Steam Along the Yellow River

27 February - 09 March 2008

Report by Duncan Cotterill


This report covers a 12 day steam photographic trip to China with Peter Breeze and Robin Gibbons in early Spring 2008. We were accompanied as always by Sun Xiaolan, who made all the arrangements. After three successful spring trips to North-East China, it seemed time to do something different. This time we travelled west from Beijing to visit three steam operations along the Yellow River. The steelworks at Baotou is largely dieselised but still employs a number of SYs. Further west at Gongwusu, a rarely visited coal mining system uses a couple of JSs. Our final destination was the mine and smelter complex at Baiyin with its active fleet of SYs.

Beijing – Baotou

(28 Feb 2008)
After meeting up at Beijing Airport on 28 February, we flew on to Baotou during the afternoon on CA 1144 (737-800). At Baotou Airport we met our driver and travelled into town to the Super 8 Hotel where we stayed for the next two nights. In case you’re wondering, that’s Super 8 as in Kingman AZ, Barstow CA, Whitefish MT and other places frequented by discerning railfans.

Baotou Steelworks

(29 Feb – 01 Mar 2008)
Although I've been to Baotou many times, it's been a few years since my last visit and 14 years since I visited the steelworks itself. Much has changed in the meantime and I didn't recognise much of the infrastructure in the steelworks.

Steam operations have decreased considerably in recent years but there is still a reasonable level of activity in some parts of the complex. We found no less than 11 locos in steam plus one more under repair. Staff at the depot indicated that there were still 13 working engines so we missed one somewhere, probably SY 1697. Four recently withdrawn locos were also at the depot along with the preserved JS and YJ. The ET7 and XK13 were plinthed opposite the depot.

The diesel fleet continues to expand with brand new DF7G 1097 being the latest example seen. Most of the work in the heart of the complex seemed to be handled by a substantial fleet of GK0 B-B hydraulics but locos of classes GK1, GK3B and TH4 were also seen. The DF7G were working the yards on the western edge of the complex and probably also handling interchange traffic with CNR.

The slag tipping operation was totally steam worked during our visit with a train visiting one or other of the tips on the southern edge of the complex every hour or so. It used to be possible to photograph tipping from fields between the tips and the CNR loco depot but not any more. The whole area has now been taken over by the steelworks and you need to be inside the boundary wall to get a good view.

It’s unusual for the steam locomotive on a train not to be the star of the show but the tipping itself was so spectacular that it wouldn’t really have mattered what was hauling the train. The weather was fairly poor during our visit but slag tipping photographs well whatever the weather.

Baotou Steelworks Steam Locos

Working Locos :
SY 1293, 1431, 1517, 1631, 1677, 1696, 1723, 1727, 1731, 1743, 1748
Under repair :
SY 1676
Out of Service :
SY 1518, 1521, 1719, 2015
Preserved :
ET7 5333, JS 58001, XK13 5903, YJ 232

CNR Baotou Xi Depot

(29 Feb 2008)
Baotou Xi is the main CNR depot for the area and is located at the east end of the large Baotou Xi marshalling yard, just to the south of the steelworks slag tips. In steam days the depot was home to a large fleet of QJ class 2-10-2s used on freights and passengers on the east-west main line and locally in the Baotou area. Nowadays the depot’s allocation consists of DF4B, DF4C, passenger DF4D, DF5, DF7C and DF8B diesels.

A small open-air museum has been established at the depot with 5 steam locos in the formal museum area and a further 23 rotting away nearby. Staff reported that these were a strategic reserve kept at the government’s behest but none appeared capable of being returned to service without a very major overhaul.

Baotou Xi Locomotive Depot Steam Locos

Preserved :
DK2 114, YH 1653, JF 518, JS 8316, QJ 6834
YH was the pre-Cultural Revolution name of the FD class

Strategic Reserve :
JS 8001, 8004, 8005, 8007, 8008, 8009, 8010, 8267, 8279, 8280, 8282, 8317, 8319, 8321, 8320, 8322, 8325, 8326, 8327, 8328, 8329, QJ 6518, 6831

CNR Baotou Area

(29 Feb - 01 Mar 2008)
Most freights to the east appeared to be DF8B hauled while DF4C predominated on freights to the west. Passengers in both directions were seen with DF4D or DF4DK in charge. Several locos were stabled at the east end of Baotou station. A couple of DF4B were on shed at Baotou Dong, presumably for working the loop and Shiguai passengers. DF7C have joined the numerous DF5 on trips and shunts in the Baotou area.

Baotou Dong – Wuhai

(01 Mar 2008)
We travelled west from Baotou Dong to Wuhai on train 2635, a Huhehaote to Lanzhou working. Our soft sleeper coach was an RW19A, a designation I’ve not been aware of before. All the signing inside the coach was bilingual in Chinese and Russian but there was no obvious builder’s plate to indicate the vehicle’s origin. DF4D 0524 brought the train into Baotou Dong and then continued westwards, presumably as far as Huinong (formerly Shizuishan). Those freights we saw en-route were hauled by DF4C. Passenger 1134/1135 had a DF4DK on the front. Observations were not aided by the fierce dust storm that was blowing for much of the journey. At Wuhai we were met by our driver and taken to the Xinyun hotel, where we stayed for two nights.

Linhe Depot

(01 Mar 2008)
Approx 20 dumped QJ and JS were seen from the train including : JS 8014, 8017?, QJ 6758, 6908, 6994?, 6995?, 7053, 7065 all dumped (or possibly another strategic reserve).

Gongwusu Coal Railway

(02 - 03 Mar 2008)
This railway is situated at the south end of the 53km CNR branch that connects Gongwusu to Wuhai on the Baotou – Lanzhou main line. Some sources have referred to the location as Lasengmiao but it's actually at Gongwusu. The Gongwusu area has a number of large industrial plants using coal from local mines but most appear to be served by road. Most of the wagons we saw had Shenhua markings and the railway may belong to the huge mining company.

The railway is the remnant of an extensive industrial system serving an opencast mine, at least two deep mines, a washery, a tar loading point and a large power station (see map). The lines are steeply graded and locos face chimney first uphill. In its heyday it must have been a rewarding system to photograph but most of the potential traffic has gone over to road haulage and there is little work for the line’s remaining locomotives.

The current rail operation connects one deep mine, the output side of the washery and the tar loading point with CNR’s Gongwusu station. When things are happening it’s pleasant enough to photograph but there are long periods of inactivity.

The line to the power station has clearly been out of use for some time and may never have been used to transport coal to the facility. The yard adjacent to the loco servicing point contains a large number of hopper wagons that show no sign of ever having been used.

There are two opencast mines to the east of town. The original mine used to have a rail connection but spoil and coal are now taken out by road. The newer mine shows no sign of ever having been rail connected.

The washery is fed by lorries from both opencast mines and generates most of the line’s traffic. Loaded trains are tripped the short distance to the CNR yard several times a day. Most of these movements are hauled by a chimney first loco but sometimes the wagons are pushed over the connecting line.

The line to mine 3 has the most photographic potential but trains only run when the mine requests more wagons. On the first day we visited, trips ran to mine 3 at 09:50 and 17:20 but the second day only saw one train at 12:40. Trains from the tar loading facility are even less frequent with only one working observed during the two days we were there.

Although the line nominally has five operational locos, only two are steamed at any time and only one is usually required to do any work. The other spends most of its time in light steam at the servicing point, located in a yard south of the washery. During our visit JS 6250 was the working engine and JS 6251 was in steam as the spare loco. JS 6251 was unusual as it had no cowling round the chimney, giving it a rather different (and very attractive) appearance. In the workshops, close to the servicing point, JS 6249 was cold but due to be steamed in the next day or so. SY 0934 was being overhauled and SY 1315 was in store (and had been for a considerable time judging by its appearance). Derelict SY 0360 and 1053 were at the servicing point and beside the wagon repair shop nearby respectively.

Gongwusu Coal Railway Steam Locomotives

Working Locos :
JS 6250, 6251
Cold serviceable :
JS 6249
Under Repair :
SY 0934
Long Term Stored :
SY 1315
Derelict :
SY 0360, 1053

CNR Gongwusu Area

(02 - 03 Mar 2008)
Freights on the Wuhai – Gongwusu line were worked by DF4B diesels. All the locos seen had Baotou shedcodes. Traffic levels were reaonable, with trains arriving at Gongwusu every 2 – 3 hours. Much of the traffic was interchanged with the coal railway but wagons were also being loaded in the CNR station area. The line did not appear to have a passenger service. Two newly built lines continue north from Gongwusu CNR station towards other industrial plants but neither line appeared to be in regular use.

Wuhai – Baiyin Xi

(03 – 04 Mar 2008)
After two days at Gongwusu, we rejoined train 2635 at Wuhai for the overnight journey west to Baiyin Xi. We had the same stock and the same crew as previously but this time DF4D 0522 hauled the train to Huinong, formerly Shizuishan. An SS3 was on the front on arrival at Baiyin Xi the following morning.

Baiyin Mineral Railway

(04-08 Mar 2008)
This was my second visit to Baiyin and after three days of poor weather, unexpected tender first workings and trains running at the wrong times it was shaping up to being just as unsuccessful as the first time. The final 24 hours were much better and we eventually got some good shots. Our base was the plush Wansheng hotel on the western outskirts of Baiyin.

The passenger timetable was basically unaltered from previous reports although the precise timing of trains did vary a bit from day to day. As a rule, trains to Shenbutong were chimney first and those to Sanyelian were tender first. On our previous visit, the locos on the Sanyelian trains could face either way at random but this time they were consistently tender first uphill. The Sanyelian trains loaded to seven coaches and the Shenbutong trains to six, more than enough to make the locos work hard on the steep and sharply curved line into the hills. The midday schools trains between Gongsi and Xinzhan didn't run at weekends and were formed of a loco and a single coach. These workings were propelled in one direction. The loco could be at either end of the stock and facing in either direction.

Freight traffic on the scenic line to the north was very limited. The mine at Shenbutong was working and was sometimes served by an uphill train of empties between 09:30 and 10:30. On other occasions it was around midday before the empties went to the mine. The locos on these trains were always chimney first uphill. We didn’t see any freight going to Sanyelian but there was a lot of construction work going on there and the smelter may not have been in production.

The yard at Gongsi was usually busy with shunting movements and trips to and from the various smelters and factories in the complex. DFH5 0117, thought to belong to a local factory, was seen in the yard on one occasion and CNR DF5 appeared now and again on transfers to and from the CNR yard. Everything else was steam with every loco except the Shenbutong passenger engine facing west.

Potential visitors should note that the whole area is out of bounds unless you have arranged permission. This includes Gongsi Yard, the loco depot, the lines to the various factories and smelters and the line north to Sanyelian and Shenbutong. Security was less bureaucratic than last time we were here but it was pretty clear that the company police knew who was supposed to be there and who wasn’t. Permits were issued by the Transportation Division of the Baiyin Non-Ferrous Metal Co. and covered the railway facilities only, not the factories and smelters or their sidings, which were strictly out of bounds.

We saw seven different SYs in steam with another undergoing a major overhaul. Four JS and three SY were clearly dumped but the status of three other SY was unclear. SY 0819 was first seen parked outside the depot with its air pump missing. However, by the time we left, it had been shunted into the compound behind the depot along with the two engines from the Liancheng Tiehejinchang operation north of Yaojie.

Baiyin Mine & Smelter Complex Steam Locos

Working Locos :
SY 0612, 0965, 1013, 1047, 1470, 1581, 2008
Major Overhaul :
SY 1583
Out of Use :
SY 0819 (awaiting repairs?)
Stored? :
SY 0150, 1097 (Liancheng/Tiehejinchang locos)
Dumped :
JS 8021, 8082, 8224, 8350, SY 0135, 0139, 0194

Baiyin – Beijing - UK

(08-09 Mar 2008)
We took our last photos at Baiyin early on the afternoon of 8 March and then travelled to Lanzhou Airport in a police van (yes, really!) for flight CA 1222 back to Beijing (737-800). After a night at the airport hotel, we bade farewell and all went our separate ways again.

My flight home left from Beijing's new Terminal 3, a massive group of 3 structures on the opposite side of the main runway from Terminals 1 and 2. Access to the terminal was via a shuttle bus link from outside the arrivals level of Terminal 2 and took about 15 minutes. Terminal 3 is vast and currently virtually empty with only a handful of airlines currently using the facility. My BA flight at midday was one of only two international departures during the day and initially I seemed to be the only person there who wasn't a member of staff. Most of the shops hadn't been opened and the whole place has a surreal "Marie Celeste" atmosphere about it.


Baotou Steelworks was clearly winding down its steam operation and the remaining locos looked rather tired and unkempt. We found very little steam activity within the main complex although the slag tipping operation provided enough interest to keep us busy. It’s clear that a few more DF7G will finish steam off here.

It’s always interesting to visit somewhere that hasn’t been reported in detail and do some genuine exploration. Gongwusu was no exception to this and our two days on the system were quite enjoyable. There are a few pleasant locations but there isn’t a great deal of photographic potential and there are long periods when nothing much happens. It’s worth a visit if you happen to be in the area but not worth making a special trip to see. As usual on most obscure lines, the staff were very friendly and made us welcome. There were no suggestions from staff that diesels were imminent.

Baiyin is a difficult system to get right. The best shots are on the line north to Sanyelian and Shenbutong but the timings of the passengers aren’t ideal in the coldest months. A trip in early March seemed the best compromise between the trains running in daylight and temperatures cool enough for a visible exhaust. What we didn’t expect was three days of cloudy weather and a fair amount of rain. Our driver said that rain was very unusual in the Baiyin area and we were lucky to see it. Eventually the weather did improve and we got many of the shots we wanted before we left. Baiyin is still doing major overhauls on its SYs and doesn’t look as if it's likely to go diesel any time in the near future.

It's not clear what the locos from Liancheng/Tiehejinchang were doing at Baiyin. The works used to overhaul engines from other operations in the Lanzhou area but these two have been here since October 2007 and don't appear to have received any attention in the meantime.

Steam may be on its way out in China but it certainly isn't finished yet. There are still a reasonable number of top quality industrial locations left and it's now clear that the Olympics won't mean the end of steam operation. Go while you can.