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Steam in China - November 2008

by Barry Buckfield

Baotou Steelworks, Gongwusu, Baiyin, Sandaoling and Shankou to Yamansu

Introduction

Accompanied by Brian Hawkins, Norman Spalding, Graham Hancock, Ray Smith and Ian Thompson, we embarked upon a tour of the north west area of China, including two locations new to us all, guided by our good colleague Mike Ma.

Five of us flew by KLM from Amsterdam on Friday 14th November, with a one and a half hour flight delay due to a technical problem. We arrived into Beijing the following day one hour late, to meet up with Mike and our sixth participant.

We failed to secure space on an earlier flight to Baotou, so had to make do using CA1122 at 20.10. The afternoon was spent at the railway museum and having a meal.
Arrival at Baotou at 21.00, before booking in to the Rungzi Hotel in town.

Baotou Steelworks, 16 November

First we made our way to the locomotive depot, where we found SY 1431, SY 1727 and SY 1748 in steam, with SY 1723 and SY 1743 dead. JS 58001 and YJ 232 were also present in dumped (preserved) condition. We were told that only six SY’s now work daily. There were no steam repairs that could be seen in the workshops.

We moved out to No.5 slag tip, where we waited until SY 1677 arrived propelling a slag train which was then tipped in spectacular fashion. Moving round to No.6 slag tip, we arrived in time to see SY 1731 arrive and undertake the same performance.

Went on to Baotou station to join Train 2635 at 14.31, for the journey to Wuhai, arriving at 20.00, we booked into the Xing-Yun Hotel.

Locomotives seen at Baotou (SYs)

Working :  SY 1431, SY 1677, SY 1727, SY 1731, SY 1748
Dead :  SY 1723, SY 1743

Gongwusu, 17 – 18 November

This was a new location for us all. We travelled the 40 kilometres from Wuhai to Gongwusu along a congested highway, to arrive at this highly industrialised area around the small town, which appeared to be dominated by coal lorries everywhere. We had learned that trains run up to Mine 3, but enquiries with the crossing keeper on this line gave us no indication and in fact we saw no workings up this line. We headed therefore to the washery which is adjacent to the China Rail yard and disused stabling point, where we found SY 0934 standing in steam. Not knowing the pattern of working, it soon became clear as SY 0934 disappeared down the line towards the new opencast pit, to we presume a loading point, as the SY soon re-appeared with a train of 14 loaded wagons making a fine spectacle as it worked hard up the incline back to the washery. In fact this was the pattern for the two days we spent here, this and trips being made to the China Rail yard with empties being returned. On the second day for instance, there were two hectic periods of activity, (with approximate timings) :-

10.30    Light Engine to loading point
10.45    Loaded train from loading point
11.00    Empties propelled to loading point
11.15    Loaded train from loading point
11.30    Loaded train to China Rail yard, 27 wagons
11.45    Empties from China Rail yard, 31 wagons
12.00    Empties propelled to loading point
12.15    Light Engine from loading point
    
14.10    Light Engine to loading point
14.25    Loaded train from loading point
14.45    Light Engine to China Rail Yard
14.55    Empties from China Rail Yard
15.10    Empties propelled to loading point
15.35    Loaded train from loading point
15.50    Empties propelled to loading point
16.10    SY 0934 Light Engine to Stabling Point from loading point
16.20    SY 0934 and JS 6251 swap duties, JS to washery
16.35    Light Engine to China Rail yard
16.45    Empties from China Rail yard

On the first day we took a look around the stabling point and workshops. From the infrastructure present, this clearly used to be a much bigger operation, but no doubt the coal lorry may well be winning the day now. However, we were fortunate to get two locomotives working during the two days we were at Gongwusu. Staff told us that there were no current plans for diesels.

Locomotives seen at Gongwusu

Working :  SY 0934, JS 6251
Dead :  JS 6249
Repairs :  JS 6250, SY 1315 (appears some work is being done to this SY, although looks a long time out of use)
Dumped :  SY 0360, SY 1053

We made our way back to Wuhai at 17.00, to join Train 2635, (hard sleepers only available), for the overnight journey to Baiyin Xi.

Baiyin, 19 – 22 November

We spent four days at Baiyin in order to make the most of the infrequent trains on the line up to Shenbutong. We stayed in the well appointed Wansheng Hotel.

On all four days, SY 2008, (really SY 0701), worked both the morning and afternoon passenger workings to Shenbutong. The morning passenger however, appeared to run some ten minutes ahead of the booked schedule, however, we did not check if the timing had changed. The time of the morning freight working to Shenbutong varied, passing Dongchanggou at 10.40, 11.50, 10.00 and 11.35 respectively over the four days, always working very hard. There appears to be a regular freight working to Sanyelian each morning, spending an hour or so shunting before returning to Baiyin. We also noted that the 16.15 passenger from Baiyin Gongsi actually departed from the carriage sidings direct to Sanyelian, effectively as empty stock. We also noted that the one coach school trains to Baiyin Xinzhan no longer ran.

At the maintenance depot, SY 0819 was undergoing repairs, whilst we were told by the depot manager that they expect to introduce diesels from 2009. From a visit here in 2005, it was noticeable that there was not so much activity around the yard at Baiyin Gongsi, however, a total of five SY’s were noted working. On the second afternoon, we made a visit to the North-West Copper Process Works, some 4 kilometres up a branch line from the Baiyin China Rail yard. We found SY 0888 in steam outside the factory, having just completed its morning shift, whilst SY 1067 was dead in the nearby shed. It appears that the SY only works in the morning and presumably takes traffic to and from the China Rail yard in Baiyin.

During the afternoon of day 4, we left the pollution of Baiyin, to make the journey to Lanzhou, where we boarded Train T295 for the overnight journey to Hami, this time thankfully, in soft class.

Locomotives seen at Baiyin

Working :  SY 0612, SY 0888, SY 0965, SY 1013, SY 1047, SY 2008 (0701)
Dead :  SY 1067, SY 1583
Repairs :  SY 0819
Stored (?) :  SY 1470
Dumped :
 
  SY 0135, SY 0139, SY 0150, SY 1097,
  JS 8021, JS 8082, JS 8224, JS 8350

Sandaoling, 23 – 26 November

We arrived at Hami during the small hours of 23rd November, picked up our local guide Mrs Gou Li and drove by minibus on the one and a half hour journey to Sandaoling arriving before sunrise, which will be at about 08.45. We booked into the basic, but clean Sanhe Hotel.

During the four days that we spent on this superb 100% steam operated system, it confirmed to us all that this railway is now the last such steam operation on the planet, apart from Jalainur at present, but my own opinion is that Sandaoling is overall, generally better than Jalainur. Over the four days here, we saw no less than 27 JS in steam and four SY.

The amazing spectacle of sunrise at Xibolizhan was to be savoured, with such constant activity. On one occasion we saw seven spoil trains each with a JS attached, standing side by side. Another afternoon spent here saw a movement to or from the opencast pit, every seven and a half minutes on average over a two hour period.

We also found a great deal of traffic coming from the deep mine at Beiquan, in the shadow of the Tianshan mountains. Similarly, trains from Nanzhan to the China Rail yard at Liushuquan were reasonably frequent, however, the pattern seemed to be that loaded trains formed of 37 wagons were single headed, (tender first), to Liushuquan and following the arrival of two loaded trains, empties loading to 63 wagons were ‘top and tailed’ by two JS for the run back to Nanzhan.

At Nanzhan, there are some some fairly major trackworks being undertaken. It appears that a line to avoid Nanzhan yard and towards Jichangzhan is being laid. In addition, a new locomotive inspection pit is being constructed, with some new associated buildings, to replace the current locomotive servicing facility in the yard.

At the locomotive servicing depot and workshops at Nanquan, JS 6261 was undergoing an intermediate overhaul, mainly to wheels and motion, whilst in the heavy repair workshop, JS 8057 was just completing a major overhaul. Recently overhauled and repainted SY 1304 was working, looking very well presented; the cab especially appearing well looked after by its crews. In fact mechanically, all the locomotives at Sandaoling appear well maintained.

Sandaoling is a rather odd place as a coal town, as the streets are very clean and dust free, many are tree lined and even in November were still sporting green foliage. It is also noticeable that litter bins are even provided on the streets !

After our last day at Sandaoling, we headed back to Hami and booked into the plush Hami Hotel, ready to embark upon our journey the following day. We were blessed with good weather at Sandaoling, with the Tianshan mountains, particularly on the last day, being well visible and not shrouded in haze.

Locomotives seen and identified at Sandaoling

Working :
 
 
 
 
  JS 6204, JS 6205, JS 6206, JS 6208, JS 6224, JS 6430, JS 6436,
  JS 8040, JS 8055, JS 8076, JS 8081, JS 8089, JS 8167, JS 8173,
  JS 8188, JS 8189, JS 8190, JS 8193, JS 8194, JS 8195, JS 8197,
  JS 8221, JS 8222, JS 8314, JS 8358, JS 8366, JS 8368,
  SY 1304, SY 1593, SY 1720, SY 1729
Repairs :  JS 6261 (intermediate), JS 8057 (Major)
Storage Compound :
(Locomotives
stored or dumped)
  JS 5455 (dumped), JS 6203, JS 6209, JS 6210, JS 6213 (dumped),
  JS 6259, JS 8069 (?), JS 8077, JS 8078, JS 8080 JS 8225, JS 8384
  SY 0092 (dumped)
Not seen :  JS 6223, JS 8053

Shankou to Yamansu Mining Railway, 27 November

We set out from Hami eastwards along Highway 312, coming to the turning to Yamansu in under two hours. The 70 kilometre journey to Yamansu was along a fine two lane highway, with little traffic, through a desolate, but spectacular desert landscape, until we came upon the small town of Yamansu. The town consists of low rise dwellings, many of which appeared to be derelict. There appeared to be no commercial town centre, the whole community being dominated by the iron ore mine. None of our group had been here before.

We easily found the railhead and made our way to the control office on the ‘station’ at Yamansu, which was protected at its outward end by a fine row of semaphore signals. Here we found rather unkempt JS 8028 in steam, adjacent to a loaded ore train. Mike and Mrs Gou Li went to the control office and whilst the local staff were friendly, upon contact with the local manager, we were told that photography was not permitted, we could not visit the depot and the local police had instructed him to report to them if any foreigners came here. This policy was so much different when Mike was last here in 2004 with John Agnew.

However, the local staff did tell us that another JS was at Shankou and will return with empties to Yamansu. We elected to drive back to Shankou, the problem being that after about six kilometres out of Yamansu, the line disappears from view until Shankou some 35 to 40 kilometres away, there being no access to the line, which we believe is still largely unexplored. Our arrival at Shankou revealed that the empty train had left, so we raced back to Yamansu where we found JS 8152 arrived in the yard with its train. At the same time, JS 8028 was preparing to depart with its loaded train for Shankou.

We headed for the last point before the line disappears from view, a level crossing on the old road to Yamansu, five kilometres out of town. JS 8028 was heard working uphill out of Yamansu and cut off about a kilometre from the level crossing. We headed back to Shankou to await the arrival of JS 8028, which did not occur until 14.45, some one hour and 25 minutes after leaving Yamansu. Not knowing what is on the hidden section of line, one can only speculate, however, all the movements we saw all took place at a leisurely pace. Upon arrival into the China Rail yard at Shankou, as there is no CNR shunting locomotive here, JS 8028 shunted its own train to make up a bigger train ready for collection. The JS then traversed across the busy main line to gain access to another siding to collect its empties to take back to Yamansu.

Although not a spectacular location, it was interesting to see this operation, what lies along the unexplored section of line, who knows, but it could be some spectacular desert scenery, is anyone willing to spend the time here to explore, with such low traffic levels ?

At 15.30 we drove back to Hami for a meal in town and later joined overnight Train T296 to Lanzhou, after having my suitcase searched by station security for a toothpaste dispenser !

Locomotives seen at Yamansu

Working :  JS 8028, JS 8152

We arrived into Lanzhou at 11.38 on 28th November and after a meal drove out to the airport, some 70 kilometres away, for the 15.10 flight back to Beijing and transfer to the overpriced Sino-Swiss Hotel.

Beijing, 29 – 30 November

Free day in Beijing which also took in the plinthed SY 0610, (although numbered 866), at Top City Shopping Centre, Chengwaicheng, Fengtai and JF 2023 in the pleasant surroundings of Linglong Park.

Flight home for four of us on KL 898 back to Amsterdam on 30th November.

Conclusion

All in all a very good tour where we saw a total of 46 locomotives working, (30 x JS and 16 x SY), which is not bad for 2008. We all embarked upon this tour believing it would be our last to China, with so much internal travelling now required and with steam disappearing at a high rate, not to mention how much more expensive such tours to China are now costing, is the return available in the future now worth all the effort and cost ? A long hard thought must now be considered, but the temptation may still get the better of us !

Barry Buckfield
12th December 2008

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