, track laying, coal, and rock trains. The track laying train had a steam crane and one of the work trains had three air dumps and a caboose. The trick is to find the little blue and red signs at the terrace levels which mark the workers paths up and down the sides of the pit. While the train of your dreams is sawing back and forth over the switchbacks, you can easily get ahead of it as it descends or climbs the mine trackage. The workshops was something else again, too, with two overhauls in progress, and a busy running repair shed. The machine shop had at least thirty employees running the usual complement of wheel lathes, turret lathes, engine lathes, vertical and horizontal mills, boring mills, radial arm drills, a couple of Bullards (Chinese version, of course), etc. What was amazing is that every machine was going at once, including three shapers. They say the coal is running out, so this operation will close in a few more years. Don't miss it. You can see it all in a day, but give it a week if you get the chance.

The light died on me just about the time we made it to the mine, walked down a few thousand steps, got our cameras out, and the first train showed up, so we climbed back up the way we had come, and went back over to the locomotive shop.

The running shop was on one side of the machine shop, and had three hot engines in it every time I checked.

Next door was the busiest steam locomotive repair shop I've ever seen, ever. I couldn't get all the shapers inside a single frame, but this gives you an idea.

This is the same arrangement they use at PDS for superheaters, flues, and tubes. This engine was pretty much getting the full treatment, only they hadn't taken the boiler off the frame.

In another separate hall entirely was a second SY getting pretty much the full treatment.

Nobody seems to be killing themselves. The old heads know that just slows you down....

Probably there are more active steam engines in a smaller area in Zhalainouer than anywhere else on earth.

The sun came out that afternoon for an hour or so while we visited Nanzhan service tracks.

There were only three or four locomotives there at a time, but the activity was constant.

Nowhere else on this trip did I see a steady stream of engines taking coal and water, sand and grease, getting their rods knocked and their fires cleaned, just like they used to the old days. And the coaling tower was provisioned by a steam crane, from a pit kept filled by cuts of air dumps brought up from the mine...

All through this trip, I had been skunked every time I tried to get a decent picture of a passenger train except for once at Hegang. This view of the morning shuttle was taken on my last day before returning home, as it returned from the bottom of the pit after dropping off the workers. It was to be the best steam passenger train chase of my life, ever.

Of course, I worked myself to death, running up and down and all around the mine without learning my way around first. Probably I could have stayed in one spot and gotten all these trains with less effort. Lucky that my old, out of shape legs didn't give out !!

Less than a fourth of the open cast operation shows in my pictures. I never made it to the bottom of the pit or to the south end switchbacks and ladder tracks. There are also several connecting lines which serve underground mines, and which would be fun to explore, and the yards where the coal railroads interchange with China Rail.

At any one time there were several construction trains with steam cranes constantly modifying and maintaining the complicated web of tracks.

Getting around was relatively easy because the ground was still frozen, but it was dry and pretty much clear of snowdrifts. They tell me this place gets awful cold in the middle of winter. Sounds believable. Glad I missed it.

The variety of available photo angles is great, even if the landscape mostly has a lunar look to it. Tracks face every possible direction, allowing favorable light angles at any time of day somewhere in the open pit.

Working from the terraces, only trains on the first level or two below me would be visible.

Power poles and signals are placed on stands like Christmas trees, so they can be repositioned easily. Employees have a system of trails and stairs cut into the vertical walls which allow them to quickly move between locations on different levels. One of these is in the foreground marked with the standard sign shown below.

Back up on station 510 level, this work train heads for Nanzhan to tie up.

Once again, if you want to believe that it's all over for steam in China, go right ahead. I wouldn't care to trade places with you.

There always has to be a last picture on any trip, and this looks like it to me. Of course I'm indebted to all the railroad employees of every location visited (except one) and China Rail for a successful and enjoyable trip. Special credit must go to my very excellent guide, Mr. Xuejun Liu. He has a website featuring his best photographs of Chinese steam locations presently active, and with information on arranging visits to them.