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Steam in China - March 4th to March 15th, 2013

by Roger Croston

Baiyin, Wujiu, Pingzhuang, Yuanbaoshan, Fuxin

Baiyin, Monday 4th March – Thursday 7th March.
The weather was unusually warm for time of year, similar to an early English summer which resulted in no white steam condensing in the locomotives' exhausts in the afternoons. It had obviously been cold until quite recently because the river was still frozen in many sections uphill from Sanyelian northwards.

When obtaining the permit to visit the mine railway, a Baiyin Mining Company appointed "guide" seemed to be a requirement this year, although very little actual guiding was done by the guide (not that any was needed). A lady guide, wearing the latest Chinese fashion of lens-less heavy black spectacle frames, accompanied the party much of the time; always staying in or near to the minibus.

All the steam hauled passenger trains all still running at their usual morning and afternoon times (seven a day plus one empty stock movement in the afternoon). It is to be noted that the number of luxury road motor coaches has greatly increased in the last couple of years which has reduced the railway passenger train loadings. Also probably affecting railway passenger numbers in the warm weather were the many very shiny, very new mountain bikes, which were being ridden enthusiastically by mine employees from Baiyin City up and down the valley to Sanyelian and Shenbutong. Most of the cyclists were wearing the latest flashy, fashionable cycling clothing and accessories.

Freight:- in the early afternoon of March the 6th, a steam hauled freight was seen being shunted and loaded in and around the lead and zinc smelter buildings at the far end of the branch line at Sanyelian.

Additionally, as well as being shunted in the loco depot's yard, freight was seen running to and from the weighbridge and the lead / zinc smelter on the low level track running beneath the bridge which carries the mine line from the main valley to the Yin Guang factory. A couple of diesels were seen on the latter upper track. No freight at all was seen on any of the lines in the direction of the nearby copper smelter to the south from where the slag trains used to run.

Unrestricted access to nearly all areas was possible and the mine security officials were as obliging as ever, but we were informed, as usual, not to proceed beyond Dengchang Gou Halt up to Shenbutong. During our party's visit, several hills were climbed and a couple of new, decorated graves were seen not far from the line – in my opinion a good place to end one's earthly days in the vicinity of daily steam. In the gap between the afternoon passenger trains one day, it was very interesting to explore the caves cut into loess just opposite Liugongli Halt by presumed ancient troglodytes.

There is a large development of new multi-storey flats being built at the mine line's terminus passenger station in Baiyin City as well as towards the marshalling yard where a refinery / factory has been demolished since last year. Major new mine facilities and factory buildings have been constructed in the area around the loco works and in the lowest parts of the mine valley line, all of which are served by road.

Locos seen:-
SY 1013 running
SY 1047 running
SY 1470 running

SY 0612 very dead
SY 1067 dead in yard, missing smoke box door centre
SY 2008 through far side of shed, dead, being cannibalised

SY 1581 under repair
SY 1583 in workshop, axles removed, heavy overhaul and re-tyred wheel set awaiting fitting. All machinery in the workshop was sheeted over, apparently due to the heavy duty maintenance workforce having temporarily moved to work elsewhere. They were due to return to continue working on the overhaul of SY 1583 at an unknown date.

SY 1047 as she runs downhill from Liugongli with a late afternoon passenger service, passes newly planted, colourful, decorative poplar trees, as she approached China Rail (line from Baiyin City to Honghui), Monday 4th March.
 

SY 1470 heads north of Shenyelian for Dongchang Gou Halt with the morning passenger service, Wednesday 6th March.
 

In unseasonably warm weather, despite the frozen river in the background, SY 1013 departs uphill from Liugongli Halt with the first afternoon passenger service, Thursday 7th March.
 


WUJIU ("59") Mining Company, Friday 8th March – Sunday 10th March.
The next part of the trip was in the far northeast to where we flew via Peking to Hailaer, with the 'plane making what I believe is termed 'a positive landing' (like a ton of bricks) in perfect flying conditions early in the night.

Steam ended at Wujiu in December 2012 with the introduction into service of the mine's new diesel loco. However, because our trip there had been organised and booked many weeks ahead in full knowledge of the mine company, they kindly agreed to run steam during our visit to avoid disappointment and a long wasted journey. Temperatures in the day were down to a literally film snapping minus 28 Celsius.

Loco SY 1134 ran with empty coal wagons between Wujiu township and the loading points of No.3 Mine at the far western end of the 13 km line as well as to the adit No.1 Mine closer to, and northeast of the town. On occasion the loco ran light engine from No.3 Mine back to town before taking empties to be loaded at No.1 Mine. One long loaded train was delivered each day, timed on demand in the afternoons, eastward to Metianzhen township where the mine railway meets China Rail interchange for onward shipment. Arriving at Metianzhen, each train ran over a continuously live weighbridge, after which the loads in each coal wagon were balanced to the correct weight by hand shovelling and the process repeated, by reverse shunting for half a mile, two or three times until the whole train is correctly balanced. During these shunts, the exhausts were spectacular. In the early evenings, a long empty rake was taken back to Wujiu with the tender first locomotive working harder and faster, producing better exhausts than when hauling loaded trains.

On Sunday the 10th, the loco dropped off empty wagons at Shengli No.2 Mine, half way towards Metianzhen, and shunted together a loaded train before continuing on to the China Rail interchange. Loaded coal trains tended to arrive at Metianzhen at the same time as a China Rail passenger train running from Qiqihar via Jiagedaqi and Yakeshi to Hailaer and interesting photographs of the alighting and boarding passengers were taken with steam as a backdrop. The station staff were sympathetic, but also mindful of safety as they firmly but fairly requested us to keep a respectful eye on both trains' movements as, understandably, they wanted no accidents, especially not to foreign guests. They were eventually amenable to being photographed with the trains.

Locos seen:-
SY 1134 running. Built 1981
SY 1225 in shed, cold, serviceable. Built 1983
SY 1546 in shed, cold, serviceable. Built 1987

0288 diesel (big and blue).

SY 1134, with a splendid exhaust banner, approaches the continuous weighbridge at the China Rail interchange at Metianzhen station with a loaded coal train, Saturday 9th March.
 

At sunset, at the end of a day's work, as temperatures fall to a bone numbing cold, having passed Shengli No.2 Mine (in the background), SY 1134 tender first, heads a long rake of empties as she ploughs through the snow heading for home and stabling in the shed at Wujiu, Saturday 9th March.
 

In a temperature of minus 28 degrees Celsius, loco SY 1134 rounds the bend uphill towards Wujiu township in reverse with a mid morning rake of empties for Mine No.3, Sunday 10th March.
 

SY 1134 makes a steamy departure mid afternoon from the sidings at Shengli No.2 Mine where, having just dropped off a rake of empties, she has picked up a loaded coal train to deliver to the China Rail interchange at Metianzhen station, Sunday 10th March.
 


Our journey continued on train K278 from Yakeshi dep. 19:47 hours to Chifeng arr. 13:14 hours. The ticket office officials at Yakeshi were not used to foreign tourists and their passports and lengthy haggling, shouting and wild gesticulation was necessary by our guide to obtain the booked tickets and reservations. This took so long (45 minutes) that we were lucky not to miss the train.


PINGZHUANG & YUANBAOSHAN, Monday 11th March – Wednesday 13th March.

At Chifeng Railway Station, our party was most grateful for the generous assistance of the military and police forces who, beyond the call of duty, diligently and most kindly guarded our basic supply of 'essential alcoholic refreshments' as we were on our way to Yuanbaoshan on Monday 11th March.
 

Temperatures in the day tended to be above freezing; the light varied between overcast and sunny. Both places were visited on all three days.

Pingzhuang

Access into the main depot yard at Zhuangmei is no longer permitted due to concerns of safety to foreigners which arose across China at the time of the change of government towards the end of 2012. However, it is possible to walk quite close to the depot from the northern (power station) end.

Coal trains were observed shunting at Wufeng and running full to and empty from the China Rail interchange at Pingzhuang Nan. On occasion empty trains returning from China Rail were halted as they approached Zhuangmei which gave opportunity to try to explain to the local inhabitants, mostly groups of housewives, what the fascination of steam is, whilst also – much to their great amusement - taking their photographs.

We were informed that spoil trains no longer run to the southern spoil tip and, as usual, no locos were seen travelling to or from the loco works where access is in any case forbidden.

Coal trains were seen tipping at Gushan Yijing mine where, at the same time, other loaded trains ran through at speed from the direction of Gushan Sanjing and Gushan Lijing (Liujiameikuang) mines towards Zhuangmei.

Colossal seams of coal are being worked in the deepest part of opencast pit by road trucks and a huge landslide on the western side of the pit has taken place. A new deep mine has been opened at the south-western edge of the open pit which is served by road.

Locos seen:-
Pingzhuang
SY 1052 running
SY 1085 running
SY 1425 running
SY 1441 running

The old and the new. Beyond the stop sign, as shiny new cars wait at the barriers, SY 1052, with a good head of steam, barrels over the level crossing of the main road leading to Pingzhuang township early in the morning of Tuesday 12th of March with a rake of empties from China National Rail interchange at Pingzhuang Nan.
 

Yuanbaoshan
In 2012 we had been informed that steam traction at Yuanbaoshan would probably cease by the end of the year, so it was a delight to find that steam was still in use. Loco JS 8418 was seen running every afternoon with several passenger coaches from Majiawan to Fengshuigou. On Tuesday the 12th, the passenger carriages were coupled up to the end of a very long rake of coal trucks. On Wednesday the 13th, two of our party of five decided to travel on one of the world's last genuine steam hauled passenger trains. This caused not a little consternation with the two conductors on the train who, upon discovering that we were on board, eagerly pointed out that we simply had got to buy tickets (which we of course fully expected to do). With my very limited vocabulary of a few words of Mandarin, it was finally understood that we wanted to travel to Fengshuigou and that a single fare costs 4 ˝ Yuan. However, for reasons unknown, would we please mind alighting at the halt at Fengshuigou rather than at the main, final station half a mile further on? What their sensitivity was about we could not understand because we had had a friendly reception at the station the day before with the signaller and the shunter pointing out what shunts the loco was going to make in the yard.
Local villagers across the fields were also most welcoming, saying that they saw the occasional Japanese steam enthusiast but very few Westerners. If I understood correctly what one was saying, it seems that there are still four JS locomotives in use. Passenger loadings are still good with many alighting at both stops at Fengshuigou.

Under a cloudless blue winter sky, JS 8418 in charge of the mid afternoon passenger train, rounds the bend through newly ploughed maize fields and, for industrial China, passes an unusually ornate building as she approaches the wayside halt half a mile short of the destination station at Fengshuigou, Tuesday 12th March.
 


FUXIN, Thursday 14th March – Friday 15th March.
After a long uneventful drive through the endless 'corn belt of China' we reached Fuxin which had generally hazy weather.

As was already known, all passenger trains both steam and diesel have now finished running at Fuxin but there is still plenty of freight traffic. One new development is that heavy ash (as opposed to fly ash) from a 'new factory' (probably a power plant) is now being dumped on the upper part of the active spoil heap along with the deep mine rock spoil. One train a day of fly ash is still being dumped on lower level of the spoil heap, nearest to the town and it is still as spectacular as ever.

Access to the spoil mountain is more restricted and after driving over the level crossing at Wulong Mine, one has to turn right up a side track rather than continuing up the bigger 'road'. On reaching a barrier at some mine offices, it is possible to obtain permission to drive up the tracks leading to the top sections of the spoil heap. Our reception at the small settlement on the heap and by the coal pickers and track workers was as friendly as ever, especially when a few photographs of the people I had met there last year were handed to them.

On the Thursday afternoon a cinematic movie was being shot against the backdrop of the plinthed SY, plinthed electric locos and the giant USSR excavator at the Mining Museum. The sequence being shot featured a giant panda driving a 1940s/50s style motorbike with an attractive actress in its sidecar. The title of the film or the storyline is unknown.

A new, wide concrete road and factory were being constructed around the Pingan Mine level crossing from where the road from the town has been substantially widened, so much so that the area is almost unrecognisable from 2012. On the morning of Friday the 15th our minibus and party were nearly wiped out by a light engine heading from Wulong Mine. Sequence of events:- the loco driver had failed to whistle when approaching the crossing; the crossing keeper emerged from his hut tightening his trouser belt and he had not started the crossing warning lights and gong; our minibus driver had not spotted the loco. Luckily the loco was seen by one of our party who yelled "stop!" which we did 10 to 15 yards short of oblivion. [Potential epitaph “They died doing what they loved doing”]. Finally, as we were leaving Fuxin, an SY light engine unusually headed down the branch from Pingan to China Rail where it sat for nearly half an hour presumably awaiting further instructions, but we had to leave without seeing what duty was required.

Locos seen:-
SY 0770 running
SY 1195 running
SY 1210 running
SY 1396 running
SY 1397 running
SY 1818 running

One of which is the “General Chu Ergh Train” carrying his portrait on the smokebox door.

SY 0988 reported serviceable
SY 1319 reported serviceable
SY 1320 reported major overhaul
SY 1378 reported boiler overhaul
SY 1460 reported serviceable

0941 dead

SY 1396 spectacularly dumps a load of power station fly ash on the lower section of the spoil mountain, late afternoon Thursday 14th of March. Fly ash is dumped once a day; usually in the afternoon.
 

Roger Croston

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