Chengde is a large city about 250km to the north-east of Beijing and is internationally famous as the location of the former
Emperor's Summer Palace. However the city was dissected by a steam operated branch line which took coal and iron ore
from the exchange sidings with China Rail to a very large steelworks some 30km from Chengde. Due to the steep gradient,
which started on the outskirts of the city, trains were limited to just eleven long wheelbase wagons. These were normally
brought across the Wuliehe River by a single 2-8-2 SY or JS class engine and then two more engines were attached at the
banking station at the foot of the climb. The train was then worked up the 1 in 30 gradient for some 10 kilometres or so until
the summit was reached just beyond two single bore tunnels. Here the bankers dropped off the train and returned to the
banking station. The twisting climb required all three engines to be worked to their limits and the noise made by the
locomotives was truely memorable. The line offered some spectacular vantage points for the photographer and was easily
accessible from the road which ran close to the line for most of the way. However photography was strictly forbidden in the
city itself and most particularly in the area of the banking station which overlooked by Chengde prison. Those who chose to
ignore the warning signs faced confiscation of films and a visit to the local police station!
During my second visit to Chengde in 2001, I left my hotel one evening after dark and walked through the busy town to the
banking station. My arrival was greeted with some surprise but no-one appeared concerned by my presence. After a short
time the two banking engines appeared and came to a halt outside the control building. I wandered across to one of the JS
locomotives and climbed onto the footplate. I stood watching the crew for a while as they rebuilt the fire and filled the
boiler and then to my surprise they climbed down leaving me alone in the cab. About half an hour passed and then a train of
loaded wagons arrived behind a single SY class locomotive. The crew of my engine returned and began to prepare to move
off - indicating as they did so that I was welcome to stay on board if I so wished.
Thus began one of the most incredible footplate journeys I have ever experienced. Within a short while the engines were
being worked hard as we climbed away from the city and the intensity of the fire grew steadily with the colour of the flames
changing from yellow to an incandescent white. Before very long the coal was no longer being thrown into the firebox but
was being quite literally sucked off the shovel by the blast from the chimney. The engines rocked and rolled and it was hard
to stand on the bucketing footplate. Then the driver turned and handed me a large lump of cotton waste. I went to wipe
my hands only to realise that he had placed a similar lump over his mouth and was lying on the cab floor. I realised we were
about to plunge into the tunnel at the top of the climb and rapidly followed suit. The cab filled with thick acrid smoke
blotting out everything and the sound of the exhaust echoed off the tunnel walls and roof. Just as suddenly we were clear and
the crew lept up and threw open the cab windows and slammed shut the regulator.
As the train continued onwards to the steelworks so the bankers began to reverse back down the slope towards the city. It
was an utterly memorable 30 minutes or so and an experience I would not have missed for the world. The crew were happy
for me to remain with them and wait for the next train but reluctantly it was time to return to the hotel - something which I
did with heavy heart and yet buzzing from my night's adventure
Late afternoon and JS Class 2-8-2
No.5720 brings wagons from the
CNR sidings across the frozen
Wuliehe river in December 1998.
Let battle commence! Having
brought the loaded wagons across
the river from the CNR exchange
sidings the climb begins. In this case
two locomotives head the train with
a single banking engine at the rear.
As can be seen from subsequent
pictures some trains had two
locomotives at the front and one at
the rear whereas others had two
engines at the back of the train.
Whatever the combination the
sight, sound and fury of the
locomotives working to their limits
was amazing to behold.
Left - JS Class 2-8-2 No.6403 heads another train of iron ore and coal up the gradient with SY1753 and JS5723 providing banking
assistance at the rear. The banking engines are not coupled to the train, allowing them to drop away once the train reached the
Right - For every rule there has to be an exception! An unassisted double header leaves Chengde with JS5723 leading SY1639 in
December 1998. The prison at Chengde is to the left of the picture just behind the lead engine and so taking photographs here was a
matter of discretion. However by the time of my second visit in 2001 signs had been erected banning photographers from this whole area
of the line - with arrest being highly likely for anyone failing to take heed
|Further up the line it was possible
to climb high above the track and
enjoy panoramic views of the
trains climbing the bank. The
plumes of steam in the distance
heralded another departure and
soon the valley was filled with the
noise of the three locomotives - in
this case with JS 5723 leading and
JS 6403 and SY 0532 providing the
Early morning and 2-8-2 SY 1753
stands in the engine depot in front
of SY 0532.
SY Class No.0872 stands on the
turntable at the depot. This was
one of the few turntables I saw
during my travels in China although
I am sure it was not unique.
And the trains kept on coming!
Like all industrial locations it was
impossible to predict just when and
how frequently trains would
operate and some visitors to the
line saw far less traffic then we
were fortunate enough to enjoy.
Whilst broadly similar to the
picture above this train has a
somewhat different consist.
The afternoon shadows are
beginning to lengthen and soon
the sun will have dipped below the
hills casting much of the line into
shadow. JS 5720 and SY0533 head
up the hill towards the steelworks
A slightly unusual working with the
lead engine being SY class 2-8-2
No. 0532 and JS 6403 and SY 0533
provide the banking assistance at
the rear of the train. I certainly
never saw a train hauled by two SY
engines and most trains seemed to
consist of two JS class engines and a
single SY class locomotive
What a location Chengde was for a
rail enthusiast photographer.
During my second visit in December
2001 trains appeared about once
an hour climbing up the bank and
at times it was difficult to change
locations without risking missing
another magnificent sight such as
this with JS6403 leading with
assistance from JS5720 and SY0533
at the rear
|On the more or less level track
between the CNR exchange
sidings and the banking station
only one engine was needed to
move the wagons as demonstrated
by SY1522 as it crosses the
Wuliehe River bridge in central
Chengde. The river is frozen solid
during the winter and the ice was
strong enough to support both
pedestrians and lorries.
The pattern of working on the
branch is well illustrated by the
next two photographs. In this
picture the leading engine is
JS5834 bearing its distinctive
decorated buffer beam and in the
distance JS6403 and SY0533 are
providing the banking assistance.
Once the train reaches the tunnels
at the summit the banking engines
will return to Chengde ...............
|......... and have now become the
leading engines for the next train up
the branch with SY1522 providing
the banking at the rear of the train.
Light engines would later return
down the bank having delivered
their train to the steelworks.
A trackside view of JS5720 as it
climbs the bank with JS6403 and
SY0533 at the rear of the train.
Considerable amounts of pulverised
coal would fall from the wagons as
the train headed for the steelworks
and would be 'gleaned' by the less
economically advantaged members
of the local community.
We were fortunate enough to gain
access to the steelworks itself and
to be able to see the SY locomotives
that worked in and around the
blast furnaces. These were a
totally seperate 'brigade' of engines
that were not used to bring the
trains up the bank from Chengde.
|Another of the steelworks 'brigade'
- this time SY0099 shunting
cauldrons full of either molten steel
or slag. In the foreground are the
piles of coal brought up to the
works from Chengde ready to be
loaded into the blast furnaces