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Steam in China, December  2017

by Dave Habraken

Sandaoling

Accompanied by my (Chinese) wife and mother-in-law, I stayed in Sandaoling between the 25th of December and the 30th of December 2017. Ameling Algra was there as well during the first days, Ben Kletzer was there for a longer stay. The day of our departure, a small group of English enthusiasts arrived but time was too short to remember all names (sorry guys). Jun almost seems to live in Sandaoling these days to guide around several groups. Also Chinese photographer Jiang Yifan (“Pocahontas”) was enjoying a short holiday there. Some days before New Year, Japanese enthusiasts started to flood in, just as every year. On all days except for one, there were also quite some Chinese tourists. On the 30th of December, I counted +30 photographers from the spot where I stood. Honestly, that’s too much, especially as the Chinese visitors (not knowing where to stand) start to walk around in the opencast mine too these days…

Opencast system

Just when we were ready to board our aircraft at Brussels, information came in that only 2 sets of coal trains were running in the opencast mine. *$#&%!! By the time we arrived at Sandaoling, things seemed more or less normal again with 3 sets running and a fourth one as a spare at Dongbolizhan. The “passenger train” was (as usual) formed by one of the engines that are used on the coal trains the rest of the day. On the 26th of December, JS8225 was replacing JS8173 which clearly had some traction problems. Most of the time, the opencast mine was producing enough trains to entertain their relatively big audience. Of course, there were the usual gaps but afterwards, things would be very busy again. On the 30th of December however, the washery at Xuanmeichang got completely full, so it couldn’t handle much coal coming out of Xikeng. This meant almost all trains leaving Xikeng had to wait, sometimes for a very long time, at the entrance of Kengkouzhan. The last train in daylight arrived at Kengkouzhan around 17:00 and had to stay there until shift change at 21:00! Jun told me it wasn’t certain there would be trains running at all on the 31st of December. Maybe Ben can tell us what actually happened the day(s) afterwards? A possible reason might be the lack of wagons coming from China Rail so that their coal stock got piled up. I didn’t see any train going to Xuanmeixian (the alternative unloading facility near the workshop). Ameling told me he saw some trains being loaded by the shovel during one afternoon. Interesting story, as these are usually the trains which are going to Xuanmeixian. I for myself did only witness trains being loaded at the blue loader. Engines in service in the opencast mine were: JS6224, JS8167, JS8173, JS8190 and JS8225. During my visit, JS8190 seemed to perform best of all engines. JS8167 and JS8173 seemed to have traction issues. In the case of JS8167, things became particuly bad on the 29th of December when it got stalled on at least 3 (!) occasions. Whether this was made worse by an inexperienced driver couldn’t be determined.

Deep mine system

We had a quick look at Erjing where things seemed relatively calm in general during our visit. I agree with Duncan Cotterill that most of the photographic potential over there is ruined due to construction works. Nearly all trains to Erjing seem to be pushed out of Nanzhan and pulled on the return way. After the closing of Yijing, all topped and tailed trains seem to have vanished. At Nanzhan (visits made on 3 occasions), things looked rather calm as well. Trains from Liushuquan to Shadunzi switch engines but as these trains are block trains, no further shunting is needed. That leaves only some minor shunting duties for wagons to Erjing and the loader at Xuanmeichang. But I only saw one set of cars (with blue containers) being loaded here, so that didn’t help for much action either… During my visits, I saw 4 engines in service at Nanzhan: JS8358, JS8366, and two engines which couldn’t be identified. I suppose, on the last day one of the non-identified engines was JS8053, as I saw this engine in the workshop on the 26th and 27th of December, being prepared for service after a boiler washout. It would make sense that another engine was being stored at the workshop when JS8053 entered service. That would then of course make a fifth engine in service at Nanzhan during my visit.

Some special notes

• On the 26th of December, the workshop was unusually busy with 4 (!) engines on-site. It felt like 10 years ago, looking at JS6224 receiving some minor repairs, JS8225 being prepared to enter service, JS8053 being prepared to enter service after a boiler washout and JS8077 stored cold. Apparently, they were finishing work prior to a short holiday between the 27th of December and the 2nd of January.

• During the 19th National Congress in Beijing last October, decisions were announced to tighten security in Xinjiang. Some consequences we could witness ourselves:

1) Getting fuel has become quite an event… Already for some time, the driver had to identify himself via an electronic card reader, but now everybody else in the car has to wait outside of the fenced (!) gas stations where armed security agents are present.

2) If a police men sees a laowei, they might aproach him to take his/her picture and let identification software run over this picture. If a resemblance of 95% or higher with a wanted person occurs, the police officer has to contact his supervisor. One can understand what will then happen next… In my case, a guy with a resemblance of 85% was found. The police officer showed us the whole process and was very kind in explaining everything to us. I have to admit, I could see where the 85% resemblance came from. This seems some very strong software…

3) Apparently, I had a tiny screwdriver somewhere down below in my luggage. Security at Brussels, Moscow or Beijing didn’t find it. But the very thorough people at Urümqi airport did. Off went the forgotten screwdriver… Of course, this was my own fault, I just tell this story to show how thoroughly they work.

4) If I compare my experiences to the stories of Ameling and Ben, it seems that being accompanied by a Chinese citizen helps to avoid worse investigations. At least, I wasn’t taken aside for questioning, as they both were…

Conclusion

Sandaoling is starting to become a bit overcrowded with lots of enthusiasts coming from everywhere. But of course, what can you expect at the last big steam show on Earth… Let’s hope we can keep the freedom of walking around nearly everywhere. In Belgium, companies would go mad just at the idea of railway photographers walking on the tracks everywhere. Then I’m even forgetting the hordes of Chinese tourists who really don’t know the danger of a (steam) train. That being said, what a fantastic place Sandaoling is… Who could have dreamed that steam traction would vanish in such a beautiful way… Who would have hoped in 2018, we would still be able to see and hear a JS working at full force pulling another load of black gold out of an open cast mine somewhere in China?

Let’s hope that the announced China Rail coal trains will efectively be steam hauled/banked and enough coal trains between Xikeng and Xuanmeichang keep on running. If this is actually going to happen as planned, it will definitely be a reason to go back. However, things could as easily turn out otherwise in the end… I’m already keeping my fingers crossed.

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© 2018 Dave Habraken