Real Steam in the South West of China

Steam in China: 05/11 – 24/11/2010

Diaobingshan, morning passenger with an SY

Is it worth a visit to China for real steam at the end of the first decade? Definitely yes! There are still real gems in the southern and western part of China which can’t be topped by any steam gala anywhere in the world. This is real steam, daily work at the limit of adhesion, sometimes filthy and always a hundred percent authentic.

How long will it last? No-one can tell you. But one thing for sure: it won’t last forever. Real steam is declining in numbers and lines, it’s a question of time when the last breath of a steam locomotive will be blown in the wind and there’s only plastic steam to give you a rough impression how the age of steam really was.

We’ve combined the steam operated narrow gauge line of Shibanxi (with several tunnels and a reversal station) with the JS and SY 2-8-2s, driven to the limits, in the west of China at the open cast mine of Sandaoling, the desert line of Yamansu, the loess mountains north of Lanzhou and, last but not least, we’re also chartering a very special locomotive in the north: the last KD6 in China, an American built 2-8-0.

We expect to see more than 40 locomotives in steam on this tour. Can any “super steam gala” compete?

Steam through the loess mountains: Baiyin



Date Itinerary
05.11. Flight to Chengdu
06.11. Afternoon arrival Chengdu or alternatively: flight from Hanoi to Chengdu with China Southern CZ 372, departure 08:35 hrs, changing flights in Guangzhou to CZ 3413 (11.05 – 14.05 hrs) arrival 16:30 Chengdu, by Charter bus to a basic hotel in Yuejin (a hotel from which you can see the steam trains on the narrow gauge line)
07.11. Linesiding along the narrow gauge line of Shibanxi (class C2), hotel in Yuejin
08.11. Travelling on the narrow gauge line of Shibanxi, guesthouse at the reversal station Mifengyan or return to Yuejin (according to your personal preference)
09.11. Linesiding along the narrow gauge line of Shibanxi, hotel in Yuejin
10.11. Morning travel and linesiding along the narrow gauge line of Shibanxi, at noon charter bus to Chengdu, domestic flight Air China CA4153 from Chengdu to Wulumuqi (Ürümqi) 16.45 - 20.10 hrs; charter bus to the railway station, continue by overnight train N882 to Hami, departure Wulumuqi 23.38 hrs
11.11. 08.00 hrs arrival in Hami, by charter bus to Sandaoling (classes JS and a SY), visit to the open cast mine of Sandaoling (JS, SY), hotel in Sandaoling
12.11. Visit to the open cast mine of Sandaoling, hotel in Sandaoling
13.11. Another visit to the open cast mine of Sandaoling, in the evening we’ll continue to Hami. Hotel in Hami
14.11. Visit to the 36 km JS-operated branch line Yamansu (class JS), guesthouse in Yamansu
15.11. Visit to Yamansu, linesiding along the desert line, in the evening we’ll return to Hami and continue by overnight train T296 (soft sleeper) to Lanzhou, dep. 21.14 hrs, or return home: departure Hami 23.58 hrs (hard sleeper)
16.11. Optional: 07.00 hrs arrival Wulumuqi (Urumqi), morning flight to Beijing and return flight home, arrival Europe in the same evening
16.11. 11.38 hrs arrival Lanzhou, continue by charter bus to Baiyin (class SY), linesiding along the line into the loess mountains, Hotel in Baiyin
17.11 Visit to the depot of Baiyin and linesiding, we try to arrange a freight train to Shenbutong hauled by steam, Hotel in Baiyin
18.11. Linesiding along the loess mountain line of Baiyin, in the evening we’ll return by charter bus to Lanzhou. From there we’ll take overnight train K120, departure 21.58 hrs.
19.11. 07.02 arrival Xi’an, continue by charter bus to Meijiaping (class QJ). Visit to the oldest known QJ which is still in service on a short spur from the state railway station to the local cement factory. There might be only one run during the day, but it’s a QJ! In the event that the QJ was replaced by a diesel we’ll visit the Terracotta Warriors near Xi’an. Hotel in Xi’an
20.11. Morning flight to Shenyang, probably China Southern CZ6402, departure 09.50 hrs, arrival 12.05 noon. Charter bus to Diaobingshan (Class SY) and linesiding. Hotel in Diaobingshan
21.11. Charter freight train with the American 2-8-0 class KD6 on the most scenic line from Diaobingshan to Faku and back. In addition we’ll see regular steam hauled passenger trains with the common 2-8-2 class SY. Hotel in Diaobingshan
22.11. Linesiding around Diaobingshan, evening continue by charter bus to Fuxin, hotel in Fuxin
23.11. Visit to the mine railway system of Fuxin (class SY), by charter bus to Shenyang Bei, where we’ll board overnight train K54. departure 21.25 hrs
24.11. 07.37 hrs arrival Beijing, charter bus to the airport return flight home, arrival Europe in the same evening


Line description


Shibanxi (Jiajang Coal Mine): This is the best known narrow gauge railway in southern China, because of its fascinating train operation and beautiful landscape. The first 2.5 miles are electrified while the remaining very scenic ten miles see steam only. In the middle of the line is a reversal station. Several tunnels, rice paddies, cliffs, lush vegetation and rural villages offer possibilities for plenty of extraordinary pictures.

There are four pairs of passenger trains every day, three of them during daylight. In addition, on the steam operated part of the line, you may see a pair – if you’re lucky two pairs– of coal trains. These coal trains run on demand. In 2007 there were between three and twelve freight trains per week. The usual departure time is shortly before or just after the second passenger train in the best morning light. Although there is a very rough road, it’s impossible to chase the trains by bus. So we’ll walk along the line all day. Therefore we use the first train at 7am to go to the summit station at Xianrenxiao. Travelling by train in the tiny, homemade passenger cars is an unforgettable experience. There is no glass in the windows or any kind of lamps in the wagons, just cheerful and friendly people. This experience alone is worth a visit to Shibanxi. From the summit station we will start to walk to the most exciting sites of this beautiful line. While taking pictures of the bypassing trains you can walk to Bagou, Caiziba, and Mifengyan. There is no “group pressure”, and after travelling along the line by train you can walk to your favourite position in this peaceful area on your own. The only thing you should keep in mind – do not miss the last passenger train back to the hotel or the guesthouse in Mifengyan.

Sichuan province steam: Shibanxi

Locomotives are the electric class ZL14-7 and the well-known steam locomotives of class C2. Some of them have a large tender from the closed Pengzhou line while others still have the nice six-wheeler tender.

There have been several dates announced for the shut down of this line. Recently the management decided to run this line as a tourist attraction. Therefore there is no time to lose if you want to see the real railway without tourist stuff! They are using some tourist coaches already, considered to be ugly by us photographers and videographers. However, so far they have only been used occasionally, most of the passenger trains being still unspoiled by these glass boxes. At least all the freight trains are still a sight worth seeing.

Steam on the narrow gauge line Shibanxi

Optionally you can stay overnight in the lovely guesthouse of the doctor in Mifengyan. This is where the fascinating reversal station is located.

Many railway enthusiasts don’t consider a visit to Sandaoling because it is far away from other steam lines and many trains (but not all) in the pit are pushed. But this is only half of the truth. Of course there are hauled trains as well. We know where they are and will visit these places in a moon-shaped countryside. The given name of our local guide (necessary because Sandaoling is a restricted area where you still need an aliens travel permit) can be translated as “Moonflower”. This says a lot about the countryside. The line from the state railway to the open cast mine (where trains are hauled chimney first and often assisted by a banker) is now dieselised but some are still handled by steam. The line is really steep (although you can’t see it) and trains usually struggle.

Sandaoling - a spoil train

The pushed trains in the open cast pit are “push-pull” trains with a small signal wagon at the end of each train. With semaphores on the roof of these cabooses the loco driver gets the signal forward. This is a very unusual operation pattern in China and well worth photographing. Sunsets in Sandaoling can be amazing as well. There are quite a lot of reasons to go there but the main reason is that normally there are more than 25 JS working in the area! Where else in the world can you find such a concentration of steam motive power?

The morning passenger in Sandaoling

About every two hours you’ll have a chimney first train coming out of the mine to the unloading facility. This haul is about 4 miles long and because they are starting from the bottom of the mine there are some steep gradients on the way up to the unloading point.


South-east of Hami, in Shankou, a 36 km long branch line leaves the main line Wulumuqi – Lanzhou towards Yamansu. In Yamansu you’ll find an open cast mine (ore) which is served by trucks. The production needs coal, and this coal is usually delivered by the railway through amazing desert countryside. The local depot serves two JS, some others are dumped or out of use. The triangle is not used to turn the locomotives, so the daily pair of trains to Shankou is hauled tender first while the southbound trains run chimney first. The line passes a semi-desert. Especially close to Shankou are some interesting spots. Most parts of the line are not accessible by road, so we’ll charter 4wd cars to get access to the photo positions. Even for tender first trains there are some reasonable positions like the steep gradient just beyond Yamansu. The recently reported problems with the local police are well known to us. We have arranged an official permit to visit the depot

Steam in Baiyin

Baiyin is probably the last real challenge for the class SY in the mountains. Besides industrial locations, you have the only known line into the loess mountains which is still steam operated. Baiyin is close to the Yellow River and the typical loess mountain countryside is everywhere around. This line offers it all: green, traditional passenger trains, steep gradients with freight trains struggling up the line, and mountain scenery. This is one of the most beautiful lines in China that still sees regular steam service. The little workshop is able to carry out overhauls. We’ll visit it, of course. They recently acquired diesel locomotives. One was on use on the line while the others took over heavy shunting operation in the extensive yard area. However, four steam locos of class SY are still in use. Because the company still earns good money from their products (which includes silver) they are financially capable of buying a batch of diesels whenever they wish to do so. So it’s rather likely that this will be our final visit to this exciting site.

One of the last QJs: Meijiaping

Meijiaping – what a place! The coke factory and the cement plant next to the state railway form the first impression when you reach the area. The Cement plant has about one train per day to the state railway station, a short section of about half a mile. But there are two good photo positions on this short stretch. The real reason to visit probably the filthiest locomotive in China is - it’s a QJ! One of the last remaining giants of the age of steam, almost 3,000 hp. Deflectorless and with a patina of cement, the loco looks a bit grim, but when you see it coming with wagons from the state railway you’ll forget about all that. Meijiaping is the last place where the chance to see a chimney first QJ-hauled train are above 90%.

Steam in Diaobingshan (formerly Tiefa)

Diaobingshan, the former Tiefa, has two to three locomotives in use for passenger services. There are quite a lot of passenger trains each day and besides the rather flat countryside there are superb shots possible in the station at Diaobingshan, where up to three passenger trains, all steam hauled, start within 25 minutes. There are passengers bustling along the platforms and over the pedestrian bridge which spans over the platforms, the steam crane filling the tender of an SY and flowers giving you a colourful foreground. Besides this there are possible shots in rural countryside, one of the best positions is a church at the end of one of the four lines. Some interesting bridges can be found as well. The line to Faku/Dongguangtun is the best of all four lines. It passes through hilly countryside and even offers a tunnel. The line usually sees diesel trains only but for our group we’ll replace diesel by steam. Not by an ordinary SY, we’ll take the one and only KD6 for some charter trains! The KD6 is likely to be dumped soon after our visit because it needs an overhaul. But the new chief in charge is not a steam locomotive supporter. It’s rather likely that steam will come to a complete halt in a few years even in Diaobingshan.

The last KD6 in Diaobingshan

We’ll focus on sunrise and sunset shots in and around Diaobingshan. There are many good locations for photography and video which we’ll visit.

Fuxin has an operation of about a dozen SYs, but several diesels are in use as well. There are shots with grim industrial and mine backdrops possible. The daily line up at the shift change is a sight in itself. Many of the small houses along the lines have been demolished and replaced by modern buildings now but there are still positions left which are worth pointing the camera at.

Steam in Fuxin

In late 2009 we still found a dozen SYs under steam, about eight of them in line service. Others would call this a Mega Steam Gala ... It’s just a glimpse of what it has been, but even this little part is such a powerful playground for photographers and video film makers that there is hardly any competition from Europe. The density of possible exciting shots per square inch is similar to what you can find in Europe per square mile!

Small Print

The tour was planned in April 2010. Although it’s only a few months before we go to China it’s not certain that all lines will still have steam. In the unlikely case one line will be dieselised before we arrive, we will make different arrangements to see as much steam as possible.

We expect the lowest morning temperatures to be a little below minus ten degrees Centigrade (about 15 degrees F) in the far north while afternoon temperatures can still reach more than 25 degrees Centigrade (high-70s F) in Shibanxi. In Sandaoling and Yamansu we expect morning temperature around zero degrees Centigrade (about 35 degrees F) and up to plus 15 degrees Centigrade (60 °F) in the afternoon.

The voltage in China is 220 Volts, 50 Hz. Often you’ll need an adapter for the power outlets. China uses the European mobile phone (GSM) standard.

Diaobingshan, the formerly Tiefa

This tour is designed for both dedicated photographers and video film makers. Our philosophy is to provide opportunities to get that perfect sunrise shot rather than a time consuming 5-star breakfast buffet. Breakfast and lunch will be usually served as a packed meal. Dinner is planned to be a proper (Chinese) meal. Beverages are not included in the tour price.

Hotels, charter buses and trains represent the standard of our host country, which may deviate from European and American expectations. While we will endeavour to avoid long walks, some photo positions may require an extra but worthwhile effort.

The hotels used will be of medium class but in remote areas sometimes they are more basic. A hot shower and a private bath are available everywhere except in Yamansu, where we’ll enjoy a 1950s style guesthouse.

The train rides are booked in soft sleeper class (four berth compartments). As the reservation system in China is a typical quota system where the station of origin typically gets an allotment of 50 % of the available tickets, it is not guaranteed that we can get soft sleeper tickets for all our rides. In such cases we’ll use hard sleeper class, which, however, is not as hard as the name suggests. Hard sleeper compartments are open and normally comprise six berths. Short daytime trains may have to be booked in hard seats.

Hygienic and environmental standards in China do not conform to European, Australian or American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence advisable. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in China falls short of EU/US safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. FarRail Tours cannot be held responsible and will not accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident or damage. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.

Registration period expires August 10th, 2010

Later registrations will be accepted if flights and hotels are still available. If you’re not sure whether you can participate or not, please let us know your interest well in advance so that we can hold a place for you.

Baiyin: steam through the mountains



Steam in the South-West 10 to 28 participants £2,610
05.11.2010 – 16.11.2010 5 to 9 participants £2,770
  Single room surcharge £160
Registration Deadline: 10.08.2010
Baiyin, a QJ and the last KD6 ... 10 to 34 participants £1,370
16.11.2010 – 24.11.2010 5 to 9 participants £1,740
  Single room surcharge £170
Registration Deadline: 10.08.2010

The price includes:

Not included are:

Above prices are based on specific bookings with the respective airlines, which have to be confirmed well in advance. Your early booking is hence essential.

As a service to our UK-based clients FarRail Tours accepts and will continue to accept payments made out in Pound Sterling until further notice. However, please note that from January 28, 2009, all prices quoted in Pound Sterling are indicative only and are subject to change without prior notice. This measure was taken by FarRail Tours due to the unprecedented volatility in the international foreign exchange markets and its impact on the valuation of the Pound Sterling versus other major currencies, namely the Euro as FarRail Tours' accounting currency.

Steam in China: Diaobingshan


© FarRail Tours - e-mail: Bernd Seiler - zurück zu FarRail Tours
Click here to return to FarRail Tours