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China Steam's Last Fling

Klaus Marks

8 February 2010

Note the spelling of locations is phonetic and is probably not the official one! Maps of the Chinese Railway system are available at:



Klaus Marks paid the group a return visit on 8th February - he had previously appeared in front of the group over 10 years ago when he gave a presentation about the Bluebell Railway. This time his talk was of a more international flavour, as he presented a record of his 2003 trip to see Chinese steam in action. This had been well organised by the Railway Magazine, the only disappointment being the absence of snow. But for Klaus it certainly lived up to its promise of offering a reminder of 1968 as steam was on the way out in the UK.

The party flew into Beijing and, after an overnight stay to recover from the 10 hour flight, moved on to Dahuichang, just outside Beijing, to see the 760mm narrow gauge line. This line brings limestone from a quarry to a marshalling yard. The rolling stock consisted of small 4-wheel tubs, and only two working locomotives.

At Zhengzhou, the main railway station still had plenty of communist iconography. As a demonstration that it is not only in western hotels that mangers seek to exceed their customer expectations, their hotel manager specifically put them in rooms with grand views of the railway (normal tourists seem to prefer the other side). Here they could admire the Sy class 2-8-2 engines hauling long freight trains with Js class bankers. The Sy class are a relatively new design, having been built right up until 1999. The following day, they proceeded to follow the line from the track side, which winds its path through the city, often being used as a pedestrian footpath. The first photographic point was the point where the line crossed the river From here, the prevailing gradient up to the summit is 1 in 33, typically requiring double bankers. The noise and sight was spectacular. Because of the constant pounding, the track is under continual maintenance, official track gangs (with their family in tow) tightening the fixing bolts. But there are also unofficial track gangs - people gathering dislodged coal from the lineside for use in their domestic fires and recycling as home-make briquettes for resale. Finally, the line reaches the summit where there are two short tunnels providing a good vantage point to look down on the hard working locos.

A loco stabling point and freight yard at Shunantazarmy, half-way to the steel works, provided an opportunity to take a closer look at the locos and rolling stock. One exception to the extensive freight stock was a rail-car used to take staff along the line. The “economic police” were resident in a cabin at the yard who, while keeping a low profile on the first day, took exception to the party's activities on the second day and kept them well away from the track. Another marshalling yard and engine shed awaited them at the steel works which also had a substantial stock of spare wagon wheels – clearly the route up the hills didn't only take its toll on the track!

They returned to the Chinese “Orient Express” for a run to Chabunga, where a Qj replaced their electric loco to take them on the Ji-Tong line. At Lingdong, they were allowed out of the train on to the line only to be ushered back on board almost immediately – but with just time to photograph a passing goods train. A return the following day allowed them to get to the pagoda overlooking the line and station and providing an excellent panoramic view of the railway environs.

At Daban, they gained access to the loco depot which was full of Qj's lined up, some of which had been withdrawn for overhaul. A Baldwin loco of World War II vintage was also displayed for visitors.

Following an overnight journey they arrived at the Jing-Peng Pass on route to Sandejang. Here it was possible to see the same train pass the observation point on three occasions, as it zig-zags up the valley. A little up the valley at Erdee, trains were still climbing towards the summit, the sound of their approach being audible for about 10 minutes prior to their arrival.

At Jing Peng station, John Cameron, owner of A4 Bitton/Union of South Africa, was the lucky winner of an organised cab ride on the Orient Express engine. However, by offering some dollar notes, it was possible for Klaus and a travelling companion to arrange their own, slightly illicit, cab-ride on a goods train going over the summit. Unfortunately, this meant that they lost communication with their party once they had been dropped in the middle of nowhere – some further money crossed hands and they were reunited at Sanjiazi, where the group was transferred onto buses so they could photograph the Orient Express as it travelled along the line to Penhong. Here they watched freight trains being shunted and the crossing of the two daily passenger trains – one steam hauled and one diesel. Travelling back to Beijing, they stopped off for a guided tour of the Great Wall. However, the real surprise awaited them as they explored what appeared to be an abandoned loco shed, finding hidden in its dark interior the main elements of the Chinese national collection of preserved locomotives. These locomotives have since been transferred to a purpose built museum at Beijing.

Klaus finished his talk by showing some clips from the official tour video, so that the audience could experience not only the sight, but the sound of modern Chinese steam locomotives tackling the gradients with their loaded trains. It was, as Klaus pointed out, a real reminder of the closing days of British steam, albeit with much better maintained engines.