Last Steam in China

Railways in China have been a very important method of transport for many years. These days China is building an extensive network of superfast high-speed railways but that hasn’t always been the case.

It was only a few decades ago that China still depended on steam locomotives to haul a significant number off its trains. Right up until the 1990s even mainline express passenger trains were pulled by magnificent steam engines.

This was a time when travelling by train was still quite exciting.

I have always thought that a steam locomotive is the closest thing we have to a manmade object resembling a living organism. Unlike most modern machines, you can really tell how hard a steam engine is working. They have personality, resilience, power, and are somewhat romantic.

At the locomotive factory in Datong, an industrial city in Shanxi Province, China they were still producing steam locomotives, up to 300 a year, until the last one rolled off the assembly line in December, 1988.

Many of the locos they produced where the Impressive QJ ‘March Forward’ 2-10-2 heavy freight engines which were amazingly powerful. In those days it was important to give a relatively old technology a name which suggested superiority over the modern technology that was being used in the capitalist west.

I was fortunate to visit the Datong Locomotive Works when it was still producing the steam engines, and I did have a great experience watching engines in all states of production as I moved through the really immense factory.

For me, the highlight of the visit was to be able to get up into the cab of the engine and to be given a quick, but fascinating, lesson in how to drive a steam loco, and to be given the opportunity to drive the train down a test track, and then to reverse it back to the start point.

I realize that it does sound a little fey now, but it was quite exciting at the time.

Afterwards I was presented with my steam train driver’s license, which probably had little credibility, but which I still proudly display today.

Another highlight was vision from the Yungang Grottoes, just out of Datong. These are marvellous grottoes full of hand-carved caves containing large statues. It was cold and snowing, and from the grottoes I could enjoy the sight of double-headed steam locos hauling heavy coal trains up a steep gradient, belching smoke and steam whilst chugging up the hill issuing the deep sound of heavy effort.

That was an experience really worth visiting China to enjoy.

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