The International Steam Pages
Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footsteps...
This piece was written in March 2005, since when only the dramatic decline in steam activity and associated steam tourism (not to mention the well deserved collapse of Globe Steam) has stopped the situation getting much worse although there is not a known accessible real narrow gauge steam railway in the country which has not been blighted by the sight of charter trains by stupid, ignorant tour operators who ought to know better but are driven only by money (like their Chinese hosts who happily grab anything thrown at them). Never mind, in a few years it will al be over and they will have to find an honourable way to make a living. If you don't want to read the diatribe of a very grumpy old man then there are some excellent pictures below...
For some time I have had very serious reservations about the way the residual Chinese working steam scene has been going, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the closing days of significant real steam in Cuba a few years ago. I dislike the totally insidious practice of chartering trains where perfectly good normal trains exist (albeit often at times/frequencies which do not suit the visitors) and the way people (some individuals especially Japanese and many group tours) have thrown money at perceived problems. Both of these have led to the increasingly widespread practices of attempting to charge visitors for access to public areas and crews charging for cab rides. Solving some people's apparent problems only creates problems for other people. Back in 1998, these pages first publicised the existence of the narrow gauge railway at Dahuichang near Beijing (I make no claims to have been the first foreign visitor). In the period since then I made many happy visits to the line which was a charming period piece. But on my latest visit on February 27th 2005, I was greeted with repeated, insistent and aggressive demands for money from several members of staff. After such an experience, I never went back and now, anyway, it is closed. It made me feel more than a little guilty about my role in destroying something very special. These days, almost as soon as a 'new line' is reported, hordes of visitors descend and as night follows day local travel agencies become involved with predictable consequences and the average avaricious leaders (managers) cannot wait to cash in on their good luck.... Basically there are too many gricers out there chasing too few steam trains, in the same way that animals in Africa's game parks are hounded by camera toting tourists. As a result I have decided I am no longer going to carry current reports on China - those which are present on my site will remain as a historical record - and I am not going to report my own trips. Selfish no doubt, but that way maybe, just maybe, some of the traditional steam railways will remain less tarnished by the misguided behaviour of insensitive tourists, a fair proportion of whom are readers of these pages. You may well be 'a nice guy' but you are responsible for the actions of your tour guide/operator which have led to the present situation. If you don't like these comments then please go off and run your own pages and leave these pages to those with some degree of social responsibility. This is one relatively little known railway which, to the best of my knowledge has not been corrupted.
Please do not be stupid enough to see this as an attack on all 'steam tourism'. I fully support railways in countries like Cambodia, Eritrea, Guatemala, Malaysia (the list is long and growing, I have deliberately chosen a few countries I have visited) charging the 'going rate' for special steam trains which perform to order, circus style, it helps preserve industrial heritage and creates jobs, often where they are most needed. Travelling to such places is an economic choice for the tourist and, where I have been able to afford it, I have greatly enjoyed my own trips to see 'preserved steam'. However, a working steam railway in the 21st century is a different animal, a rare and beautiful creature of a species which is hurtling towards extinction and which requires a completely different approach from the would-be observer. For a start, please remember you are the guests of these railways and not their customers and act accordingly. If you really want to help the local economy of communities in China with working steam railways then arrange your stay so it benefits them in a healthy way. Stay in the nearby hotels (never mind if they are in a 'dreadful state', you are sleeping far more comfortably than the loco crews). Use local taxis instead of commuting from an hour or more away. Eat in the small local restaurants and use the local shops. If you want to reward the railwaymen then photographs of them and their trains will bring lasting pleasure - and an extremely warm welcome when you return. Most of all what is not needed is disproportionate sums of money thrown at a few individuals. Most of all what is needed is time and patience (not to mention a smile), things which seem to be in short supply for most visitors. If you must travel with a tour group/guide, then use an operator who understands the issues and acts appropriately. If these concepts are alien to you and/or you want guaranteed master shots then please stick to the 'plastic steam'. It's great fun and it is about as satisfying as 'paid for' sex..... But as in all things in life, there is nothing quite like the 'real thing':
I posted the following pictures in early 2005 after visiting near virgin steam places in West China. Since when there have been various negative reports as they have seen more and more visitors, a significant proportion of whom apparently had no idea of how to behave appropriately. And in other cases natural Chinese greed now makes life less easy for the individual traveller.
Baiyin where many visitors now find access difficult:
Yaojie where a bus load of gricers apparently made themselves at home at the station/shed in late 2005 without bothering to ask for permission first and where the management is now hostile as a result.
Sandaoling where shear weight of numbers seems to have forced the management to regulate visits
These were taken on a revisit in March 2006: