Friday, August 2, 2013

My experience with steam in China

In 1981, I had the good fortune to be chosen as a member of a U.S. delegation of metallurgists that traveled to China to meet with an equal number of Chinese engineers and scientists in the materials field. We were there late in the fall, at a time when westerners were still unusual, and people on the street would turn and look at you. But one of the fascinating aspects to me was that in 1981, there was still a lot of steam power operating in China. I did not realize what this would mean until I got there.
     The hotel in which we stayed in Beijing was not too far from a major yard, and as soon as we arrived, I could hear steam whistles. My friend and colleague (and fellow modeler) Gordon Geiger was in the delegation too, and it wasn’t long until he and I were putting our heads together. Whenever one of us had a break in the conference proceedings, he would grab his camera and walk the six or so blocks to the tracks. Now we had been warned that the Chinese at the time were sensitive to any observation by foreigners of anything regarded as strategically important, and rail traffic could well fall into that category. So both Gordon and I were careful, carrying our cameras under raincoats or jackets, and only taking them out right when making a shot.
     We were mostly wasting our time with these precautions, at least on railroad property. We of course stood out right away as non-Chinese observers, and train crews would wave wildly to us, or else pose in locomotive windows or on footboards. Obviously they had seen railfans before. Luckily, no security personnel ever came upon us doing our “subversive” photography in the yards.
     What did we see? It was like a time machine, with few diesels and almost all locomotives being steam, even yard work. Here is an atmospheric shot which probably conveys a lot of the feeling (and the air pollution too!).

A mainline train is departing at right (note the rider atop the box car), and yard switcher 2303 is backing toward me on the left. As he approached, I got another shot.

There is a switchman on the nearest corner of the tender. Mikado 2303 was hard at work at my end of the yard, and the crew waved every time they passed. Here is a better view of the engine and crew, as they came back past me on a different track. The sun was beginning to break through the overcast. There are two switchmen on the front end, and the man at the rear is still there.

     Next I walked over to the engine terminal. Hardly had I gotten there but 2303 came past again, now with both fireman and engineer leaning out to wave.

The white trim and bright red drivers and pilots were pretty universal on the engines I saw.
     In the engine terminal getting a load of coal was engine 5545, one of the passenger Mikados used on every sort of train except the major expresses. Here you can see the equipment which carried a small car up over the tender and dumped it in. There is also a water tank here.

Just to show an example of one of these passenger Mikes, here is one which passed me on the main while I was there. With the smoke deflectors high on the smokebox, they had an ungainly look. This is engine 5245.

     To see several steam switchers at work at one time in a yard was almost too much to take. Gordon said he was so intrigued watching the action he almost forgot to take photos.  I knew what he meant. Even the ribbed-side cabooses had a distinctly Milwaukee Road look. This is a departing freight.

     I finally had to walk back to the conference site to hear a couple of relevant talks, and as I was just leaving the main line, I heard a rapid exhaust and was lucky enough  to catch no. 985, one of the compact 4-8-4 engines used on expresses. He was already on a pretty good roll out of town.

     What a morning! I had not really experienced this kind of working steam as a boy, and to see it in 1981 was quite a revelation. But this was only part of what we saw. I will defer the second half of the story to a future post.
Tony Thompson


  1. Fascinating. The older I get, the more appreciation I have for foreign railroads, and especially their steam locomotives. I hope you do more than two parts, though!

  2. Thanks, Arved. I only have one more planned on China, but will see if there is enough material to go farther.
    Tony Thompson

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