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Steam in China, July, August 2013

by Dave Habraken

Yemao, Chayan, Guangyuan (Rongshan)

During a mainly 'normal' tourist trip through Southern China with my Chinese girlfriend, we arranged visits to some (ex-) steam locations as well.

Yemao, 27th of July 2013

Bad news:
The Nylon plant has bought a diesel locomotive, so steam is no longer in use here. This information was given by the staff in Yemao station and was confirmed by the guard at the gate of the factory. I don't know which type of diesel engine they bought, as it was parked inside the factory and we didn't try to get in. SY 0917 and SY 1702 are parked in front of the gate near the level crossing. SY 0917 was in a bad condition (as reported before). SY 1702 seemed still serviceable: it still has coal in the tender and it looked ok. But it was clear that it didn't operate for a while as there were already some small plants growing on the left platform of the tender.

Chayan, 27th of July 2013

More bad news:
The staff at Chayezhan told us, the fertiliser factory at Chayan bought a diesel engine in September of last year. They told us, steam engines are no longer allowed to run on CR tracks, so the factory had to buy a diesel. They suggested 'maybe' the factory uses the steam engines in the factory itself, but this doesn't seem to make sense, so we didn't check it out any further.

Some general information about this area:
On our way to Yizhou, we passed by at Luocheng. It would be stupid not to stop at the station, so we quickly had a look. This station clearly sees much less traffic then some years ago. The station master told us they are only served by a facultative train (hauled by a DF4B). He told us, the line between Chayezhan and Luocheng would be closed soon. He also told us, at the old depot, still 3 JSs are rusting away, but we didn't have a look as our taxi driver wanted to finish the trip to Yizhou. Afterwards, the staff at Chayezhan told us, closure will probably happen next year.

As we continued our way from Luocheng to Yizhou, we noticed that at the lake of Luocheng, a lot of tourist attractions are being built. This would be a perfect location for China's first normal gauge tourist operation as the line from Chayezhan to Luocheng is going straight through a beautiful set of karst mountains. What a shame they don't realise the opportunity they're missing.

Arriving at Yizhou, I first thought we arrived at the wrong city. I'd last visited this city in 2007 but it was unrecognisable. Many of the old buildings have disappeared and are being replaced by modern flats. The old station has disappeared too during the electrification works of the railway line between Liuzhou and Hechi.
The new station has been built outside the city. On the old track bed, they're constructing a road that goes straight through the city. It was really impressive to see how fast a city in China can change.

Rongshan, 29th of July to 1st of August

Somehow, I have this tiny idea, this part of my trip report will get some more attention than the rest of the report.

When my girlfriend and I were making up our plans to our trip, I told her about this special railway that was "the forbidden fruit" for foreigners during a decade. I also told her, Bernd Seiler's group got in with an official permission and I would like to try to visit it, but we could get into trouble with the local authorities as we wouldn't have a permission. She immediately answered 'let's try anyway'. You can imagine my enthusiasm :-).

Well, everything went smoothly, so I'll share our experiences topic by topic to help future visitors.

Trains:

Engines in service were C2 219 and C2 211. We didn't visit the depot.

They're still using the old timetable, but the train around noon didn't run during our visit. When we asked about it, the answers weren't clear if it would return in the future. So, the actual timetable is:

Rongshan dep. 07:40 arr. 09:40 dep. 15:20 arr. 17:40
Yujiabian arr. 08:30 dep. 09:10 arr. 16:10 dep. 17:10

The morning train from Rongshan towards Yujiabian always left Rongshan on time and was always top and tailed. On the first three days, it took 16-17 empty coal wagons, 2 passenger coaches, 2 cabooses and 4-5 flat wagons for mine equipment/personal use with it. On the last day, it rained very hard in the morning, so they left the flat wagons in the station of Rongshan. On the best day, the train reached a length of 25 wagons! Not bad at all?

The morning train always had to shunt at Shanziba. Sometimes, they left some coal wagons behind at the mine of Shanziba, sometimes they left all the coal wagons behind. On 2 days, they took both engines all the way to Yujiabian, but on the other two days, one engine stayed at Shanziba to shunt the empties there.

For the morning return passenger train from Yujiabian towards Rongshan, we witnessed delays between 0 minutes and 2 hours! All depends on the shunting duties they have to perform! On 2 occasions, they took a loaded train from Yujiabian towards Rongshan. On the other 2 occasions, they only took the passenger coaches towards Shanziba and took a loaded coal train on from there.

After the morning train, on 3 (and maybe 4, see further) days, the second engine returned with a second coal train. Sometimes from Yujiabian, sometimes from Shanziba. The times we witnessed it, it arrived at Rongshan around 14:45, clearing the tracks for the second passenger/coal train going up the line.

The afternoon train from Rongshan towards Yujiabian also seemed to leave Rongshan roughly on time (maximum delay: 30 minutes on one day). We only photographed it on 2 occasions and it consisted of one C2, 1 caboose, 2 passenger coaches, some 16 coal wagons and 2 flat wagons for mine equipment.

The evening return train was seen on 2 occasions and it had only the passenger coaches and one caboose with it. Delay was about 1 hour on both days.

Behaviour towards foreigners:

Almost everybody received us with open arms! Some locals were a little bit shy though. Be prepared to be taken on picture however :-). A lot of people were very, very interested in our purposes and told us with pride that "a German group came to visit their railway some months ago". In Rongshan, on the first day, one person of the staff kindly told us we normally had to ask permission from the tourist bureau at Guangyuan, but when we asked him the phone number or address of this office, he couldn't help us and left us with a smile. When we returned to him on the next day to ask about some information, he kindly helped us with it, not bothering us anymore about a permit.

On all occasions, railway staff tried to provide us with accurate information. Plans didn't change afterwards, except on one occasion (see further).

The police stopped over as well. They asked me where I came from. This question I could answer, but when they wanted to start a conversation, I led them to my girlfriend to talk with them. They were very kind. On their return, some 10 minutes later, they shouted something like "terrorist, terrorist" and drove on laughing loudly.

At Yujiabian, the station is guarded by several cameras. Following our information, these are now for guarding coal theft and not for escaping prisoners/entering "laowei". Anyway, you can easily avoid being "taken on cam" on the northern side of the station by crossing the pedestrian bridge and staying aside on the eastern side of the tracks. Station staff don't mind that you take pictures here.

Hotel:

It seemed a wise idea to stay at Guangyuan not to draw too much attention as we didn't know what to expect. Many hotels can be found in this city in all price categories as they're receiving tourists for the temple of the only queen China has ever known (Wu Zetian). We stayed in a small hotel near the station. 128 RMB for a small room with dirty bed sheets? Too expensive if we think about it afterwards.

Transport:

We decided to rent a taxi for the whole day and this turned out by far to be the best option. On the first day, we immediately got lucky. The driver told us, he had to transport some of the people of Bernd's group to Rongshan so he knew where the station was and he knew what we wanted.

The bad news: he explained to us, around 16:00, the taxi drivers have shift change in Guangyuan, so we had to choose between two options:
- Return around this time.
- Agree to pay a higher price, as he had to arrange with his fellow after shift change to compensate the loss of income.

Of course, we stayed and agreed on a somewhat high price of 400 RMB for the whole day. This guy was very interested in the steam trains and anticipated very well on the railway action. He also arranged for us a private car with a driver he knew for the next day for 300RMB, so we didn't have to pay anymore for the extra costs for this problem with the shift change.

We agreed with both drivers, I would write the phone number of the taxi driver of the first day in my report, so future visitors can make arrangements with/via him:
Mr. Wang: 135-6836-0060.

Count a rough 35 minutes to get from Guangyuan to Rongshan.

Weather/photographical conditions:

Of course, this railway line is situated in Sichuan, so don't expect cool temperatures if you visit it in the summer. During our visit however, humidity was not too high (so the visibility for landscape pictures was O.K.) and temperatures "only" went up to 37ºC. 2 weeks before our visit however, Sichuan suffered from severe floods due to lasting rains.

The sun is definitely in the best position for the tender first morning ride from Rongshan to Yujiabian and the evening ride from Yujiabian towards Rongshan. The morning train from Yujiabian towards Rongshan is usable if you don't care too much about a black front of the train. For the afternoon train from Rongshan towards Yujiabian, photo positions are rather limited to the first kilometers leaving Rongshan (read: the river bridge).

Most of the trains uphill (tender first...) had nice exhaust because they're heating the engine most of the way. For the return trains, you have to be a little bit lucky with the air pump working.

In my personal opinion, the orientation of the line makes this railway particularly interesting for a late spring/summer/early autumn visit?

Day to day report for the die hards:

29th of July:

The morning train left with C2 219 on top and 211 on the tail. From Shanziba, they only took the passenger cars and the two cabooses on the way to Yujiabian. Some 300m after the tunnel, they stopped because of a small landslide caused by heavy rainfall. They then returned to Shanziba, where after some negotiations C2 211 left solo to Rongshan and C2 219 gave it another go to Yujiabian with the passenger cars. C2 219 now went off to shunt with coal wagons at the loading facilities, one hour later, C2 211 arrived at Shanziba pushing a flat wagon with a crane. They unloaded it at the landslide and C2 211 pushed the car onwards to Yujiabian. Here, a nice parallel was seen. After some more shunting, C2 219 left with a loaded coal train, the passenger coaches and the caboose towards Rongshan. C2 211 followed in the early afternoon with the flat car and another loaded coal train.

C2 211 then helped with shunting in Rongshan before returning to the depot. Afterwards, C2 219 went up the line half an hour late with a mixed coal and passenger train. It returned at Rongshan around 18:30 with the passenger coaches and one caboose.

One minor event: in the afternoon, the road was blocked at the 90º curve between Zhangjiachi and Yüjiaxiangfang because they were repairing a huge landslide. This would also happen the day afterwards, making train chasing on the nicest part of the line impossible from the afternoon on (the workers started working in the afternoon). Small worry from my side: if at the same place a landslide occurs again, this might cause temporary problems for the railway as well. You'll clearly see this on one of the pictures on my website in some weeks/months.

30th of July:

On this day, the only clouds were the ones leaving the C2s!

The morning train more or less had the same composition as the day before. They left the empty coal wagons, one caboose, some flat cars with mine equipment and C2 211 at Shanziba, while C2 219 plus the passenger coaches and the other caboose continued towards Yujiabian. C2 219 returned with the passenger train to Shanziba and took a loaded coal train with it towards Rongshan. C2 211 continued shunting here and left with a loaded train towards Rongshan around 13:30.

In the afternoon, things were as the day before: C2 219 up the line with empties and the passenger stock, returning around 18:30 with the passenger coaches and the caboose.

As we were blocked chasing the train again due to the repairing works of the landslide, we decided to visit the nearby Buddhist temple west of Zhangba. Interesting place if you have an hour to waste between two trains! The evening train was photographed on the beautiful 90º curve near Yüjiaxiangfang in the evening light.

Back at Rongshan, we thought we saw a Chinese/Japanese train photographer, but he turned out to be making a series of photos about his new and extremely expensive car at Rongshan station. The driver however couldn't drive at all (very exceptional in China of course) and so the brand new car got itself into an accident at the level crossing! Woops!

31st of July:

The day couldn't start better with an excellent shot of C2 219 hauling and C2 211 tailing a 25 cars train at the 90º curve near Yüjiaxiangfang in full sun. Some more shots were made before Shanziba, where the empties were left behind. Unfortunately, the sun now disappeared. C2 219 then pulled the 2 cabooses, 2 passenger coaches, some flat wagons and C2 211 towards Yujiabian. Well, that was the plan! 1 (o-n-e!!!) farmer decided otherwise! On the 29th, we'd seen a crane starting to clear the clay and pieces of rock of the landslide near the tracks. Apparently, the crane driver had dropped this dirt on the plants of the farmer and of course, he was not amused about it. He insisted on financial compensation and just blocked the train from driving any further. The driver promised a railway officer would show up to negotiate with the farmer, but after waiting 4 hours, still nobody showed up and the farmer kept position. As the sun didn't make any attempts to show up again, around 13:00 we decided to give up and give it another try the next day.

1st of August:

As we left the hotel, it immediately started raining very heavily in pure "Sichuan style". Lightning, loads of rain, a very dark sky, but also the hope that the rain would vanish soon? At Rongshan, it already rained less but the railway staff didn't take any risk and they shortened the train by leaving the flat cars behind. The train went up the hill like this, but stopped near Yüjiaxiangfang anyway to raise the boiler pressure.

At Shanziba, the empties were left behind and the passenger train continued top and tailed by 219 and 211 towards Yujiabian. Here, C2 211 took a break, while 219 pushed a rake of empties towards the loading facilities. Afterwards, a second nice parallel of both engines could be photographed in this photogenic station.

C2 219 then left on time (!) with the passenger train and a caboose towards Rongshan. To prove how exceptional this seems to be: a local missed the train as it left on time and finally asked us for a ride to Rongshan, which was of course granted. At Shanziba, a rake of loaded cars was added to the train so fast that we managed to miss the train between Shanziba and Rongshan for another shot.

Our unexpected passenger told us that the cameras at Yujiabian are now only for coal thieves and are no longer used by the police. He said it would be no problem to walk to the loading facilities as long as you warn the guard at the northern end of the station so he can make a phone call to the control office. We decided to give it a go. It worked out fine this way and we could make a shot of C2 211 assisting on loading a rake of empties under the loading facilities. The station guard only asked that we wouldn't go any further then the entrance gate of the loading facilities and so we did. Bernd is right about the creepy feeling you get while walking between the fences and passing several cameras? But: nothing happened :-).

After this, we called it a day as we had to get our afternoon train towards Chengdu.

Conclusions after this "mini steam tour":

Of course, it was not such nice news that both Yemao and Chayan have lost their steam engines. This means the end of steam between the karst mountains.

At Rongshan, the reality was by far better than my expectations. 3 and a half days of photography here seemed just enough, as you always have to count on some bad weather in Sichuan and the railway can of course temporarily suspend operations.

On a more personal note: in December 2012, I doubted to quit the Yahoo! Steam_in_China group after the nonsense that kept on going over and over about female train drivers, Bachmann models and last but not least possible problems caused by tour guides.
At the end of this report, I want to point out that our successful visit at Rongshan had a lot to do with the great work Bernd Seiler as tour leader for Farrail has done there. After certain provocative reactions posted on the Steam_in_China group, it's more than kind of Bernd still to pass on his experiences to the group even after giving up his membership. I like to thank him for this. It also shows clearly not all tour leaders are only thinking about their personal advantages.

Dave Habraken

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