Forgotten Railways and Forgotten Steam

by John Raby

Special Edition January 1999

Updated April 2003

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Trip Report

China Narrow Gauge lines

(forestry and limestone)

(with a few details of the standard gauge seen en-route)

Initial Posting 14 January 1999.

Almost all of these reports are now history. I am delighted that as a result of these and other reports, thousands of enthusiasts have been able to visit Zhanhe, Weihe and Shanhetun. I was less impressed by the wholesale theft of plates from working locos that also occured as a result of this publicity. Western demand for such trinkets assisted by willing Chinese agents meant that on my return visit to Zhanhe the locos were far less attractive than on this first trip. 

At the time of writing, only Dahuichang near Beijing is still in operation. All of the forestry lines listed here are believed closed for good.


Shanhetun illustrated


Zhanhe now illustrated

Weihe copious illustrations

Yabuli illustrated

Dahuichang Limestone Railway

Chaihe Forestry Machinery Factory

Mainline Miscellany

Out-takes, hiaku, food and other foolishness

Tour organized by Mr Zhiang, CITS Jiling



From our visits to several narrow gauge forestry railways in Heilongjiang province of north east China over Christmas/New Year 1998-9, we can draw the following conclusions:

1. locos

All steam locos are C2 0-8-0 with six or eight wheeled tenders and built between 1950-late 1970s by Hungarian, Polish or Chinese builders. Apart from decorations on (usually 1) special loco in each fleet, only the Wei-he locos look different with a flat disc around the top of (or near) the chimney top giving a vaguely British appearance.

2. loco fleets

Most lines have +/- 10 steam locos which are used intensively. Only at Shanhetun (due to the operating pattern) do you find many locos on shed in daylight. One or two locos will be active on yard shunt and transfers to/from the log factory. The rest will be out on the line.

3. nocturnal/diurnal

Shanhetun and Suiling are nocturnal. At Shanhetun, the empties go out early evening and the fulls arrive later. This leads to more locos on shed than other lines. At Suiling, locos arrive in the evening and return before daylight. Zhanhe, Weihe and Yabuli have daylight loads and empties arriving at the terminus. Zhanhe and Weihe are especially busy with loads at 1.5 hourly intervals.

4. empties work uphill

The lines are generally arranged for the loads to work downhill to the factory. Only at Yabuli do loads have to climb seriously enough to require a banker. This means generally that empty trains can make good pictures, too.

5. Chimney first

Locos almost always work chimney first and turn using a turntable or triangle before each run.

6. passengers

All passengers are carried by railbus except at Weihe where a twice daily steam passenger survives. Zhanhe has no passenger service despite a massive passenger station at the terminus. The Suiling passenger service is still a mystery

7. line length

Most lines have a mainline more than 100 km long with several branches. Yabuli and Weihe have been cut back, Yabuli to 78km.

Logging roads

New logging roads run alongside the line on most systems. However at Shanhetun, the road exits the system away from the railway terminus and there is no road following the line for most of the first 100 km.

8. line origins

Most lines evolved from Japanese lines built in the late 1930s. Zhanhe appears to be the odd one out being built from scratch in the 1970s.

9. line futures

Yabuli and Weihe may be the first to go with major reductions in branches already made. Shanhetun seems to be cutting the thinnest, most inferior quality wood and due to its distance from the forests and poor loco utilization, may be the least economical.

10. Signalling

The single lines have stations around 10 km apart and at each there is at least a loop for trains to pass. Each station has set of 2 token machines and 3 telephones. Signalmen pass trains on to each other using a dedicated telephone and issue tokens for line occupation (with special written orders if necessary). A pointsman goes to the end of the loop signalling with red/green flags or lights if the train is to stop or run through. The signalman exchanges hoop tokens with the engine driver. Only at Shanhetun do all signalmen have a working timetable with trains planned for the day. On the other systems, the signalmen simply respond to circumstances as required. The third phone seems to be a common line linking all the boxes to the operating center.

11. Diesels

Only the Zhanhe system had line work diesels which haul the log loads to the mainline connection along with the steam. The other lines all had 4w-4w railbuses for passenger/staff use. At Yabuli a pw railbus was seen shunting wagons. Shanhetun has a line-work diesel which seems to stay up line to collect part loads and there may be more of these on other systems. Zhanhe has 2 6w diesel shunters, roles unclear. Any of these line may face dieselization although closure and replacement by road haulage seems more likely.


Mr. Zhiang, CITS Jilin

Individuals and small groups wishing to have a locally escorted tour of China should contact Mr. Zhiang for a quotation.

Zhang Xin Sheng

Fully escorted tours are now too expensive for most of us and the idea of doing it completely alone appeals only to a few hard men with plenty of time. Mr. Zhiang will take care of the overall arrangements (and allow some flexibility) and you will be delivered to, and collected from, trains and planes by local guides. Some training of the local guides is usually necessary especially in the less-well visited areas but the guides are usually eager to please and quick to learn. Occasionally you may bump into hangovers of the bad, old CITS of yesteryear especially if a driver feels that you are asking for too many miles per day when he'd rather be resting. However, no problems are insoluble and Mr. Zhiang is at the other end of the phone to sort out any local problems. He'll give you his office and home numbers for this purpose. We tried him and were satisfied with the results.

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