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Rongshan - Luopoloing - Pingzhuang - Chifeng - Jalainur - Fuxin - Fushun - Liujiaxia - Sandaoling - Yongchuan

The latest journey to China was a final attempt to visit the Rongshan narrow gauge line in Sichuan, as it was closed during the previous two trips in November 2013 and Feb 2014. As I had four weeks up my sleeve, it was decided to make a meal out of it and visit Pingzhuang, Jalainuer, Fuxin, Fushun and the Yongchuan electric narrow gauge plus a final bash at Sandaoling, hoping to catch operations on the new line and possibly a few spoil trains before they finished. Yuanbaoshan was also considered, but was scratched from the list before we left Australia from the recent reports it had ceased steam operations. Other locations we mulled over were the Mojiang narrow gauge and Kunming meter gauge, the latter now under threat, but Yongchuan won over Mojiang and we ran out of time for Kunming, being too far away to spend a day at best for. I am considering a short visit to the Kunming narrow gauge next year and anyone interested in joining are welcome to contact me.

Once again, I was joined by my very good friend from Sydney, Steven Buljubasic, and train tickets were booked by our long suffering Hong Kong friend/translator/travel advice/phone recharger, Rick Wong - many thanks for all your help. Also many thanks to Michael Reilly, Bernd Seiler and Wilson Lythgoe for your assistance during planning. On a much sadder note, half way through our trip I learned of the passing of Dave Fielding, webmaster of the SY-Country website a couple of weeks prior. I had enjoyed conversing with Dave a number of times over the years and viewed his site (and its contributors) as the most valuable resource available during the planning stages of my China steam adventures. Thank you for your efforts in maintaining the site Dave, Rest in Peace.

Armed with only a handful of translations and a bunch of maps, we travelled on twelve trains covering almost 10,000 kilometres alone as well as two internal flights. We came away with thousands of photographs, hours of video and countless memories that will last a lifetime. Steam is certainly in its final days and we had our fair share of disappointments, nevertheless this voyage would rank as one of the best yet. If you have the means, book a flight and get over there to see what's left while you still can.

Given the length of this report, I have split it into three sections. The first part contains Rongshan, Luopoling, Pingzhuang, Chifeng & between. The other two parts are as follows:

Part 2 covering Jalainur, Fuxin, Fushun, Beijing and between - click here

Part 3 covering Lanzhou & Liujiaxia, Sandaoling, Yongchuan & between - click here

26 October 2014

In the morning we were informed by our booking agent that our flight with Sichuan Airlines from Melbourne to Chengdu had been delayed by six hours, which knocked our plans into disarray and resulted in changing our train tickets from Chengdu to Guangyuan. As sod's law would have it, as soon as the changes were made, a second email from our booking agent arrived, announcing that the delay had now increased to 11 hours. Unable to trust Sichuan Airlines in getting us there at all, I gave up on the idea of getting a train altogether and instead organized our taxi driver, Mr. Wang, to pick us up from Chengdu. A lot of messing around and an endless supply of headaches and heartburn to our tireless friend Rick. As full service airlines go, the food was below par and in typical Chinese style, the climate control was set to maximum which felt like hot bleed air from the engines was being directly fed into the cabin. On the plus side however, the airfares were extremely good value ($AU 670 return) and on top of this, were nice enough to compensate us on arrival in Chengdu enough to pay for the taxi (a newish Honda Accord) to Guangyuan. We arrived at the Lizhou Grand Hotel just before midnight and, although some 5 hours late, were back on track with no trackside time lost.

27 October 2014

As prearranged, Mr. Wang arrived on time at 0730 and we headed off to Rongshan. The rain was bucketing down, something we would have to contend with for the next few days. He somehow managed to squeeze the taxi between a queue of trucks at the entrance lane to the station, but once we emerged, were greeted to the surreal sight of China last real narrow gauge steam railway (and, no - Shibanxi no longer applies to real steam in my opinion). C2 211 and 219 (leading) were already attached to a train of ten hoppers and a yellow caboose. All trains we saw during our stay were tender first with 219 on the lead, probably due to her SY style tender giving greater visibility than 211's tender. Today's traffic was only one down train (banker) to the Shanziba mine where it separated. 219 and the caboose headed to Yujiabian (the mine farthest from Rongshan) and 211 swapped empties for loaded coal hoppers.

It took an hour waiting in a torrential downpour before we came to our senses and headed back to Rongshan to wait for the return trains where we could at least find some shelter.

While waiting, we were granted brief access into the work shops where #210 and 218 were receiving attention. There is a pair of electric locomotives minus pantographs inside also gathering dust and a further electric locomotive stored in a building opposite the workshop with a green passenger car (all 07/2010 built). No work was being done on either of the steam locomotives during our short visit as it was during lunch break, possibly one of the reasons we were allowed inside in the first place.

After leaving the depot, we spent some time around dumped SY 1305 in the yard on the standard gauge. Most of her fittings remain, although she is slowly rotting away. we took refuge around the unloading point and shortly after taking up position, the first train with #211 returned with half a dozen loaded coal hoppers. At the yard, she changed ends and pushed her train through the unloading point. Sadly a dog had taken shelter from the rain between the sleepers and after the first car rolled over her, she made a dash for it but was cut in half by the second hopper, not something I wished I had on my video. After unloading, 219 arrived with her train of eight hoppers.

We stayed to watch the unloading of the cars and walked up to the fuelling point where we were able to get some pretty good shots of the locos. After ascertaining there would be no further trains for the day, we headed back to Rongshan for some well needed R&R.

28 October 2014

Mr. Wang as usual arrived on time at the hotel, and passed us on to a new driver who would be with us for the next few days. he spoke no English, but he was very friendly and knew exactly what we were after. I never actually got his name, but I presume he is the same gentleman who took Ameling Algra around in his August trip - for all intents and purposes for this report, I shall refer to him as Mr. X.

We headed again for Rongshan, where #211 was pulling a pair of flat cars out of a siding behind the locomotive depot. 219 was already at the helm of the morning train. Steve remained in the depot area to get the departure in the yard area and I took a quick walk to the bridge over the Nanhe river. The rain was still heavy today, but not like the unrelenting constant downpour experienced yesterday. The effects of the previous days very heavy rainfall had however, turned the somewhat tranquil river into a raging torrent with a deafening roar.

Number 219 led the train of seven hoppers and two flat cars with 211 pushing from the rear (both tender first). Very shortly after the train passed, the taxi driver and Steve showed up and we raced off to Yujiabian, deciding to skip Caiziba along the way. Once again, it was quite easy to catch up with the train a couple of times along the way for some quick photos as the train snaked its way through the superb valleys. When we arrived at Yujiabian, the boom gate at the entrance of the yard was still locked indicating that the train still hadn't arrived. I decided to walk up the line about 500 meters while Steve stayed in the yard area. The gamble of heading to Yujiabian paid off well as the entire train arrived intact with both locomotives.

Keen to get more main line shots, I walked a further kilometre up the line to the first village for the first return train. By the time this eventuated, I could have easily walked to Caiziba by the time it came through. This train led by C2 211 had an impressive load of 15 hoppers and a caboose.

After this train passed, I walked back towards Yujiabian setting up at a location underneath some spectacular cliffs and a gentle S bend, providing a more than ideal photographic location. Steven stayed around Yujiabian where the action was and was even able to secure a brief cab ride on a C2, the first of many over the next 4 weeks!

As soon as 219 came through with her train, I met back up with Steve at Yujiabian and we made our way back to Rongshan. Despite the walk back to the taxi over the perilous cable bridge, there was still enough time to beat the 219's train back to the unloading point.

We stayed in the depot area for the refuelling of the locomotives and spent some time exploring the sidings and a part of the disused line. We also found SY 1434 locked away inside a large shed close by to 1305. She looks to be in very good condition, although the chances of her running again are extremely minimal. The shed was locked, however there was just enough gap under the door to put the camera underneath the large doors and get a few snaps. Again, no afternoon trains and we arrived back at Guangyuan at about 3pm.

29 October 2014

Another bright and early start to Rongshan. The forecast was sunny with no rain, a welcome relief after the previous couple of days we'd had. It was good to see the bureau of meteorology is about as accurate as ours in Melbourne with the sun remaining hidden behind cloud for all but three minutes, but at least the temperature was comfortable enough to explore the line a bit more and no rain to destroy our cameras. We followed green/gold DF4B #9436 with a mixed freight for most of the way from Guangyuan, Mr. X doing a good job keeping up with it.

We headed to the depot area with not much change from the previous couple of days, asides from a flat car being loaded with what appeared to be oxygen tanks. We set up around the bridge area again for the departure and before long 219 on point with 211 trailing and a caboose, eight hoppers & a flatcar spliced in between.

With a bit more time up our sleeves, we were able to catch it along the long cutting around Yujiaxiangfang. I left the taxi about a kilometre north of Caiziba with Steve heading further down line with Mr. X. I attempted to head on to the other side of the river to get the first train over the small stone bridge after finding a large walk bridge, navigating my way through the horrendously sticky mud paths between the farmers vegetable patches. Ultimately I was thwarted by a large wall of growth (the large black and yellow Argiope spider web I walked in to with the occupier landing on my face had nothing to do with my retreat.... and that white guy running away flailing his arms around and squealing like a girl wasn't me). Moving right along...

Having made my way back to the line (with still no sign of any train), I walked towards Caiziba, finding a nice little spot with a couple of houses and some very friendly locals who offered me a nice cup of tea. An elderly lady even brought out a chair for me to sit on until the train came. The delay of the train became evident when some track gangers arrived to work on a section of rail with a failed fishplate. Eventually 211 slowly approached and the drivers all left the cab to see the progress of the track repairs. As tempting as it was to commandeer the unattended train, thought it would be a better idea to make the most of the time and take as many photos as possible with some very good results.

Steve eventually rejoined me after about an hour and some 20 minutes later, a worker arrived on a motor bike with a replacement fishplate with some pretty drastic modifications to the bolt holes!

During the hold up, and unbeknownst to us, 219 attached to the rear of 211's train with another two hoppers, giving a pretty interesting consist of #211 - eight hoppers - caboose - #219 - two hoppers. We were able to catch it rolling over the big bridge just south of Rongshan. Sadly, this also reduced the amount of return trains to one, but still an interesting day's events.

With the work over for the day, our driver took us back towards Guangyuan, but not before a visit along the Guang-Wang standard gauge branch line between Guangyuan and Rongshan. This line appears to be handled exclusively by green and gold DF4B's (Ziyang, 1998). We saw units 9436 and 9439, indicating there may well be a small concentration of them working this line. Seeing these diesels in this colour, despite being relatively young for a DF4, is a real treat, and for the railway enthusiasts interested in traction other than steam, this line could have some very interesting possibilities. We waited at an old coal loading platform (3223'14.43"N 10556'59.80"E) and once again, the caretaker (presumably) brought out three deck chairs for us while we waited for the train! Before long 9436 rolled slowly into the platform and stopped for about 10 minutes to allow 9439 to pass.

After a few trains, we thought to give the driver the rest of the day off, but he was quite keen to take us to Red Star park towards the east of the city. This park commemorates the Red Army and has four themes, each to commemorate Communist propaganda, education, recreational activities and a memorial to those who died in the massive 2008 earthquake, with nearly 5000 deaths in Guangyuan alone. The park is about 100 acres and is situated on a series of very steep hills, and just viewing the steps leading up to the large red tower after a day of tromping around Rongshan was nearly enough to bring me to tears. A view of the Guang-Wang branch line is also offered from the top, however there would be much better places for photography of the trains on this line due to all the trees and poles in the way. The education section was interesting with a gigantic trumpet and a pair of large tablets with 'sheet music' behind a gigantic piano, with the score of the Chinese National anthem... amusingly half of it is out of key. More education required....

30 October 2014

On our last day in Rongshan, we spent most of our time around Caiziba. The weather was forecast for drizzle, but luckily this held off for our time line side. After getting the morning's departure train at the bridge area, we followed it to Caiziba. The walking path from the road to the line was ridiculously stupid to attempt with very wet stones, copious amounts of sticky mud and steep inclines, but attempt we did and amazingly we were able to get down without fracturing any bones or damaging our camera equipment. By the we got down to the line, 219 had already departed for Yujiabian and 211 was almost ready to join her after leaving the caboose behind, which was already being loaded with large bottles of some sort and boxes of vegetables.

Caiziba was the old prison mine, with the large white apartment looking buildings being the accommodation for those unfortunate to be detained here. We didn't attempt to enter the old prison buildings, although I doubt there would have been much objection had we tried. Instead we went through the tunnel adjacent to the mine which opened up an incredibly beautiful place with a long sweeping curve leading most of the way to Yujiabian with tall mountains on one side and the river, which had thankfully started to ease from the previous couple of days, on the other. The first train took almost an hour to present itself, rolling through with two flat cars loaded with equipment from the mine, thirteen loaded coal hoppers and a guards van.

Number 211 returned first and after it passed, Steve took up position near the bridge at Caiziba and myself a couple of hundred meters away where a canopy of bamboo covers the line. The second train took quite some time to head back, nearly an hour, and when it did, it spent another 20 minutes or so shuffling wagons about before bringing out a respectable sized train of sixteen loaded hoppers and the caboose. By the time it departed, it was nearly 2pm and we started to make our way to the airport for our flight CA1458 to Beijing, but not before another stop on the Guang-Wang line to witness our last green/gold DF4B fly past with a sizeable mixed freight.

Guangyuan airport is situated on top of a hill quite some distance from the city and is a reasonably large airport, albeit quiet. On the apron was a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan registration B-3641 belonging to Sichuan Aolin General Aviation (ex-China Southern). Our aircraft was a relatively new Boeing 737-700 (no winglets) registration B-5045, and given our poor experience on the Sydney - Beijing flight with the same airline almost exactly one year ago, this was actually a refreshing change with pleasant staff, a decent meal and a comfortable thermostat setting. We arrived at the New World Beijing Hotel just after 9pm which was quite nice, however given our state of exhaustion and the early wake up for tomorrow's outing to Luopoling, we couldn't really enjoy it!

It was only a week after our visit, that we got the news from John Raby's group that the Rongshan narrow gauge line had unexpectedly shut down permanently, with mine equipment being hastily removed from the mines before the electricity was turned off due to an overdue account. There may be workings over the next few days/weeks to remove more mining equipment, or even recyclable track. Given that we were toying with the idea of leaving Rongshan to the end of the tour, we are very lucky we got there before it was over. Whether or not the line reopens in a Shibanxi style operation remains to be seen, but either way, real narrow gauge steam operations are now a part of China's history.

31 October 2014

The hotel provided a superb breakfast with almost every conceivable item (including fresh full cream milk) and we were greeted by our driver to take us to Luopoling for a day of mainline photography. This was a location I'd been wanting to visit for many years after various reports, but was always put on the backburner in place of a steam line. I had pre-booked private transportation through Wild Great Wall Adventure Tours to make the most of the day, without having to try and find busses with 35kg's of luggage. While fairly pricey at nearly 800RMB for the day, the driver was quite amicable and the Buick people mover was reasonably clean and tidy, not to mention the unbeatable convenience.

The travel time was almost an hour with the driver having to ask for directions a couple of times and it seems we took the long way round. The road from Beijing is simply superb with huge mountains, and while close to Beijing, felt like we were in another part of the world (if not for the ever present pollution haze). Before the station, we noticed a modified caboose (with the body mounted to an N17 flat car) overturned near a level crossing - heck knows what happened to that!

Luopoloing station is quite secluded with access via a series of alleyways. The sidings had a pair of standard S13 cabooses (missing glass windows). Thick grease was applied to the grab handles (a security measure?) and they appear to have not been used for some time. Another fresher S13 caboose body mounted to an N17 class flat car was in another of the yard tracks. Trains were coming through in both directions in approximate five minute intervals. Before heading over the viaducts to the more scenic areas, DF7C 6024 arrived off the branch line with a small train of hoppers and attached the flat/caboose to the train before continuing on.

Once we crossed the viaduct, the real beauty of the place appeared with crystal clear water, more of the same beautiful mountain ranges with a pair of long concrete viaducts crossing the Yongding river. The large haze of pollution over Beijing had unfortunately crept in over this area as well, but no matter, this place is still seriously beautiful and we were both happy with the photos we were achieving.

99% of the traffic was handled by electric units, notably SS4G, 8K, HXD2 on the freights and HXD3C and HXD3 on the passenger trains. Only two trains during the whole day were diesels, a parcels train in each direction with a DF4DK and about twenty P65 box car vans with a pair of passenger cars spliced in between. Freight traffic was varied with a good mix of gondolas, tank cars, containers and mixed traffic. Some of the real treats were the passenger train from Ulan Bator consisting of a mix of Chinese and Russian rolling stock, a long military train carrying tracked anti-aircraft guns and a maintenance train of a dozen white/red/orange passenger cars (converted from a range of types) with another ten track machines attached to the rear, all behind a very slow moving 8K. Double headers were uncommon, with only three seen during the day including one with a HXD2/SS4G combo and only one light engine movement (8K) was seen.

In the 7 hours we had there, we saw almost 100 trains pass through, even with a notable decline in traffic in the early afternoon on the north bound track, but by this stage the rain had started to set in anyway and the driver was "encouraging us" to head back to Beijing!

Eventually we surrendered to the clearly bored driver and he took us to to Beijing North railway station, with constant on-the-minute updates on how crap the traffic was. We still had a few hours to kill before our service to Chifeng (Train 2559) would depart, which we did in the large shopping mall adjacent to the station building. Not surprisingly, Beijing North had completely transformed from my last visit in 2000 when I toured Jing Peng. The main building is now a standard modern Chinese station - i.e. massive and cold. I was happy to see the old buildings were intact over on platform 1 in a somewhat preserved state. Our train was led by DF4D 0030 (1997 Dalian) with modified headlights. It had been a while since I had seen a DF4D (back in Shenzhen in 2005) so it was nice to see these units still in operation (and in great numbers it seems).

01 November 2014

When we awoke on K275, we were stopped in a passing loop where an army of track workers were setting up for the day and we were held up for nearly 20 minutes before an opposing passenger train passed us. As soon as we arrived in Chifeng, we had to quickly drop off our bags in the left luggage area and board another local train (K7384) with only 15 minutes to spare. Rick had managed to book us soft seats on this service at our request - a particularly rare class of travel on the green-skin trains. The car was in very good condition with seating in 2+2 configuration.

After an hour or so of travel, we arrived at Pingzhuang Nan and quickly made for the mining railway in the hope of seeing one of the three operating SY's roll in with a train of hoppers. We were instead greeted with a very shabby DF4B (#1525, Dalian 1988) after a 3 kilometer walk, with a long train burbling along - the only diesel locomotives we expected to see.

After a very long walk up the line towards the depot aream which we found locked, we could see SY 1441 cold outside the shed. Asides from the steam crane and a pair of K type ballast hoppers, the depot was empty. The other steamers were possibly locked in the sheds.

Not giving up hope, we passed through the stabling area quickly and headed to the washery where 1525 returned from Pingzhuang Nan with six empty hoppers from the mainline. It appears 1525 is getting through a lot of oil. We saw the crew loading buckets of oil into the engine compartment twice during the day, possibly coinciding with the fresh oil stains all over the track.

When we had finished photographing the shunting movements at the washery, we headed up line towards the mines and not too long after, a second equally shabby DF4B (#6087, Datong 1990), was heading to the depot light engine. Things were not looking good for steam. When we made it to the first mine and consulted with the friendly staff at the level crossing, he told us steam had finished only a few days ago. The line doesn't see much work anymore, and the two diesels could easily handle the workload, so unless the diesels fail (which, given their apparent condition is a possibility), it looks like steam has permanently finished in Pingzhuang (again!).

We returned to Chifeng in the afternoon, exhausted from the 10 kilometre trek (not to mention on little sleep from the previous night's train) and went straight for our bags at the train station and on to the Chifeng hotel a few blocks up.

02 November 2014

Having determined that there would be no more steam at Pingzhuang, we decided to spend the half day we had prior to catching the K275 to Manzhouli, around Chifeng taking in some more mainline diesel traction in the Chifeng area. The weather was perfect and after consulting the local maps, determined the best place for railway photography in the city would be at a long bridge section about four kilometres to the west of Chifeng railway station. We decided to walk line side to maximise the amount of trains we could catch, finding an alley way leading to the track only a hundred or so meters from the station. As many locals were openly walking over the line, we took the when-in-Rome approach and set up for about an hour. The line is called the Jing-Tong line which runs from Beijing to Tongliao (not to be confused with the more famous Ji-Tong line). The line out of Chifeng towards Beijing is a bi-directional single track with moderately high traffic levels.

The first train we encountered was DF5 #1615 (Sifang 1997) with a chemical train from the branch line that leads to a series of chemical plants near Chifeng airport. Asides from that, all freight trains were headed with DF4C, DF4D and HXN3 diesels (sometimes double headed). Most freight appears to be coal, although we couldn't really figure out a pattern with loaded coal trains passing through Chifeng in both directions!

Only two trains were seen between the railway station and the bridges we were aiming for, a mixed freight behind the dumpyy looking (yet very powerful) HXN3 and a long coal freight behind double header DF4C + HXN3.

Finally reaching the long bridge provided an excellent vantage point with nice views of the city outskirts, but only for north bound trains thanks to the strong sunshine. Approximately ten trains in three hours from here, three of which were behind DF4C's - one each from Dalian (#4392, 1997), Ziyang (#5094, 1997) and Datong (#0026, 1999) factories! An army train passed through behind a HXD3 carrying flat cars with copy Humvee's (Dong Feng EQ2050). The only passenger train to pass us was DF4D 0099 (Dalian, 1997) with K276.

Our train started boarding at 1730, and as always was the typical push-and-shove affair for the ticket check queues, a somewhat pointless exercise given that even hard seats were allocated! Within a few minutes of departure, it became quite clear that the next 21 hours would be a torture chamber with all heaters turned to "Punish them" level.

Continued in part two - Click here!

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