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Steam in China, February, March 2010

by Dave Fielding

Part 1: Baiyin, Sandaoling

Another year, another trip … with an eye on possible developments at Sandaoling, initial thoughts were for January but circumstances ruled this out. My thoughts were then to either try for February with someone to share costs or book on a later organised tour. Both of the later options by tour operators got cancelled and I was not having success finding anyone to join me so I was grateful when Mike Ma passed on my e-mail address to John and Kevin Miller who were very interested in visiting China again. Mike had earlier stressed that to avoid travel problems, our trip should avoid Chinese New Year (13th - 19th February) and John and Kevin booked their flights out from London Heathrow for 25th February but despite this we still had problems due to the Lantern Festival which marks the real end of the New Year.

The trip started well for me. I fly from Birmingham, UK, and the best offer was out with Air France and return with KLM. However, the day before departure, I found a recorded message on my phone from Air France to say that due to a strike by French air traffic controllers, my flight had been cancelled and I was now booked with KLM (logical as Air France/KLM are now a single airline). Excellent, I much prefer KLM and would have booked both ways with them anyway if I could have found the right price. Guess which airline once got me to Beijing without my bag …

February 26 I arrived at Beijing Terminal 2 earlier than expected but Mike was soon there to check I'd made it before he collected John and Kevin off their BA flight at Terminal 3. Currency exchange at Terminal 2 arrivals has changed and my favourite Agricultural Bank, along with other banks, were no longer present. The choice was between a single bureau authorised by the Bank of Beijing or a man working out of a suitcase. I chose the bureau which seemed to offer an excellent rate of exchange, but then stung you for 6% commission which went unadvertised in advance.
We had time for a visit to the Railway Museum, for which I was unprepared, otherwise I could have checked which pictures I was missing before leaving home. Certainly the tiny narrow gauge (600mm?) 0-4-0T on its plinth outside was new to me as was the MG1 2-6-0 from Datong inside the building. John and I both purchased copies of a photo album, The Last Steam Locomotives in China by Kong Xianke published in 2008, 116 pages, reasonably priced at RMB 160.

We were back at the airport for a meal and boarding time of 17:00 for flight MU 2416 to Lanzhou. There, we soon transferred to our transport to Baiyin, these days using an expressway with little traffic and by 22:00 we were checked into the Wansheng Hotel, the one opposite the fire station.

Baiyin, February 27, 28

February 27 The first day being a Saturday, there were no Sanyelian passenger trains, so we took our transport, now displaying behind its windscreen our permit with a background picture of SY 2008, to the well known photo position near Dongchanggou halt for the Shenbutong passenger. On our way we passed a new check point with barrier on the road up the valley, shortly after the level crossing over the railway. Around 8:20 SY 1470 passed us with 6 coaches on the 7:50 from Baiyin Shi due to arrive at Shenbutong at 8:30. The train returned departing at 9:10 passing Tiejiang Shi station at 9:30. This is the station south of Sanyelian that, checking SY-Country's maps, is more usually referred to as Liugongli. With SY 1470 returning tender first, it was noted that the "symbolic bird" emblem of the Baiyin Non-ferrous Metal Company appears not only on the sides of the tender but also on the rear below the loco number. After talking to the staff at the station, Mike passed on the unwelcome news that a new diesel had arrived and would be working the empty ore tippers to Shenbutong. In addition, a second, more powerful, diesel was expected shortly.

Sure enough, at 9:55, the empty tipper train passed and we had our first sight of GKD1A 0206, in blue livery, looking as new as a loco can look. Normality returned at 11:00 when SY 1581 passed tender first on 4 wagons to the factory at Sanyelian, but 10 minutes later the diesel returned heading the loaded ore tipplers to the processing plant at Baiyin.

At midday, the diesel and SY 0965 were parked below the offices at the north side of Gongsi yard. Closer inspection showed that the "symbolic white bird on a red background" emblem had been discontinued for the new diesel, instead the cab side was lettered all in white, BNMC, accompanied by some stars and a sweeping curve with the Chinese script for Transportation Department underneath. It was also decorated with some small bows of red ribbon to welcome it to its new home.

At 12:30, SY 1581 arrived back at Gongsi from Sanyelian with 3 wagons. From the suspension bridge SY 0612 could be seen as the only engine at the side of the workshop. Around 14:00 activity restarted, SY 0965 dropped down to shunt the North West Aluminium Smelter and both SY 1581 and the diesel were shunting tank wagons. At 14:20, SY 1047, the least smart loco seen, arrived light engine from the south and after climbing the curve, paused for its fire to be raked out on the depot approach. It then entered the depot on the coaling road where SY 1470 was passing time waiting for its next passenger duty. So 15 minutes later the pair emerged to enable SY 1470 to depart and pick up the passenger stock to work from Gongsi to Baiyin Shi and then the 15:15 to Shenbutong. Meanwhile SY 1047 returned to the coaling road. At 14:50 SY 0965 brought some wagons out of the North West Aluminium Smelter and then proceeded light engine to Sanyelian. Unfortunately, I was not in position to take a good picture of SY 1470 on its second working of the day to Shenbutong. However, the sun was just right for pictures of SY 0965 shunting the factory sidings across the small river north of Sanyelian, if you like that sort of thing which I do.

February 28 Our second day being a Sunday, again there was no train to Sanyelian. Unlike the previous day the sun did not make an early appearance. Again we set off for Dongchanggou halt but the light was not good and I restricted myself to video. Today was the Lantern Festival marking the end of the Chinese New Year. We had intended to be in Baiyin for three days, but there appeared to be problems concerning our train tickets from Lanzhou to Hami on the following day. We went back to our hotel for some r. and r., Mike being busy on the phone. Mike and our driver let off some fireworks outside our hotel. At 10:30, Mike said we should pack our bags and he would know at midday what we were to do next.

The weather was now nice and sunny and at 11:30 we checked out of the hotel. Mike said CITS of Lanzhou had originally obtained train tickets for us to travel on the following day but we had subsequently been "gazumped" in favour of the Chinese Army so we would be leaving today. As our visit had not included a weekday, we were prevented from visiting the workshop and seeing inside the depot as both were locked up over the weekend.
Fortunately Duncan Cotterill visited shortly after us from March 8th to 13th, and his report includes all the information we missed. We returned to Gongsi for our remaining time and as on the day before noted four SY at work, the fourth being 1583, which was shunting a now rarely seen brake van, rather than 1047. GK1C 0427, assumed to belong to the 805 Military Factory, appeared in Gongsi yard. After the last four fireworks had been set off near the city centre we set off for Lanzhou around 15:00.

Locos seen:

SY 0612

At side of workshop, not in use

SY 0965

Working afternoon freight to Sanyelian factory on 27th

SY 1047

Working (light engine from south to depot)

SY 1470

Working Shenbutong passenger

SY 1581

Working morning freight to Sanyelian factory on 27th

SY 1583

Working (arrived at depot from south pushing brake van)

GK1C 0427

Assumed to belong to 805 Military Factory

GKD1A 0206

Working ore tippers

SY 1581 shunting at Gongsi.
 

SY 0965 prepares to return from Sanyelian factory sidings to Gongsi.
 

SY 1470 pulls into Liugongli on the afternoon return passenger train from Shenbutong.
 

February 28, March 1 - Lanzhou to Hami, the long way round
When we arrived at Lanzhou, the local CITS presented us with soft sleeper tickets on overnight train K9667 to Dunhuang(!) departing at 17:56, with promise of a luxury car to take us on to Hami. So even by leaving a day early, CITS of Lanzhou had failed to come up with rail tickets direct to Hami. After what seemed a very slow journey of 1133 km we arrived at Dunhuang at 8:20. The city is famous for its cave paintings, and now infamous to us for being a long way from Sandaoling. Don't reach for a map, let's just say the branch to Dunhuang leaves the main line to Ürümqi at Liuxi, around 360 km short of Hami and heads off south west for 160 km.

After a breakfast of beef noodle soup, we set off in our "luxury car" along route 215, heading north east through scrubby desert in sunny, clear weather until we reached route 312. This is the main road from Lanzhou to Ürümqi, and we could now head north west along it towards Hami. By 13:30 we still had over 120 km to go and it was another two hours before we reached a roundabout on the outskirts of Hami where we transferred to a locally provided Transit bus for transport during our visit. So the best CITS of Lanzhou had been able to substitute for the overnight train T295 to Hami had cost us 9 hours. I looked back to my trip to Sandaoling in February 2007, another occasion when an alternative to the overnight train had to be found. An overnight bus was used, departing 20:45, comfortable enough to catch up on missing sleep and which arrived at Hami at 11:30, four hours sooner than the Dunhuang train and connecting car.

Sandaoling, March 1 – 4

March 1 By 16:50 we were passing Liushuquan, no sign of steam, but a green DF4 at each end of the yard. Were these the second hand diesels that had arrived? The answer came as we followed the connection from Liushuquan towards Nanzhan as a very non-industrial looking blue and white diesel approached with a train load of coal. Mike informed us the Chinese lettering on the side of the loco read Luan (or Lu'an?) An Xinjiang Coal Company and our digital pictures identified it as a DF8B.

Our spirits soon recovered when we got to Nanzhan. In superb light, with the Tian Shan clearly visible in the background, we could picture JS 8189 arriving on loaded coal from the Beiquan deep mines. Behind us, Nanzhan's SY 1729 was apparently shunting wagons, but then, most unexpectedly, it set off with a train of loaded wagons towards Liushuquan. Of course we all know it never does this, but only works to and from the mines. Anyway we weren't in the right position so don't have any pictures to prove it. Meanwhile, JS 6204 shunted a single wagon into the factory yard from the short line that runs over the level crossing alongside the line to the deep mines. Then, half an hour apart, two JS hauled trains of empties departed for the deep mines. Just a pity the trains weren't combined as in Rick Coles' more recent picture. Ten minutes later the diesel returned from Liushuquan with a long train of additional empties, SY 1729 coupled to the rear having a free ride. After another fifteen minutes, JS 8053 brought another loaded train from the mines. So despite our delayed arrival, we were in time for a very busy period of activity, with opportunity for excellent pictures.

March 2 On our first full day, we left the hotel at 8:00 before dawn, and stopped down a side street for breakfast of excellent "ground beef" in an unleavened bread bun. This meant our arrival at Xibolizhan was too late for any chance of "golden dawn" shots. Here there were 8 JSs on spoil tippers, being watered and coaled, and JS 6261 on the spreader. At 9:10, SY 1593 arrived on the workmen's train, and after a brief halt departed back east. I think this must have been the return run back to Dongbolizhan. We left at 10:45 for Nanzhan.

Passing the unloading point for coal from the pit, it appeared the embankment had been extended. This was presumably necessary to allow the coal trains from the new conveyor belt fed loading point being hauled, rather than, as in the past, when coal trains from the pit had been propelled. At Nanzhan four diesels were present, DF8B 0247-0250. Mr. Fu, from the Coal Company, later informed us that they were second hand and to buy new would have been 60% more expensive. Two JSs were at the servicing point and JS 8053 was shunting but there were no wagons in the yard, so we left Nanzhan for a position overlooking the double track section used by coal trains to and from the pit.
The trains observed were:
13:10, JS 6436 propelling loads out of pit.
13:30, JS 6436 returns from unloading.
13:50, JS 8040 heading coal out of pit smokebox first, although the first 5 wagons were empty, only the remaining 6 were loaded.
14:35, trains into and out of the pit cross. JS 8040 returning from unloading held by signal at end of connecting single track from Nanzhan. After quite some time, tender first JS 8221 hauling a loaded train appeared from the pit to be held on the double track below us. Again some delay before JS 8040 got a signal change to move off into the pit and was out of sight before JS 8221 was signalled to restart its train towards Nanzhan. It seemed to take time for the signalling system (or footplate crews) to react to changed situations.
14:55, JS 8190 was a second smokebox first hauled loaded train from the pit.

At 16:05 we were at the opencast coal unloading point for Nanzhan washery to see JS 8040 and train arrive. The whole train was pulled over the unloading point with the last wagon the first to be tipped, and then 8040 reversed slowly tipping each wagon in turn. After 10 minutes unloading was complete and 8040 propelled its train back to the pit. We carried on to Nanzhan. The yard was almost empty apart from a short string of the wagon type without side doors. All four diesels were present. JS 8358 was moving light engine onto the track to the servicing point where JS 8189 and JS 6204 were stabled. There seemed to be little prospect for the late afternoon activity of the previous day so we returned to the hotel.

March 3 We left the hotel at 7:30 in the dark, a cool breeze was blowing and as dawn broke, the sky was cloudy. As we arrived at Nanzhan the cloud was thinning. Stabled were JS 8358, 8366, 6204 and SY 1729. JS 8366 was repainted, apart from the smokebox, and looked ex-works. JS 8189 and another were stabled outside the offices on the opposite side of the yard. There were no wagons in the yard and one of the diesels was missing. At 9:40 it arrived with a long train of empties. At 10:20 JS 8366 departed for the deep mines with empties, by now the sky was cloudless, but the light was not quite as clear as on the two previous days. Half an hour later JS 8189 headed a second train of empties to the deep mines.

We then visited the running shed and workshop accompanied by Mr. Fu. JS 8221 was in steam, half in, half out of the running shed, JS 6205 and JS 8081 were inside being worked on. At the rear of the shed, JS 8314, separated from its tender, was on jacks without its wheels, and with tubes removed from the boiler. In the workshop JS 8225 was having a full overhaul with the boiler off the frames. Outside the workshop was a spare JS boiler.

Mr. Fu then led us to the locomotive compound, which contained 16 JS and 2 SY, mostly long term residents. Compared with Duncan Cotterill's report of November 2009, JS 6208 which had been working from Nanzhan was now in the compound and I only noted the tender of JS 6213. More encouragingly, JS 8225 had been removed and as noted above was being given a full overhaul.

As on the previous afternoon, we took position alongside the double track leaving the pit but this time to the west of the tracks. It was very windy and quite cool, so no video to avoid the wind noise. At 15:15, JS 8190 passed smokebox first hauling a loaded train out. With no other trains appearing, we moved on to the western end of the opencast arriving at 16:00. Looking down from the south west of the pit was an excellent position for pictures of spoil trains climbing out of the pit on the northern sandy coloured face with the Tian Shan in the background. It was also fascinating to follow the path of an empty coal train using the reversing points to descend into the pit, in contrast to the large dumper trucks in the distance taking coal to the new loading point. After some time here, we moved on to the west of Xibolizhan where the lines split for the various spoil tips. We were again exposed to the cold wind and I spent some time in a room heated by a warm brazier. We stayed around until sunset, but the sun disappeared very quickly and, unlike Mike and John, I was not in position for a worthwhile "spoil train and sunset" shot.

March 4 We started at Xibolizhan, today the workmen's train was worked by a JS, and we saw it both on its outward and return journeys. Early morning shots looking eastwards, although of course not directly into the sun, were only partially successful.

We again had Mr. Fu with us, so we asked him to take us to the new conveyor fed loading point in the pit. It would have been a great mistake to have missed this. We watched a couple of trains being loaded, controlled by a red/white colour light signal on the coal hopper. It reminded me of a similar operation years ago at Pingzhuang, when a workman, precariously perched on the loading facility, signalled to the loco crew with a red and a green flag. The departure of an eleven wagon loaded train was an experience for eyes and ears, and one of the highlights of our visit. In addition to the conveyor belt to the new coal loader, another belt continues eastwards just above ground level to where a large stockpile of coal had been created using a complicated piece of "conveyor belt engineering". This stockpile had its own siding and a train there was being loaded by one of the conventional tracked bucket cranes as used in the pit to load coal and spoil trains.
Whilst here we observed:
12:50, JS 8194 on train being loaded and departing.
13:05, JS 8040 on train arrives for loading.
13:30, JS 8222 with heavy crane passed down into the opencast.
13:35, JS 8194 and train returns but continues on into the opencast.
13:45, JS 6436 propelling loaded train from the opencast.
13:55, JS 8040 completes loading of train and departs.

It was now time to be thinking of our return to Hami, but first we stopped by the communication masts for final observations on the double track section in and out of the pit.
14:40, empty train being pulled into the pit (return of JS 6436?). 15:00, JS 8040 reversing its empty train back to the pit.
15:30, loaded train headed by smokebox first JS.
We looked in at Dongbolizhan where JS 8027 and train was stabled.
Finally at Nanzhan, we noted JS 8053 propelling empty wagons to the deep mines.

Apart from the day with the cold wind, and even then we didn't suffer from any dust storms, the weather had been perfect. Despite the arrival of the four diesels, Sandaoling is unchallenged as the number one industrial steam hotspot worldwide. I don't know for how much longer, but the statement in the brochure of an English Tour Operator that the plan is to be only using six steam(?) locomotives by November seems scarcely believable. Nevertheless, doubtless there will be more changes sooner rather than later, and an eye must be kept on future developments. What's more I still haven't seen SY 1304 in action following its resurrection from the compound some time ago.

During the visit we saw 44 steam locos, of which 24 were working and 2 being overhauled:

Locos seen (working unless otherwise noted):

JS

5455(with tender of 8027)*, 6203*, 6204, 6205, 6206*, 6208*, 6209*, 6210*, 6213(tender only)*, 6223*, 6224, 6259(no tender)*, 6261, 6430*, 6436,
8027, 8040, 8053, 8055(with tender of 8193)*, 8076, 8077*, 8078, 8080*, 8081, 8089*, 8173, 8188, 8189, 8190, 8193, 8194, 8195, 8197*, 8221, 8222, 8225&, 8314@, 8358, 8366, 8368*, 8384*

SY

0092*(dumped, no works plates), 1593, 1718*, 1729
DF8B 0247, 0248, 0249, 0250
  Notes:
*out of use in compound
&workshop, boiler off frame, major overhaul
@rear of depot, boiler being retubed
The locos working from Nanzhan to the deep mines were JS 6204, 8053, 8189, 8358, 8366 and another unidentified, SY 1729.

Checking the observations, JS 8167, SY 1304 and SY 1720 were missed.

A light engine movement on a cool, still morning at Nanzhan, JS 8189 produces a fine plume of steam.
 

Alongside the line from Nanzhan to Beiquan, JS 6204 prepares to deliver a single wagon to a factory yard.
 

The late afternoon sun illuminates the Tian Shan as JS 8053 on a loaded train from the Beiquan deep mines rolls down the gradient towards Nanzhan.
 

Early morning at Xibolizhan, spoil trains prepare for the day's work.
 

A loaded spoil train climbs out of the opencast mine along its northern face.
 

JS 8040 departs with loaded train from the new conveyor belt fed coal hopper.
 

A loaded coal train heads out of the pit on the double track section ...
 

... and another, hauled by JS 8190 approaches the single track connection to Nanzhan washery.
 

We dined as usual in the restaurant opposite our hotel in Sandaoling and were in Hami in good time for soft sleepers on the 23:30, train K9781, to Ürümqi.

March 5 Arrival at Ürümqi was on time at 7:50. There was snow on the ground, but having fallen several days earlier, it did not delay flight HU 7367 at 10:00 to Chengdu where we arrived at 13:00. (Note: since our visit this flight has been retimed to depart 13:55.)

(to be continued ….)

Dave Fielding

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