Last Real Winter Steam in China

Winter Steam Spectacle in China: 29.11. – 12.12.2015

Steam in China: Sandaoling

Updated 4.4.2015

Our winter tour in 2014 was very successful and I thought it will be the last winter tour to China. But one thing was missing: a real winter! Yes, it was fresh, but in the afternoons often only around the freezing point. Snow we saw only on three days. That’s why already at the end of the last tour, despite very successful, it became obvious: this couldn’t count as a real winter tour and need to be repeated.

But repeating the tour is not possible, steam is declining and will be extinct in the not so far future. That’s why we should call the upcoming winter tour.

The Scraping the Barrel Tour

Yes, that’s exactly what it is. There are still some shunting locomotives here and there all over China, but they sit most of the time idle in an uninspiring industrial yard, then moving some wagons up and down and then resting again. From the photographic point of view more than boring. So what we did is not only scraping the barrel, we could also call it the All In Tour. We needed to take every possible and worthwhile going location into the tour to fill a two weeks program. I thought a long time about taking Baiyin in: there is only one passenger chimney first during daylight hours into the mountains left (the tender first passenger to Shenbutong is cancelled), you have serious restrictions against photographers and you need to pay a 50 to 60 Pounds ticket to access the scenic part of the line – for just one good photograph. Chasing the train by bus is impossible. But on the other hand it’s the last non-tourist passenger service in the world since Diaobingshan cancelled it’s last passenger!

Steam in China: Baiyin

Therefore Our Scraping the Barrel Tour will cover all the remaining steam operations that are worth visiting in the last, but fading empire of steam, China. These are Sandaoling, the famous open cast mine still thrashes its nine 2-8-2 JS locomotives over steep gradients; Baiyin, the very last regular steam hauled non-tourist passenger service in the world, Pingzhuang with its three 2-8-2 SYs was previously dieselised before they returned to steam because of reliability and costs … but for how long, and last but not least Fuxin, where a fleet of six SYs has to push heavy trains on to the spoil dump and propel coal and spoil trains around the mines, yards and power plants.

Because of the drastic decline of steam in China and its doubtful future, this may become not only our last winter tour to real steam, it also may become our final tour to China. It’s still guaranteed that we’ll bring buckets of superb steam pictures home, but it’s not for sure whether all steam locations will keep their steam fleet until the end of 2015. Sandaoling and Fuxin seem to be the only places for sure. Fortunately, these two are the best places for surviving real steam and alone will make this tour worthwhile. No matter whether you’re a newcomer to steam in China or a well experienced gricer who just wants to say goodbye to the era of steam, this tour is made for all your needs.

Steam in China: Fuxin






Flight to Beijing


Arrival in Beijing, by charter bus to Beijing main station, highspeed train D23, first class, Beijing 15.33 – Jinzhou Nan 19.04 hrs, by charter bus (1.5 hrs) to our hotel in Fuxin.


Visit to the mine system of Fuxin (half a dozen SYs), today we’ll focus on the spoil dump, hotel in Fuxin


Morning visit to the stabling point of Fuxin during shift change, in the afternoon our focus lays on the lines between the mines and the power plant, hotel in Fuxin


Visit to the mining railway system of Fuxin and visit to the workshop, evening continue to our hotel in Pingzhuang


Line siding along the coal railway and in the washery station of Pingzhuang (class SY), late afternoon transfer to the airport Chifeng, flight MU 2772 Chifeng – Beijing (19.50 – 21.05 hrs), bus transfer to a hotel near the airport


Morning flight to Hami (CA1267 07.25 – 10.55 hrs), charter bus to Sandaoling, spectacular steam in Sandaoling (class JS and, maybe, an SY), visit to the accessible point of the open cast mine of Sandaoling. We’ll focus on the mainly chimney first operating coal trains which need to work hard to bring the coal from the loading station in the pit to the loading place. Hotel in Sandaoling


A full day dedicated to the uphill thrashing coal trains out of the open cast pit of Sandaoling. Hotel in Sandaoling


Today we’ll focus on the unloading point of Sandaoling, where the coal trains deliver the coal to the washery. In addition we’ll watch out for the works train, which often carries a steam crane. Hotel in Sandaoling


Another visit to Sandaoling. In the morning we’ll visit the line to the deep mines Yijing and Erjing where loaded trains are usually run chimney first. In the afternoon we’ll visit the eastern end of the mine with the coal trains. Maybe we can take a sunset shot. Hotel in Sandaoling


Time to say good by to the open cast mine of Sandaoling. Another time we’ll take pictures and videos of the famous last heavy coal trains out of the pit. in the late afternoon we’ll return to Hami and board overnight train T296 to Lanzhou (20.08 – 10.27 hrs)


Arrival in Lanzhou and transfer to Baiyin to see the last real passenger train of the world. Hotel in Baiyin


Visit to the depot of Baiyin and enjoying the last non-tourist passenger trains. Late afternoon we’ll go by charter bus to the airport of Lanzhou and fly to Beijing (MU 2417 19.00 - 21.15 hrs). Hotel near the airport


By hotel airport shuttle bus to the airport and return flight home, arrival in Europe in the same evening


Steam in China: Fuxin

Line description

First of all, we are at the edge of a steam-free age, so some of the locations are merely a shadow of their former self but still worth a visit. However, we can’t rule out that some of the lines on the list may have changed to diesel locomotives before we arrive or even closed down completely. The itinerary is based on information from February 2015, months before we go to these sites. There is no substitute nearby if a line is dieselised or closed and we may have to cover many miles to reach the next steam location.


Sandaoling has become the Mecca for railway enthusiasts. In the moon-like countryside there are plenty of photographic opportunities. The four and a half days we’ve planned for the visit to the steamiest hole on earth won’t be boring. We’re sure that you’ll still find new positions on the last day of our visit and may think about extending your stay rather than leaving earlier.

All coal trains from the loading facilities deep in the pit need to climb out of the open cast mine to reach the unloading place. This is an almost 4 miles thrash for the heavy trains. In the best case you can witness this spectacle about every half hour. Sometimes there is a gap of up to two hours, but then it starts again! Most of the coal trains are hauled chimney first out of the pit.

Steam in China: Sandaoling: Dongbolizhan

Steam in China: Sandaoling

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. We’re not sure about the existence of one of these trains because the overburden is not handled by trains any more, hence Xibolizhan is now an almost deserted station which sees occasionally a diesel train to the new mine.

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 nine JS working in the area! Where else in the world can you find such a concentration of steam motive power? (I can tell you: nowhere!)

Steam in China: Sandaoling

A visit to the workshop, the lower levels in the pit and the spoil dumps is not permitted any more. In the open cast mine there are several cameras, so an unauthorised visit is not recommended either. But we’re allowed to walk down to the first station after the loading point. On this section, from the unloading point to the first station inside the pit, you can take dozens of good shots. Conclusion: still the greatest steam show on earth.


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: a green, traditional passenger train, steep gradients 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. After Diaobingshan cancelled all passenger trains Baiyin offers the last non-tourist passenger train in the world!

Steam in China: Baiyin

But now comes the downside of Baiyin: The passenger trains to Sanyelian are cancelled, so only the two passengers to the terminus in the mountains in Shenbutong are still running. The first of those trains runs before sunrise, so only with a digital equipment or a video you’ll be able to capture impressive sceneries in the dusk. The photo permit is expensive but does not cover the terminus any more and it is now also prohibited to take pictures in Sanyelian or even have the chimneys of the smelters in the picture. Almost all the other duties are done by diesel now or – in case of the slag dump tipper – by trucks. Steam in Baiyin is a shadow of it’s former self, and we’ll try to capture this shadow of the past glorious years.

Steam in China: Baiyin


In early 2015 Fuxin had an operation of about half a dozen SYs. Several diesels are in use as well. There are very interesting 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. Small and larger coal mines and new apartment blocks next to the line predominate the railway area. A level crossing just at the stabling point offers plenty of opportunities with road traffic on two, three and four wheels as well while the little depot and the tidy workshop are really good and rare these days.

Steam in China: Fuxin

Steam in China: Fuxin

Fuxin in 2015 will be 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 industrial shots per square inch is similar to what you can find in Europe per square mile, in the best case!

The centres of steam operation which are the stabling point, the depot and the workshop require us to pay for a permit. The allowed stay is, however, limited, especially in their workshop. On the other hand, one hour is a good while for capturing plenty of good stuff.

Steam in China: Fuxin

Steam in China: Fuxin


The open cast mine of Pingzhuang was closed in 2012. But there is still the railway system to the underground mines, and this is, again, entirely steam operated. They bought second hand DF4B diesels, but after an initial period of use they found them too unreliable and too expensive and returned to steam. This is only temporary. In Yuanbaoshan, which belongs to the same company, they’re using industrial diesel locos which are okay for them. So it’s only a matter of time when this system will be dieselised.

The line to the underground mines offers some nice, rural line shots and some industrial backdrops. On two major gradients on this line locomotives have to work hard. The bridge before the line enters the state railway station at Pingzhaung Nan is one of the better spots in the system. When the train goes over these gradients it’s not only an optical highlight, to listen to their sound is worth the visit as well.

Steam in China: Pingzhuang

There is another rural line through an open countryside to a deep mine which doesn’t see many trains. We’ll stay in contact with the control office to make sure not to miss one of the rare trains on this more beautiful line. Unfortunately the information from the control office has a very short half life and is not helpful, sometimes.

Next to the washery is a stabling point where the SYs are cared for while serving the underground mines. Sometimes there can be all three SYs in the washery station with its impressive, old-style mining building in the backdrop.

Steam in China: Pingzhuang


Small Print

The tour was planned in Winter 2015. 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 or closed before we arrive, we will make different arrangements to see as much steam as possible.

We expect morning temperature around minus ten to minus 20 degrees Centigrade in the north and up to zero degrees Centigrade in the afternoon in Lanzhou as well as in the western part of China. The photo equipment usually has no problems with these temperatures, it’s only the batteries. When not using them you should pack them in a warm place. We can warm up in our charter bus any time, so it’s not too difficult to stand the hard winter with the right clothing.

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

Steam in China: Sandaoling

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 may be served as a packed meal. Dinner is planned to be a proper (Chinese) meal. Times for meals can vary. 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 or North 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. Single rooms are available in all the hotels but not on overnight trains.

The overnight 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 to 80 % 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.

Steam in China: Fuxin

Steam in China: Pingzhuang

Hygienic and environmental standards in China do not conform to Central European, Australian or North 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.



Winter Steam Spectacle 11 to 30 participants £2,460
29.11.2015 – 13.12.2015 Single room surcharge £195
Registration Deadline: 29.08.2015

Steam in China: Sandaoling

The price includes:

Not included are:

Steam in China: Fuxin


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