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Steam in China, December  2017

by Martn B0chnig

Baiyin, Xifeng, Wujiu

I just returned from one of my twice per winter China trips and this time can cover the following locations / time frames: Baiyin(Gansu) Copper Smelter and Coal Railway: 7th December, Xifeng (Guizhou) Xiyang Phosphate Factory: 8th December, Wujiu (Nei Menggu / Inner Mongolia) Wujiu Coal Railway: 10th - 17th December. Sandaoling simply was not a priority this time, because a rumour that I had been made aware of by one of my Chinese friends appears to materialize now. There is some hopefully promising information confirmed (?) now in a commercial newsletter to which I for a rare exception even point to. Beyond Sandaoling here is what I found out hands-on regarding the other 3 beforementioned locations.

Baiyin, 7th December

Passenger train steam heating (SY1583 running as a boiler) definitely ended about 7th March 2017 and the likelihood it will ever resume is close to zero or rather, precisely zero, independently of the temperatures. Compared with a visit in November 2016, the following changes were observed: 1.Coaling / watering facilities and all else steam specific infrastructure has all been removed. The entire depot area has been "cleaned up" and where the coaling facility used to be there is now a 10 x 7 metres wide and 2 metres high concrete "building". No clue what it is used for, perhaps as a diesel fuel storage pool? Most of the other depot buildings still stand, even if some of them appear to be no longer used. Others (for the staff) have been renovated. The old tracks in the shed area are still present and functional. The old oou loco dump with the really old rusty steam engines is still unchanged. 2.The train was made of 5 of the now rare YZ22 coaches and was running three times daily, departing from 'Linshi' (presumably Baiyin shi?) at 7:50 15:15 18:15, and returning from the mine (Kuangsan) at 9:30 17:15 and 19:50, but pulled by a modern blue diesel, GKD_1A_0206 and no steam loco was part of the train while I was there, timetable still unchanged as in the good old days 3. Apart from the really oou steam locos, only SY1581 and now also SY1583 were in the depot area, shed buildings and both Baiyin industrial stations combined, unfortunately BOTH in oou dumped condition. As with SY1581 last year I must say that the condition of SY1583 has deteriorated surprisingly fast. Rust and dust are literally falling out of every angle. Still no trace of SY1047, but it is likely that this is the one engine a taxi driver tried to make me aware of in 2016, dumped in a children's playground about 1km distant from the Baiyin Gongsi shed. Didn't check this playground because unlike last year I this time arrived as a passenger of the green train itself. However, I had as back then now once again verified that no other steam engine had been inside the shed house, which only contained a bright (not blue) diesel, once again, just as last year. 4. This time I did a lot to get it 100% confirmed by staff, both at the Gongsi shed, the diesel crew and the old Shi station in the city, straight from the switch tower staff. They all confirmed steam won't ever return in any form. Even though the GKD_1A_0206 diesel looks brand new, each time a train stands in the Shi/city station 3 or more engine staff are busily dealing with whatever technical maintenance tasks, walking around the loco, opening/closing boxes/engine-doors several times, filling in fluids (oil or water?) and one has to wonder what was "saved" economically through the steam retirement. It appears that staff could not be reduced and otherwise the company must have spent tens of millions for the migration. 5. In Baiyin Gongsi the train now no longer passes the track at the official platform, but runs through the far track on the other side of the shunting yard, next to the shed. So train pictures from the bridge down to the platform and mining station building are no longer possible. An emergency "wild platform" has been accomodated at the other end of the pedestrians bridge, near the shed. 6.WEATHER: It was already more than 3 weeks after the official beginning of the heating season, low night temperatures were down to about -10 on many and to -14 degrees Celsius during some nights with daily maxima of about -2 Celsius, but hardly ever higher than zero during 2 to 3 weeks (in Baiyin). I printed the Baiyin weather summary for several weeks. It had been perma-frost for several weeks with nightly low temperatures that mark a cold level for what is normal in Baiyin in early December. Passengers in the train were freezing and complained about folks that would not immediately close the entry door after having steopped in. Nevertheless no steam loco is used nor any other solution. What was presented as an important set of reasons for a decade is simply no longer valid. It is just a pity that no steam is used anymore, despite all other criteria being "ideal". Final remarks on Baiyin: 7. Trains versus future replacement by road buses: True, some trains are mostly empty. But don't get fooled: The morning train up from Baiyin into the mountains and the afternoon and evening trains back are still full to the last seat!!! Clearly not in the opposite directions at the wrong times, but that's normal by design. The frequently heard rumour can therefore not be reality-compliant, that the mining corporation plans, sooner rather than later, to replace this train by road-buses. Often it is speculated that such trains were no longer needed since "every Chinese has his own car now". Well - not yet. And to replace this train by buses you would need 8 to 10 of them per 1 rush hour train in the - at the time of day - "busy direction". 8. Adjacent to the Baiyin Shi / City end station road crossing there is a 20 metres wide construction site across the tracks. It appears as if it is going to be an modern age replacement for the old photogenic road crossing. Instead of modernizing the old one, a new one is being built and once finished the transition period will be short. This will destroy nice photo opportunities but since there is no longer steam it is rather irrelevant (the car drivers on the other side will enjoy it, since the old crossing is a pain). 9. YZ22: If somebody is interested in the numbers of those units still running, they could be extracted from a video taken. Let me know.

Xifeng, 8th December

For a long time nobody knew if steam was still used, even if only for shunting. Already for some years the plant has owned a diesel which was reported to perfom the line work to CNR. Then in Steam News, (27th March 2016) steam was reported seen working, but yet again with big question marks if it might have been only active for the visitors' sake (charter steam) or not, see the video yourself. When one year ago Tianjin had finally retired SY1524 after magically having refurbished and re-activated SY1007, the question arose which one is the oldest real(ly)-working steam engine in China, Tianjin's SY1007 or Xifeng's much older SY0434 which is so far away and difficult to reach (near to 100km north of Guiyang airport). Xifeng is one of those locations for which there are until this day no real reports let alone maps on SY-country. Now, after I finally found this hidden secret place I would be capable of creating this map, but it's no longer worth the effort, see below. Some positive information had appeared to confirm that steam would still be in use and even include the old SY0434: A short clip of shunting at Xifeng apparently filmed at the start of April can be seen on YouTube . I was euphoric when I saw it and instantly regretted not having visited Xifeng myself last winter. In summer I was shocked and full of disbelief when the next news was reported to this very list - Steam News (22nd August 2017), quoting a Chinese blog-site saying steam working at Xifeng in Guizhou finished at the start of 2017 when the fertiliser plant acquired a GKD1c Diesel and requesting more information, first hand if possible. I'm not sure if I was really the only one who did so, I had auto-translated this alleged "source" blog entry (now offline and unfortunately not in web.archive.org) and all I could find was that it exactly didn't appear to contain the slightest evidence regarding these steam shunting services having ended. So I pretty much doubted this report being true. I was still very hopeful until the very day I finally managed to get there, having hoped that after the Baiyin blow the next day would bring some steam and smoke. Unfortunately, my best hopes were again disappointed. The use of steam definitely ended in Xifeng in what is being reported by the factory's administration as late March / early April of 2017, when the plant obtained its second diesel. To get a photo permit from the plant's directors was not easy. But to actually *locate* this plant in the first place was ten times more difficult. Thanks to the extremely patient/committed/digging hard like in a gold rush Guiyang taxi driver that was worth every Yuan of the 1000 for the day (which later turned out to be a bargain after all his efforts to help me with this). The plant is nowhere in Xifeng and even though we had asked about 40 people on the streets in all parts of Xifeng and I did have sample Xifeng SY0434 photos and videos with me and showed them around - nobody knew where it was. The best guess where folks directed us to was some sort of tourist disneyland park inside Xifeng where 2 unknown SY's and a full train of YZ22 are preserved for tourists in a fully refurbished almost MINT condition. After hours and hours of driving around Xifeng and vicinity we finally decided to ask staff at the mainline train station. Once again, nobody (even of the higher management) appeared to know anything about these mountains and buildings on the sample photos, which I had found on Flickr. Then, finally, one senior station co-manager recognized the place and instantly let us know that these workings ended in March/April. He gave us instructions but they were also wrong. We had to continue our search for 2 more hours and it would soon be getting dark. Finally the taxi driver said he had something in his stomach and started to drive onto the main highway into a completely "wrong" direction. He said I won't need to pay for this extra tour and should not worry. While I had already given up on finding this steamless steam location, I simply thought he is not feeling well and wants to visit some relatives because he needs a toilet. We passed valleys and side valleys more and more up into the mountains, felt 25 kilometres or so. Suddenly we crossed a track and finally I began to realize that it was a translation error: It was an idea / a feeling that he had in his stomach! This taxi driver genius really found the place for me!!! We arrived!!!!! Unbelievable. We spent the next hour obtaining a photo permit straight from the factory's uppermost level. Then a manager was assigned to guide us and together with him we were allowed to enter the factory and take photos, with a tripod - already in the last moment during a cloudy dusk. Here is the situation: the fate of the steam locos has officially not yet been sealed, but they are simply no longer needed and practically standing in the way. Management says they just don't know what to do with them. I saw 2 diesel locos and 2 SYs. Of those, SY0434 still looks mostly complete but stands outside in the unprotected weather (which is wet in southern China). Rust is already appearing all over the place. When having a look at her wheels it is sadly no question, she has not moved in a very long time (rust). SY1169 with bronze plates: Very well preserved condition, standing in the main shed house, looks as if she could be fired up at any moment to start working. Is well-protected in this building. GK_1E_3269 Orange/Blue - clear signs of use, was shunting; GK_1C_0700 Blue - newish condition, standing in 2nd shed.

Wujiu, 10th - 17th December

This was the main section of my journey since too much time was spent in Sandaoling during all the previous winters, and even more so after Baiyin and Xifeng turned out to have died (yet the "won" time would not be enough for adding a Sandaoling visit). As I spent 8 days and some half nights in a taxi - always being in contact with the Wujiu switch tower, shed staff and diesel and steam crews, perhaps I would like to put the Wujiu report into a document of its own (with photos). Only so much for now: The traffic that I witnessed in December was much lower than what Duncan Cotterill described in his November report. It feels like a déjà-vu of 2016: Every time when Duncan in his super super detailed well written reports (if his reports aren't reports, what else would be??) complains about a certain steam line's "lack of action" and "required patience", if and when I get there (with my really good long patience) not even half as much action takes place, if at all! Of the 8 days I spent in Wujiu there were 2 days when the SY1225 did not come out of the shed at all during the entire day and night, there were 2 more days when it came out briefly at around 8:30 in the morning but only to remove slack and ash, move a few hundred metres to the power plant for taking water and getting coaled, while then immediately driving back into the shed for the rest of the day, once with later duties in the afternoon and night, and the other time without either. My main dream that had inspired me to spend such a long time in Wujiu had been to repeat some of the east-branch village hills / curve shots near the horses, you know what I mean if you saw last year's charter train pictures on misc galleries. Bad luck for me: I only saw 2 diesel trains there, one per afternoon, on December 10th and 12th. Only with the DF4DD. After that date the entire eastern-branch line was not used once. Even though tons and tons of coal would be there in frozen heaps next to the track. Perhaps frozen to stone?? Or what was the reason? Instead the SY1225 took over a really really "hot" duty: From December 13th on it would at first every 2nd day and then each day spend most of the day with unloading twice a 4-wagon "train" wagon by wagon, meter by meter. This took place on the track near the power plant, where it was usually only taking water and - starting this year - also getting coaled. To unload these 4 wagons a time into road trucks / lorries took about 1 hour per wagon. So as you see this being the 2nd most interesting location after Sandaoling in the world - how low you should set your expectations. Of course - after having taken pictures from all sides with 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 80-200mm lenses against the sun, with the sun, during the night and with the moon - the last possibility to get something new was to prepare a tele at 200mm over a road crossing on a tripod and to wait and to wait - until getting some Chinese ladies onto the frame together with the hardly ever moving steam train in the background. Shengli was served on 3 days during daylight, and twice in the night. Of these, in all but one case the SY1225 only ran to Shengli light engine. And only once pushed / pulled (replaced) some 40 wagons. As Duncan says, taking pictures of such pushed trains is at least "experimental" as abundances of steam cover (not only) the smokebox. At all other times the train was brought there by the diesel and the SY1225 would only go to Shengli light-engine for shunting there. Warning: You should know what you are doing. And you should have the right advanced set of clothing including gloves that permit you to keep them on at ALL times. Removing the gloves only for some seconds may cause irreparable damage to your body. At one time my shutter was frozen and only opened half-way for 5 shots. You have been warned! Having said that I doubt I will ever go there again. In Sandaoling you get a much better hotel room at 110 Yuan per night, rather than 283 Yuan in Wuerqihan's Linyuan hotel (as it appears the only one still legally permitted to host foreigners under the new rules introduced in January 2017). And in Sandaoling you come through the day on less than 100 Yuan for taxi here and there plus restaurant in the evening all together, rather than having to pay 600 Yuan for a taxi and 100 for food and 283 for the Linyuan hotel every day. So - the eastwards line shots near the ponies may stay an eternal dream like Baiyin. Exactly on this very line for which I went there again - no steam traffic in 8 days and of those no traffic at all in 6 days, probably because it is too cold and something that still functioned in November is now frozen:( On the positive side I now have all the other shots I wanted, and real-working steam, rather than a tour guide arranged disneyland charter. The "Triumph Arch of Mine 59" at the west end of Wujiu did come true. As I am saying this, unlike in 2016 I didn't see any train to the point marked 'Coal Loading' on Roger Croston's and John Athersuch's maps. The only occasions when the SY (or the DF4DD) would pass this arch with or without a train were workings to the new Shengli mine (or to Meitian in case of the diesel). My last year's mega-luck of seeing a train getting loaded in Mine 1 (!) wasn't repeated. As Duncan noted, also the coaling of the SY is no longer done there. Rather, the first few hundred metres of the line from Wujiu to Mine 1 is being used to park unused wagons (newly arrived from Meitian), until they are moved to Shengli and loaded there. One disagreement with Duncan: It is quite possible to take morning shots on the (admittedly quite ugly/modern) Shengli line. Simply be brave and take the snowy icy clear sun straight into the frame!!! And every morning at about 10 o'clock a man with a black (!) horse is riding there in southwards direction along the mine on the eastern side (small road). I'm serious about that.

Pictures from all three locations can be seen on Flickr at the SY1047 photostream .

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