The Last Strongholds of Steam – 40 Steam Locomotives in 16 Days

Steam in China: 10.11. – 25.11.2012

Sandaoling at dusk: the passenger is leaving Dongbolizhan

The use of steam in regular service is fading out. Here comes the cherry-picking tour: we hope to see more than 40 steam locomotives in use on our two weeks+ tour. At only one place on earth can you find over 20 steam locomotives in daily use:- Sandaoling. In the open cast mine there are almost two dozen Mikados (2-8-2) in use, mostly of the heavy class JS. The JS has more than double the tractive effort of a Stanier Black Five! Watching them fight up one of the ramps from the bottom of the pit is always an experience. In Fuxin we’ll find almost a dozen of the lighter class SY with a tractive effort of more than 180 % of a Black Five. In Diaobingshan we hope to see two of the 2-8-2 SY class, while we’ll find some five of them in Pingzhuang.

All the places we’ll visit offer a huge variety of photographic opportunities. Not just the classic boring three-quarter line shots (ok, maybe those as well), but the density of really exceptional industrial, depot and people shots is amazing.

Fuxin spoil dump

How long this magical place of steam might linger on? No-one can tell you. But one thing for sure: it can’t last very long. The regular use of steam is fading out, the number of lines with steam as well. It’s just a question of time - and another one bites the dust. After this we’ll enter the age of purely enthusiast fed steam locomotives, offering only a dim glimpse of the former heydays of steam. We will see over three dozen steam locomotives in use on this tour – can any super ultra steam gale compete?

Although we are at the end of the age of steam this doesn’t mean that the locos we’ll see are employed with boring light trains shuffling up and down with no effort. No, they still work at, and sometimes beyond, their limits. They will be thrashed up gradients with heavy loads in tow, no matter what the fireman needs to shovel into the box. These locomotives are no toys to entertain you; they are tools to haul heavy trains under any circumstances. They struggle with adhesion under difficult environmental circumstances, on frozen rails. And all this will not only give you an optical overkill, you should listen to the sound as well! Although they are used hard and with no hesitation, these locos are in good technical condition. You’ll not miss an exhaust beat, you’ll not see many steam leaks and you’ll hardly find an engine which needs to quit on a gradient because of a technical flaw. But these are not super shine museum line toys. Technically close to perfect but looking like a real loco in real use, sometimes dirty, sometimes cleaned but never with a car finish pearl colour. What you’ll see on this tour regarding steam activity is not comparable with any preserved line.

Diaobingshan - Faku line



Update 2.11.2012 (replaced by Diaobingshan)

Date Itinerary
10.11. Flight to Beijing
11.11. Arrival in Beijing and connection flight to Urumqi (Wulumiqi), continue by overnight train K9782, departure 23.32 hrs
12.11. 07.18 hrs arrival in Hami, charter bus to Sandaoling (classes JS and a few SY), Visit to the open cast mine Sandaoling with more than 200 steam train movements a day; we’ll focus on the chimney first coal trains from the pit to the washery. Hotel in Sandaoling
13.11. Visit to the open cast mine Sandaoling, Today’s focus is Xibolizhan. Hotel in Sandaoling
14.11. Sandaoling again. In the morning we’ll visit the chimney-first trains from the deep mines Yijing and Erjing. In the afternoon we’ll see the coal trains from the mine from a different location. Sunset shots are possible here. Hotel in Sandaoling
15.11. We’ll start the day in Dongbolizhan. After the morning passenger train we’ll visit the workshop of Sandaoling. The afternoon we’ll spend in and around the unloading point as well as Dongbolizhan. Hotel in Sandaoling
16.11. Another visit to Xibolizhan will bring us to the greatest tender show on earth. In the evening we’ll return to Hami to board the overnight train T296 (“soft sleeper”) to Lanzhou, departure 21.04 hrs
17.11. 11.50 hrs arrival in Lanzhou, charter bus to the airport and flight with China Southern to Shenyang, charter bus to our hotel in Diaobingshan
18.11. ILinesiding along the lines of Diaobingshan including teh line to Faku, hotel in Diaobingshani
19.11. Late morning visit to the stabling point of the special steelworks Fushun, and visit to the pre-revolution Japanese electric locomotives on the mining system of Fushun, afternoon continue by charter bus to Fuxin, hotel in Fuxin
20.11. Visit to the mine system of Fuxin (close to a dozen SYs), Night photography in Fuxin, hotel in Fuxin
21.11 Another day between the mines and dumps of Fuxin, hotel in Fuxin
22.11. The morning we’ll spend in Fuxin again, in the afternoon we’ll continue by train 4208/4209 to Chifeng, departure 13.16 hrs, arrival 21.16 hrs, charter bus to our hotel in Pingzhuang
23.11. Line siding along the coal railway from the washery to the mines and the state railway connection of Pingzhuang (class SY), hotel in Pingzhuang
24.11. If the mixed train from Yuanbaoshan is steam hauled, we’ll go there in the early morning. Around noon we’ll return to Pingzhuang. Late afternoon by charter bus to Chifeng. Overnight train 2560 to Beijing, departure 21.07 hrs
25.11. 05.56 hrs arrival in Beijing Bei, charter bus to catch our return flight home. Arrival in Europe in the same evening


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. Information is from winter 2012, months before we go to these sites. There is sometimes no substitute nearby if a line is dieselised or closed and we may have to cover many miles to reach the next steam location.

Open cast mine Sandaoling in the evening glint

Sandaoling has become the Mecca for railway enthusiasts. It’s not unusual that you can see six working locomotives at once. Sometimes overburden trains thrash over the gradients out of the pit every few minutes. In the moon-like countryside there are plenty of photographic opportunities. The five 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 an hour. Sometimes there is a gap of up to two hours, but then it starts again!

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. 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 some 20 JS working in the area! Where else in the world can you find such a concentration of steam motive power?

Fuxin @ night

Fushun is an industrial site with many railways around. Only a few steam locomotives remain and the only good shot might be the stabling point, but there are still some of the pre-revolution Japanese electric locomotives. We’ve planned only a few hours stopover in Fushun on our long way to Fuxin.


The lines in the open cast mine of Pingzhuang are electrified. Only occasionally a works train can be seen here with steam but there is a line to underground mines which 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 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.

There is a 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 beautiful line.

The locomotives in the depot next to the open cast pit haul some of the overburden trains on a long run to the spoil dump, but often you find them just sitting idle in the stabling point. Nearby is the washery and it’s likely that there is always one of the SYs serving the underground mines, shunting some wagons. Sometimes there can be three SYs in the washery station with its impressive, old-style mining building in the backdrop.


Besides the new diesels in Yuanbaoshan, there have survived a few of their immaculate JS class 2-8-2s. These engines carry big smoke deflectors which make them exceptionally attractive. Usually the diesels cover most of the trains but just in case the mixed train in the morning is steam hauled we’ll pay Yuanbaoshan a brief visit. It’s not possible to guarantee anything here but the chances are about 50/50 that we’ll see this remarkable train steam hauled. The line has a nice, long bridge and at both ends steep gradients where the locos need to be operated with a fully open regulator.


Small Print

The tour was planned in February 2012. 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 before we arrive, we will make different arrangements to see as much steam as possible.

We expect morning temperature around minus ten degrees Centigrade and up to plus ten degrees Centigrade in the afternoon in the western part of China while temperatures might be below zero in the north-eastern part of China all day. Morning temperatures can drop to minus 15 here. But it can also be above zero, it’s still not the harsh and cold winter time in mid November.

Sandaoling down town

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.

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 will be usually served as a packed meal. Dinner is planned to be a proper (Chinese) meal. 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 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 % 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.

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.

workshop Sandaoling



The Last Strongholds of Steam 11 to 30 participants £3,240
10.11.2012 – 25.11.2012 7 to 10 participants £3,370
  Single room surcharge £220
Registration Deadline: 02.08.2012

Part-time land only prices

11. - 17.11.2012 including flight Lanzhou - Beijing: £1.285
17. - 25.11.2012 including flight Beijing - Shenyang: £1.640

The price includes:

Not included are:

Above prices are based on specific bookings with the respective airlines, which have to be confirmed well in advance. Your early booking is hence essential.


As a service to our UK-based clients FarRail Tours accepts and will continue to accept payments made out in Pounds Sterling until further notice. However, please note that all prices quoted in Pounds Sterling are indicative only and are subject to change without prior notice. This measure was taken by FarRail Tours due to the unprecedented volatility in the international foreign exchange markets and its impact on the valuation of the Pound Sterling versus other major currencies, namely the Euro as FarRail Tours' accounting currency.

Diaobingshan in the morning


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