By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: October 4, 2005 – Copyright The New York Times
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DABAN, China, Sept. 30 – At one end of the rail yard, mechanics with two-foot-long wrenches fuss lovingly over the workings of a handful of black steam locomotives, while other workers load them up with coal or wipe their huge, cylindrical air compressors clean with large rags.
The men in the old yard seem more like boys, taking turns tooling up and down the tracks under a gray and drizzling sky, blowing off huge white jets of steam and sounding their shrill whistles for no better reason than the sheer fun of it.
The moment lent a special poignancy to their play, for these are the final days of steam on the Jitong railway, a 567-mile line in the province of Inner Mongolia that rail experts say is the last mainline steam-powered railroad anywhere in the world. Sometime in October, perhaps just as the first snows fall, the last of these coal-fired behemoths will pull out of the yard for a final run, to be replaced by a shiny new diesel.
“These trains are the best,” said Gao Hongbo, 35, as he escorted a visitor into the toasty engine room, opening flaps to reveal the red hot coals in the belly of the beast. “I don’t know why they don’t want to use them anymore.”
In fact, Mr. Gao knew very well. Indeed, all the men in the yard knew. Along the hectic road to something called progress, there is very little time for sentimentality. Diesel trains are cheaper to operate and maintain, haul bigger loads and run at faster speeds. It is as simple as that.
“As the end approaches, I’m feeling strong feelings,” Mr. Gao said. “It means an era is coming to an end, since foreign countries don’t have these anymore. Now is the time for development, and we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, but my heart tells me these things aren’t bad.
“They’re just a little dirty, but there’s not much harm in that.”
From the workers to the passengers who ride this line, which cuts through vast open expanses of farmland, planted in corn, millet and sunflowers and framed by mountains and narrow roads lined with yellowing poplars, Mr. Gao was one of the few people to express any sentiment at all in the matter.
But international train buffs are already in mourning as they count down the days until the steam whistles are silenced and the old, strangely animate black locomotives with their huge crimson wheels are auctioned off for scrap metal.
“They seem almost like beasts, don’t they?” asked Gary Hunter, a rail enthusiast from Tucson who has written about the Jitong line for train magazines and has visited China six times, mostly to experience what has become a rare and disappearing phenomenon. “You stand close to one on the line, and it gives off heat. The compressors pant.
“When it’s going up a steep grade, the rods are going back and forth in a cyclic motion and the thing strains and grunts,” he continued. “To my mind, there is nothing more romantic. You can hear them from afar, and they speak to us of the ability to travel to distant places and feel mystical things.”
China is a train lover’s paradise, crisscrossed by nearly 43,000 miles of operating tracks, with more coming on line every day as the country rushes to open up isolated areas of the interior to cheap passenger and freight traffic. The country has its own rail fans, too, even if the passing of the steam era on the Jitong railway has received little notice.
On a recent night, the Jitong train was crammed with riders heading home for an extended national holiday. There were revelers, straight-faced poker players, drunks sprawled over benches and college students chatting one another up.
“Last year I went to Xinjiang with a bunch of friends, and we took the train,” said Xie Lan, a Jilin University student. “Some of my friends wanted to fly, but a couple of us insisted that we take the train, and it was so beautiful. What can you see from an airplane?”
As she spoke, thick plumes of steam, braided and ghostly against the blackened night sky, wafted alongside the train, accompanied by a gently hypnotic clickety-clack. The student, though a train buff, was unaware that the steam engines were on their last journeys.
Told of this, Mr. Hunter said: “Nobody really noticed their disappearance in the United States in the 1950’s, either. It’s just bigger and better, progress marching on.”
Inner Mongolia came by its steam locomotives rather late, buying them cheaply in the early 1990’s when the rest of China was going diesel. The province is poor, but has plentiful coal. Trains like these were first built in China in 1956, based on a Soviet design, which itself was based on an American design for a train that used to run along the Hudson River in the 1930’s.
In a huge hangar at the end of the rail yard, on a platform coated with black oil and heavy, yellowish grease, a crew of mechanics is completing one of the last overhauls these trains will ever see.
“I don’t feel a strong sense of regret about this,” said Niu Yunpeng, a 37-year-old mechanic and 10-year veteran of the line. “I just feel a small sense of pity, since steam trains have existed for so long, and then all of the sudden, they’ll disappear here in Daban. It’s something hard to express.”
By HOWARD W. FRENCH