The International Steam Pages


International Steam Video Reviews

This page contains reviews of steam videos, these days most are actually strictly DVDs. There is a separate page for reviews of books, CD-Roms etc.

Black Diamond Express
(12th April 2010)

Shibanxi Heaven
(25th May 2008)

Sweet Spot
(25th May 2008)

From Burma to the River Kwai
(1st May 2007)

Logging Off
(27th April 2006)

Eritrea - Rebirth of a Railway
(9th October 2003)

New Zealand Steam Cavalcade
Part 1 North Island

(27th May 2003)

Toy Train
(15th January 2002)

Dragons in the Snow
(2nd November 2001)

The Union Limited Maluti
(2nd November 2001)

Extreme Steam
(19th February 2001)

Standard Gauge Steam in China Vol I
(December 17th 2000) 

Steamy Java (1999)

DHR Video

Empires of Steam

Cuba Sugar Steam


Black Diamond Express

Keith Chester writes:

A film nearly two hours long about a railway approximately two-and-a-half kilometres in length: it didn’t really sound promising. How wrong I was. For Rob & Yuehong Dickinson have in recent years established a deserved reputation for producing intelligent, well-filmed DVDs on the very last narrow gauge workings in the world and “Black Diamond Express” is among their best.

The film revolves around life on the two-foot gauge railway serving Tipong colliery in Assam in NE India, a place remote enough for few enthusiasts to have visited it. But as this film shows, what a gem most of us have missed. In its present incarnation, this short railway consists of a “main line” and a branch. Its purpose is to carry the products of a number of small coal mines, both underground and opencast, to a central loading point, from where it is trucked to its destination, mostly of it going to the nearest Indian Railways railhead. The coal trains run through pleasant enough scenery, nothing spectacular, but the greatest of interest lies in the railway’s motive power, all 0-4-0STs. But what a collection.

To reach the mine served by the branch the railway has to cross a bridge of minimal strength and this duty has ensured the survival a lightweight Bagnall called David. This emerged from the Staffordshire works in 1924, but looks every bit the older design it is. On the days David doesn’t feel so well, these turns are entrusted to a small, locally built diesel, interesting enough for some, I suppose. The “main line” motive power is more familiar: two of the four famous B class purchased second-hand from Darjeeling in the 1970s, which somehow manage to lose their “toy-train” image in this industrial setting.

And that’s Tipong: 2½ km of track, some tubs of coal and four engines, two of which work at any time. Photo spots are limited, none particularly outstanding, and many of the scenes are filmed from two distinctive perspectives. The potential for tedium is, frankly, high, yet the film never disappoints. It proceeds at leisurely pace (no MTV-style cutting here), neatly reflecting the way of life in this isolated corner of India, which last saw modernisation when the colliery and the associated railway arrived. Tipong still looks and feels like the India I remember from 30 years ago, an India that is by all accounts rapidly disappearing.

The trick and success of “Black Diamond Express” lie less in its railway scenes than its loving attention to the life that goes on around it. There is more than enough excellently filmed railway action (though expect no dramatic angles or lighting) to satisfy every diehard steam buff. But we also watch as Moslems and Hindus at prayers in their mosque and temple, the latter literally a metre or two from the railway; we have time (remember that leisurely pace) to visit tea shops and almost enjoy the local fast food; we learn of industrial processes and an industrial world which has long disappeared in our own neo-liberal nightmare; we see children playing cricket and women practicing local crafts, all as our 0-4-0STs shuffle past in the background. The great achievement of the film is the total integration of the railway with its environment, and it is this that raises it way above almost anything else on the market (certainly those films with their contrived smoke effects or, say, of Eritrea where locals are, I have heard, paid to sit on coaches to make it all look just the “way it used to be” ... ).

As the unobtrusive commentary observes, Tipong colliery is hopelessly uneconomic. There is little evidence of mechanisation and nearly every operation (most of which could have been seen at Tipong or similar collieries at any time over the past century or longer) is labour intensive. In a region of high unemployment and considerable social unrest, this is perhaps no bad thing, but one is left wondering what place is left for the inhabitants of Tipong as India modernises and turbo-capitalism replaces the quasi-social capitalism currently practiced in this small corner of Assam. Not every Indian can become an IT expert in a glitzy high-rise in Mumbai.

The railway was filmed by the Dickinsons over two visits 2004 and 2008. They may well have been among the very last who had the opportunity (and good fortune) to visit and film at Tipong colliery for the latest word is of closure. If so, the colliery and its tiny railway have a fitting memorial and we are blessed with a superb DVD to enjoy in the future.

Black Diamond Express by Rob and Yuehong Dickinson

Running time 2 x 55 minutes

Price GBP 25

Available from the producers - see dvd/tipong.htm for ordering information.


Shibanxi Heaven

Keith Chester writes:

Shibanxi – now there’s a name to conjure with and it’s one that, on the basis of this DVD by Rob and Yuehong Dickinson, most certainly will not disappoint. There are simply some lines that stand out from all the rest, where everything, the motive power, the scenery and the general ambience are “just right”. For me it was the Cibatu–Garut–Cikajang branch in West Java, which was home to the PJKA’s last Mallets and which climbed fearsome grades through rice terraces and palm trees. I’ve never visited the Shabanxi railway, but from this excellent DVD it very much looks like it could have easily vied with Cibatu as an all-time favourite.

The Shibanxi railway is a 762mm gauge coal railway some 50km south of the tourist trap of Leshan with its giant Buddha in Sichuan province. It was built for no other purpose than to carry coal from mines to a power station. But it runs through a very isolated part of China with few or no roads and the local community is almost totally dependent on it. So, in addition to the coal, passenger trains are also operated.

Trains are worked by a small fleet of grubby standard class C2 0-8-0s. Now the real charm of the railway begins (at least for the Western gricer, I’m not so sure the locals would be so convinced): the passenger vehicles are small, crude homemade four-wheel “boxes”; unlit and without any glass in the windows they wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Bosna-Bahn in the 1880s. One “coach”, a little longer than the others is used to convey general freight, goods bound for market or being taken home, as well as livestock. And, as the film shows, room can be found in it for coffins too.

This being south-west China the scenery is attractive and lush (not all of China is QJs, barren Karst and sub-zero temperatures) with rice terraces and thick forests. It climbs steeply (in places), has horseshoes, a reversing point at Mifeng, numerous tunnels, and more often than not runs right through the centre of the small towns and villages it serves. It is in brief the quintessential narrow gauge railway, still steam worked and still doing the job it was built for, in quintessential rural China. Here people are living out their lives in ways not entirely dissimilar to their parents and grandparents.

But the DVD reveals more than this. Much of it is devoted to the coal mines at Hungcun and Yuejin, the former a small, almost pre-industrial mine, and the latter much larger with electrified railways and more modern equipment. Operations at rural Hungcun are primitive to say the least and relied heavily on human muscle. Watching the film it becomes easy to understand why the Chinese mining industry has the worst accident rates in the world.

This is then a railway which seems to have everything the narrow gauge steam fan could wish for: great scenery, rundown steam locos, eccentric rolling stock, trains running down streets and through markets, all locked in a time capsule about to disappear. The film captures this perfectly, far better than I can describe it in words. It is lovingly shot and, whilst inevitably the steam-worked trains are the focus of attention, the people who live and work along the line are given due and respectful attention: this is not just a bit of “local colour” cut into the film for the amusement of long noses.

Shibanxi Heaven is a remarkable film of great charm and at the same time an historical document of a way of life our post-industrial world is indifferently sweeping away. The film is excellently shot, in addition to being well and unobtrusively narrated. It comes in the form of two DVDs, one given solely over to the coal trains and mining operations, whilst the other concentrates on the passenger workings. The latter appropriately enough concludes with a traditional Chinese funeral – how many of us will make our last journey behind authentic narrow gauge steam? Shibanxi Heaven is an intelligent and sympathetic piece of film making. It can be wholeheartedly recommended.

Shibanxi Heaven  by Rob & Yuehong Dickinson

Running time 2 x 1 hour

Price GBP 25

Available from the producers - see dvd/shibanxi.htm for ordering information.


Sweet Spot

Keith Chester writes:

Sweet Spot is another DVD from Rob & Yuehong Dickinson with their wonderful blend of narrow gauge steam railway and the environment in which it operates – in this case the classic plantation railway and a traditional rural way of life under threat.

Its subject matter is Olean sugar factory in East Java. This has the distinction of being not only the smallest working mill on that island of sugar but also the very last to send its narrow gauge locomotives out into the fields to haul the hand-cut cane back to the mill for processing. This was once an operation that was replicated in one way or another all over the world (we only have to look down the long lists of narrow gauge engines supplied by the locomotive manufacturers of Europe and America to realise its extent) but to the best of my knowledge now happens nowhere else but Olean (plus Sumberharjo and Asembagus on the same island).

So we must be grateful that this accomplished husband and wife team have filmed it for us before it too disappears. And they have done it in a very rounded way. If you want to see nothing but trains of cane being moved through the fields, then this is not the film for you. For integral to this DVD are views of men cutting cane in the fields under the searing sun, of bullocks pulling loris over temporary Jubilee track to the more permanent “main line” where the steam loco patiently waits; we see the people and children who live along the line; we are taken inside the mosques which are central to the rural traditions of East Java; and above all we are shown the working machinery of Olean mill. It is an overworked cliché of our time but in the case of Olean it is entirely appropriate to say the mill is a living museum. First opened in 1860, the mill has never been substantially modernised – it was too small for that – and has thus kept much of its original appearance. Virtually all its machinery and technology dates from the first three decades of the twentieth century and is universally steam powered. This we are shown in great loving detail and is again a fascinating insight into an almost vanished industrial world. And let us not romanticise this: this is hard physical work for little reward for the workers inside the mill. It is a great shame that no film can ever convey the overwhelming heat and dust of a sugar factory. My one gripe about this DVD is that it lacks a commentary and it is at times a little difficult to follow what all the whirling machines are doing. But this in no way detracts from Sweet Spot, which will delight anybody who has visited Java or is interested in industrial archaeology – or in just damn good films of steam engines at work. Once again Rob & Yuehong Dickinson are to be congratulated on producing an excellent film. We can only regret that they embarked so late on their venture and that they will soon have no more subjects for their cameras.

Sweet Spot by Rob & Yuehong Dickinson

Running time, 1 hour

Price GBP 17

Available from the producers - see dvd/sweetspot.htm for ordering information.


From Burma to the River Kwai (RD)

The Burma-Siam 'Death' Railway is probably the most (in)famous reminder of the horrors of World War II in Asia. Immortalised in David Lean's film, "The Bridge over the River Kwai" which had to be filmed in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) because of political sensitivities, most of what remains now has become bastardised into a somewhat bizarre international tourist trap. Anyone attempting to make a DVD based on what can be seen today has to tread delicately but with his long experience Nick Lera generally succeeds. A few of us were lucky enough to see the surviving Thai section of the railway in the days of real steam (quite a few pictures are on the Images of Rail CD-ROM Tiger Steam), but I doubt any significant cine film was taken. Instead, we have to be content with the short-lived steam specials put on some years ago which serve to illustrate its best known features namely the actual bridge at Kanchanaburi and the wooden trestles approaching Wang Po. Both have to be traversed at a crawl, the former to avoid mowing down the hordes of tourists and the latter owing to their frail condition. 

The railways of Myanmar (the former Burma) are less familiar and their operation far more interesting. The main part of this section takes a leisurely journey from Yangon (Rangoon) to the western end of the Burma-Siam Railway at Thanbyuzayat, south of Moulmein. We see the contrast between the unnaturally smoky and short 'plastic' gricer special with its comfortable seating and the stark reality of day to day life on the steam hauled branch train to Nyaungkhashe - the latter definitely providing the visual highlights of the whole film. Sadly, while travelling conditions in Burma have not greatly changed since the film was shot, that train is no more. One of the strengths of Nick Lera's videos is the research he puts in which places them in their historical context. In this case, the background to the need for the railway is well covered together with what proved to be the flaws in its conception, namely the series of river crossings which were both a bottleneck and an obvious target for attack. The coverage of the Sittang River crossing is particularly interesting to me as I had visited the site on foot in 1997. Where Nick's videos really score are in their unexpected little extras... I was not surprised to see the manual signal boxes at Bago, but the armoured car at Mokpalin in action was an unexpected bonus and there are some delightful sequences of ordinary life. As a finale, we return briefly to the railway in Thailand today seeing the gaudy annual Son et Lumière at Kanchanaburi with its allusions to the famous film. 

This DVD is makes fascinating viewing, an advertisement to visit Thailand it is definitely not, but despite its political incorrectness, it might just inspire a few more travellers to the 'Golden Land'...

From Burma to the River Kwai

Filmed by Nick Lera, Nick Lera's World Steam Classics

Running time: 58 minutes

For details on availability and other Nick Lera videos, see www.nickleravideo.com


Logging Off

Keith Chester writes:

Past readers of these reviews may recall that I was not always particularly convinced by the videos which were offered for review. All too often these consisted of a dreary procession of passing trains, mostly unimaginatively filmed, interspersed with some “local colour” shots, the purpose of which was not always evident. We have now of course gone digital and DVDs are rapidly replacing videos. Few will mourn their passing. The first DVD for review bears ample witness to the quantum leap in image quality. It is also an outstanding piece of work.

Du Jianbin and Chen Yuehong’s Logging Off is simply one of the most satisfying steam railway films I’ve ever seen. Its 55 minutes document, in the widest sense of the word, operations on the 762mm gauge Weihe forestry railway in northern China in the winter of 2002-03, the final season of what was the last steam-worked forestry railway in that vast country. And it was armed with this knowledge that two professional film makers set out to record both a steam railway and a way of life that had lasted over half a century (Weihe had been opened in 1950). In this they have succeeded brilliantly.

The resulting film is, like a game of football, very much one of two halves. One is devoted to the steam-worked narrow gauge line as its Soviet designed 0-8-0s, leaking steam at every joint, struggle manfully for one last winter to move the felled logs. This is recorded in a mixture of both rather conventional shots (some of which are perhaps a wee on the static side) and more imaginatively conceived and executed ones (check out the train silhouetted by a full moon): the blend is good and well edited. There are some very moody night scenes and the shots of preparing the locos and carrying out the hasty repairs necessary to keep them running are also well handled, as are those showing operations along the line. The scene of a rather plump and bored lady railway worker doing her knitting whilst awaiting the next train is priceless.

The steam action is good and alone would justify the purchase of this DVD. But that would be a pity for as mentioned this is a film of two halves. The second, which is seamlessly cut into the first, examines thoughtfully and sympathetically the hard and dangerous lives of the men who eked out a livelihood cutting or transporting the wood. The two film makers spent the best part of four months working on their project and sharing the at times primitive living conditions of the loggers and loco crews: they clearly were able to win the trust of the workers who ignore the camera and are able to go about and discuss lives quite unselfconsciously. This produces one of the highlights of the film as a loco crew, who like all the railwaymen at Weihe are shortly to be made redundant, talk about their futures on the footplate of their C2 class 0-8-0. Here within a few minutes are both bathos and humour, as well as references to the film “Midnight Cowboy” and Viagra. The film concludes with some short black & white scenes of the railway being lifted: how quickly a way of life that must have seemed so permanent can disappear. These are scenes which in fact could have been recorded anywhere over the last half a century as the world de-industrialises. The themes of the film are universal and you certainly do not have to be particularly interested in either China or its steam locomotives to be fascinated by it.

My first reaction to seeing Logging Off was “Wow!” Having viewed it now some half a dozen times I would not change this assessment. Logging Off is a splendid achievement and deserves the widest possible audience. 

Sweet Spot by Du Jianbin and Chen Yuehong

Running time, 1 hour

Price GBP 17

Available from the producers - see dvd/loggingoff.htm for ordering information.


Eritrea - Rebirth of a Railway (RD)

As I have said elsewhere on these pages, 2002 saw the fulfillment of what I would dub my 'impossible dream'. More than 20 years ago when I was introduced to the Eritrean Railway in Charles Small's 'Far Wheels', it had already closed  in 1975, a victim of the war of independence with Ethiopia. It had clearly been my kind of railway, narrow gauge with vintage Mallets even if it had long ago disposed of its Klien-Lindner axled locomotives that I was also familiar with from Java. When I visited, I was not disappointed. Although it had something of the air of an exotic preserved railway, it still retained its essential charm and the country as a whole had an ambience which, in my experience, had only been matched by Burma, Laos and parts of Indonesia. So it was with eager anticipation that I sat down with this video.

Nick Lera has joined no less than three tours to the country in the making of this video, including the one I was on, as well as doing some additional private research there. The result is a video which goes far beyond a simple record of a train journey which itself would be one of the most spectacular in the world even in a 21st century diesel multiple unit. Starting with a short section which puts the railway and its rebuilding in its historical perspective, we see the final stages of reconstruction, visit the workshops and meet the staff who are even older than their vintage steam locomotives. Actually rebuilding the railway was the easy bit, establishing itself as a viable part of the public transport system in an emerging nation is going to be far more difficult as the video makes clear.

We ride the train from Asmara to Massawa and back and take a trip on a Littorina. Both the scenery and the action in it are absolutely stunning. Only a pedant would complain that there is a continuity problem with the constantly changing stock of the train.

To my mind this is an exemplar product, a video which a non-railway enthusiast could happily sit and watch yet which contains enough steam action to satisfy all but the most blinkered of enthusiasts. Get a copy. I am sure it will inspire you to visit the railway and enjoy it for yourself.

Eritrea - Rebirth of a Railway

Filmed by Nick Lera, Nick Lera's World Steam Classics

Running time: 60 minutes

Price : £19.95

For details on availability and other Nick Lera videos, see www.nickleravideo.com


New Zealand Steam Cavalcade Part 1 North Island (RD)

With working steam in terminal decline around the world, the seasoned traveller is now turning his/her attention to preserved steam in countries which lost their real steam many years ago. In October 2002, I spent a month in New Zealand. Nick Lera had an extended visit two years earlier and this is an excellent record of what he found together with a few more normal tourist snippets. In all it features 14 different steam locomotives at work, ranging from small Victorian tanks to the giant K class 4-8-4s. There are extended views of steam specials on the Northland line, the main line from Auckland to Wellington, the New Plymouth secondary main line and, most attractively, the Napier to Gisborne section where the coaching stock is the superb Steam Inc 'red set' instead of the dire Tranzrail blue. All the major preserved systems on the island are covered including MOTAT (with its steam tram), Glenbrook (with the Mallet at work), Silverstream and the Bush Tramway, together with most of the other attractions in my reference list. As I have said there, it has to be remembered that there is no 'daily running' on the North Island and Nick is to be commended for getting so much 'on tape' during his stay and generally to the high standard we have come to expect from his productions. However, on occasions, the fact that there was limited opportunity to obtain the footage (not to mention the less than cooperative weather) shows through.

The potential visitor will find much of interest - but remember that not all the locomotives at work here were still active in 2002 - and the armchair enthusiast too. If I am less than gushing about the video, it is not Nick's fault but the system. I loved New Zealand, the people, the trains and the scenery, but like the video the country itself lacks the 'bite' of the experience of real steam in Asia and elsewhere. So maybe this is not quite a 'Classic' but it is certainly a worthy addition to his range and only a local production shot over a longer period (of which I am not aware) is likely to improve on it. Part 2, South Island, will complete the survey in due course.

New Zealand Steam Cavalcade Part 1 North Island

Filmed by Nick Lera, Nick Lera's World Steam Classics

Running time: 90 minutes

Price : £19.95

For details on availability and other Nick Lera videos, see www.nickleravideo.com


Toy Train

This is a very good video indeed. Its subject matter, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, will need no introduction to visitors to this website; nor, I suspect, will the filmmaker, Nick Lera, who over the years has produced a number of films of a consistently high standard.

"Toy Train" is no exception to this. Subtitled "Exploring the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway", that is exactly what the film does. It examines various aspects of the line's history, its operations, its architecture, the people who work on it and the problems Indian Railways face in maintaining this veritable relic of the Raj. Inevitably, the main focus is on the locomotives, the famous B class 0-4-0STs, and the trains they pull. It also includes a short piece from my favourite BBC reporter, the legendary Mark Tully, who as a boy was taken to school by the DHR. How many of us can claim that as a memory of our schooldays?

Much of the film follows a rather obvious approach, following a train as it makes its way from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. This was filmed over a week in March 2000 and is a composite featuring six different locos. With one train a day up the hill such an approach is unavoidable, but the mixture of trains and locos never disturbs. I particularly liked the repeated showing of the (very clear) map so that the viewer always knows exactly which location is currently screen or being mentioned. A map shown briefly once at the beginning of a film is long forgotten by its end. Also to Nick Lera's credit is the fact that he has generally avoided using too much sitar music; much as I enjoy the instrument, not every film about India has to have it as background music!

Despite all its obvious charms, I have always thought that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is difficult to film or photograph: trains tend to run at the "wrong time " of the day to permit dramatic lighting effects and the narrow roadside view palls somewhat after a while. Given these limitations, Nick Lera has produced a well-filmed video. He employs a wide variety of shots, ranging in length. These have been slickly edited together to complete a film which constantly holds the attention - not once did I have the feeling that a sequence was held too long. The film also succeeds very nicely in bringing out the close relationship between the railway, its people and its environment. There is a wonderful, sadly all too brief, sequence of shots in thick fog with the loco's headlight and the glare from the open firebox door piercing the gloom - the video is worth purchasing for these alone.

The film shows the railway as of March 2000, but also includes approximately 15 minutes of footage shot in 1990 and 1982. this enables comparisons to be made, for example how Batasia Loop and Agony Point have been "beautified"; above all, however, it documents the decline in traffic in the last 20 years. In 1982 freight trains were still being operated and the daily mail train ran in two sections, consisting of four carriages each. Today one train of three carriages suffices.

March 2000 was a fortuitous choice. The railway was still all-steam worked, but only just, for Nick Lera was able to film the arrival of the new diesels which have since taken over most workings. The film also records an official visit from the UK-based Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society and examines briefly its activities and the heritage future of the DHR. The film concludes with shots of the first steaming in half a century of the O&K 0-4-0ST "Baby Sivok", which Nick Lera describes as a "brief debut of uncertain significance". The wisdom of diverting limited cash into the restoration of a loco which can haul a mere 3t on the steep grades of the DHR is certainly questionable.

"Toy Train" captures the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at a unique moment, in transition from a working steam railway to a part of the international heritage industry. It does so intelligently and in an interesting manner. It comes strongly recommended.

"Toy Train"

Filmed by Nick Lera, Nick Lera's World Steam Classics

Running time : 60 minutes

Price : £19.95

For details on availability and other Nick Lera videos, see www.nickleravideo.com


DRAGONS IN THE SNOW - Chinese Steam in 2000

THE UNION LIMITED MALUTI - Steam in South Africa 2000

Filmed by David Huntbatch, Belhurst Productions

"Dragons in the Snow" is a nicely filmed video. It features winter steam in China at AoBaoGou, the Chengde steelworks branch and the JingPeng pass and, almost needless to say, in the sub-zero temperatures the action is at times spectacular. The individual sequences are well framed and there's not really a duff one amongst them. The commentary is unobtrusive but informative and is complemented by appropriate and brief captions.

The difficulty for the filmmaker is that all three locations are home to some of the very last heavy steam workings in the world, indeed that is why they were visited. They are thus well known and have inevitably attracted a disproportionate amount of attention - and videos. To tell the truth I am beginning to feel a bit "JingPenged-out". This is about the fourth or fifth video of action over the pass offered for sale over the past year or so. And though there's a good variety of locations in "Dragons in the Snow", it contains some sequences which are almost identical to those seen in previous videos. Yet to all appearances (I've never been there) the JingPeng pass would seem to have great potential.

"Dragons in the Snow" is perhaps the best of the videos I've personally seen of the JingPeng pass, the two opening sequences are terrific. Yet I can't help feeling it could be better: too many of the locations play safe and too many of the shots use the video equivalent of the still photographer's front three-quarter view, ie sun over the shoulder, long zoom, pull back and follow the lead engine(s) till out of sight. This can undeniably produce good sequences, but, like working in a chocolate factory, you can have too much of a good thing. (Never, I must confess, a problem when I worked as a student in a brewery!) Yet every so often filmmaker David Huntbatch does do something different - there are some very nice silhouettes and a couple of shots of street scenes with a steam locomotive working in the distance - and shows that he is aware that there are other ways of doing things. Unfortunately, however, these form just a small part of the video. A better mixture of these elements, plus at times some tighter editing, would have made a good film into a very good one. "Dragons in the Snow" is ahead of the pack, but does not really stand out. The potential though is there.

"The Union Limited Maluti" is the record of a two-week luxury steam railtour around South Africa in July 2000 using a variety of locomotives. Like many such tours the "Maluti" included a large number of runpasts - full regulator and lots of clag - and many of these feature predominantly in this video film.

Many of the remarks on "Dragons in the Snow" apply to this video too. To my mind, however, it works much better as a film, partly because it tells a story, partly because there is a wider variety of locomotives on view, but most of all because the diet of sequences of steam-hauled trains passing the camera is relieved by well-edited shots of locos shunting, being prepared for the day's work, scenes in the cab, of the train interior etc etc. The railway shots are interspersed by some tightly edited "civilian" scenes, which, dare I say it, in many ways are the best part of the film and again would suggest that Mr Huntbatch is capable of making not only good videos, but also very good ones. Both "Dragons in the Snow" and the "Maluti" are commended.

"Dragons in the Snow" (BH-110)

Running time : 58 minutes

Price : £13.45 including post & packing in the UK

"The Union Limited Maluti" (BH-111)

Running time : 60 minutes

Price : £14.95 including post & packing in the UK

Both available from:

Belhurst Productions, Windmill Hill, Hailsham, East Sussex, BN27 4SB, UK

E-mail : DavidHuntbatch@AOL.com


Extreme Steam

"Extreme Steam", the video, is Volume 6 of the well-established "Vanishing World Steam" series by Tele Rail. It is a companion to the book of the same title recently reviewed here and many of the shots are common to both.

Let it be said at the very beginning that this is a very well produced video indeed. It has an introduction clearly stating the aim of the video, which is to highlight some of the remaining steam workings in northern China. Filming took place in the depths of the Chinese winter, guaranteeing some spectacular exhaust effects and justifying the video's title. It is accompanied by an informative and authorative commentary. Unfortunately this repeats a variant of the "howler" made in the book concerning the narrow gauge C2 class 0-8-0s. This time it is claimed that this 0-8-0 was built in the USSR for use in Eastern Europe (sorry, other way round) and that some are still active in Poland (would that they were!).

This 90 minute video thus has a theme and a linking motif, both of which are exploited admirably to raise it beyond the level of most railway videos (and, dare I say, also that of the book of the same title). Coverage is also more balanced than the book, with a 20 minute look at the narrow gague forestry railways at Yabuli and Weihe. Other workings featured are the JS suburbans and the Shiguai branch at Bautou, the 100% (though not for much longer) steam line from Bautou to Shenmu, where heavy coal trains sometimes require double-headed QJs plus a banker. This also merits a 20 minute section allowing the viewer to gain a feeling for both the line and its operations. The film ends with an half an hour view of trains climbing the western side of ht efamous Jing Peng pass, utilising a number of trains to convey the impresion of the entire run.

There's hardly a dud shot here; there's a couple worth killing for and the rest are well above the average of most videos I've seen. And yet the film slightly disappoints, largely I feel due to the lack of variety of shots. There are in the whole 90 minutes, for example, only two silhouette shots and otherwise the sun is always firmly and safely on the "right side" of the locomotive. Camera angles are in general rather predictable and tend towards the video equivalent of the front-three-quarters over a long free section of track. Nothing wrong in this per se but it really needs cutting in with a number of shorter shots from different angles. Every so often the Tele Rail team do provide evidence of some snappier editing and that they can film, for example, into the sun (there's a wonderful sequence of a QJ shunting at sunset), but sadly all too seldom. Another small complaint: as someone who is not dashing off to China every winter, I would have appreciated a map of the lines featured in this video.

All in all, whilst "Extreme Steam" is not the best steam video I've ever seen, it nonetheless way up there and way ahead of most of its rivals. Recommended.

For ordering details visit Telerail's Website.


Standard Gauge Steam in China Vol I 

by Roy Bowden 

With steam activity all but reduced to China and Cuba, inevitably a whole crop of videos devoted to these two countries have appeared on what is increasingly overcrowded market. A very recent release is "Standard Gauge Steam in China Vol I", an 80 minute video featuring QJ and JS action at Jing Peng, Da'an Bei, Tonghua and Yebaishou as well as a look at the Chengde steel works branch. This latter produces some of the best shots of the entire video, but there are pleasant scenes throughout the 80 minutes. 

As always, some probably shouldn't have been included and maybe 60 minutes would have been better. The video has been filmed and mastered on digital equipment and technically is of a high standard. The accompanying commentary is reasonably informative and unobtrusive. 

I've certainly seen many videos not of the standard of this one. Yet for all its merits and the use of digital equipment, the film falls into a number of traps. It was clearly filmed during several trips to China in the mid to late 1990s and presumably is a selection of the best scenes from these visits. But herein lies the problem. The best railway videos I've seen all tell a story, there is a development and at the end, I'm not only a little older but also wiser. "Standard Gauge Steam in China" is however essentially a collection of views of trains passing the camera without any real linking theme other than they were what cameraman Roy Bowden saw on his visits to China. The most interesting part of the video by far is the section devoted to the Chengde branch. Not only is the action excellent (there's a wonderful shot in the snow), but the very fact of this being a short, self-contained branch enables a progression to be made and a story told. 

There are also some problems with the filming, certainly not from a technical point of view, but in its manner. Camera work is at times rather pedestrian. Wisely a tripod is used but in this case this is perhaps more of a hindrance than a help for the camera hardly moves. Shots are remarkably static, almost reminiscent of the early days of the cinema. 

A related difficulty is that of holding shots far too long. There is a tendency in this video for a whole train to be filmed until the brakevan has passed the camera. When this involves a heavy double-headed QJ freight plodding up Jing Peng pass, the result can be frankly quite boring. Similarly, to lift a film out of the "this-is-what-I-saw-on-my-holiday" category, editing has to be more than cutting out the bad bits. Cross cutting and using a variety of camera angles (admittedly, something not always possible if you are visiting a location for the first time and just for a couple of days) are required. Nobody would suggest that the techniques of MTV are applicable to a steam video, but to sustain interest a continuous variety and variation of shots is essential. 

"Standard Gauge Steam in China Vol I" is a commendable first effort, superior to many videos on the market, but with some room for improvement. 

TITLE: Standard Gauge Steam In China 
Volume One 
PRODUCER: Sans Pareil Digital Video Presentations 
RUNNING TIME: 1 Hour and Twenty Minutes 
PRICE: £16.95 
P&P: UK&Eire----Free 
Europe------Add £1 
Rest of World----Add £4 
PAYMENT: Cheque, Postal Order, or International Money Order (STERLING ONLY)
NB: They cannot accept credit card payments at the present time.
AVAILABLE FROM: Sans Pareil Digital Video Presentations, PO Box 9063, Birmingham B31 2WE, UK 
FORMAT: VHS (PAL)


Steamy Java by John Raby

This deals exclusively with the sugar mill lines and is no more, no less than a record of what John Raby saw during his 1999 visit to Java. Frankly, as a video per se, it is not as good as his film on the Darjeeling Railway previously reviewed here. Many of the shots are held far too long and on John's own admission, this is a "hard core" video, aimed principally at people who have already fallen under the spell of Javanese sugar steam. If you are amongst these, then it is a film well worth acquiring. But even if you are not, then it is still of some considerable interest, but be prepared for some longeurs!

For information on ordering, also John's other Java videos,  check out http://www.linesiding.co.uk.


The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway by John Raby

"The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway" is a 52 minute long record of a visit to the world famous DHR by John Raby in the mid 1990s. It begins with shots of a train departing New Jalpaiguri station and ends logically enough with the final arrival in Darjeeling. Unsurprisingly it is a composite of several days filming and, hence, different locomotives and rolling stock feature. This, however, never disturbs. There is no commentary, but place names are cut into the film as appropriate. The DHR is sufficiently well known and short enough for this approach to work well, but perhaps a map of the railway would have been useful, either in the accompanying notes or in the film itself.

This is an amateur film in the best sense of the word. For whilst it may lack the imaginative camera angles and dramatic lighting effects of the professional film maker, it is clearly made with enthusiasm and a love for the subject. It brought back to me memories of my own visit to this most famous of narrow gauge railways twenty years ago. Watching it for the first time I kept saying to myself "That's exactly how I remember it!" What more can a film do?

The video nicely captures the flavour of the DHR and is well shot. Towards the summit there are some outstanding scenes as the little blue train battles its way through snow and swirling mist and it is worth buying the video for this alone.

Criticisms? John should have used a tripod more often (though this he admits himself in his notes). Editing could be much tighter and some shots are held far too long. The pacing shots too often begin from a dead start which is irritating.

But these are minor gripes and this video can be recommended to anybody interested in this unique line, whether they have visited it or not.

For information on ordering check out http://www.linesiding.co.uk.


Empires of Steam (RD)

Let me say from the outset that this 50 minute film is clearly produced for the more general viewer rather than the die-hard well travelled international steam gricer (ie your reviewer). It is produced to professional standards and includes some stunningly beautiful images of China and India, not just the steam locomotives at work in their final years but also the countryside, the buildings and the peoples. So it is perhaps a little unfair to be as critical as I am....

The major part of the film is devoted to northern China and features steam at work at Yebaishou, Chengde and on the JingPeng Pass. It includes coverage of steam locomotive maintenance as well as lineside action - the latter is well filmed but the clips I found too short, presumably so as to not exceed the attention span of the uncommitted enthusiast. Much historical background is given although I think it would have been more accurate to describe the foreign influenced area as Manchuria rather than Inner Mongolia! Indeed only the JingPeng pass shown in this film is actually part of Inner Mongolia.... Again, I would take issue with the descriptions of SY locomotives and steam cranes as 'rare' and certainly the description of SYs and JSs as being less modern than the QJs is totally inaccurate. This apart I did enjoy this part of the film as would anyone who wanted an introduction to steam operation in China.

The Indian section appears much more 'bitty' as by the time it was shot there was relatively little steam activity left. All the steam activity is shown in the closing days at Udaipur, by which time only one train through Debari and the Bari Sadri branch train were still steam hauled. I think it would have been better to omit this section and give a fuller coverage to China....

Contact Craig McCourry or visit http://www.mccourry.com for more details.


CUBA Sugar Steam

In the days when three minutes of 8 or 16mm film cost an arm and a leg, some thought was given to what was filmed. Today, the very ease and cheapness of the video medium have led to an indiscriminatory proliferation of quantity, with all too little attention to quality. "Why don’t you come up and see my videos" holds little seductive promise.

This is true of a video recently sent me for review. It is entitled CUBA Sugar Steam and is an amateur production by Keith Till. Sadly the emphasis must be on amateur. Mr Till’s film shows little creative imagination and his camera technique frequently leaves much to be desired: the zooming is often jerky, some shots are far too short, whilst others are held unnecessarily long. Of editing there is little trace.

These problems are compounded by Mr Till’s approach. The film is "just as it happened", without commentary, captions or titles, which he says he finds "irritating". The argument is valid, but to produce such a film successfully requires either stunning camera work and/or the development of themes. Both are totally lacking. Instead for 55 minutes the film jumps around to no obvious purpose: we go in rapid sequence from mill to mill (usually the well-visited ones), from the east to the west of Cuba and back again, from standard gauge to narrow gauge, all without any apparent rhyme nor reason. A great many of the shots are mundane ones of shed scenes or in and around the mill itself and there are relatively few lineside ones; it should, however, be said that some of these are quite good. If you’re really into Cuba, then you might consider buying this film.

CUBA Sugar Steam (55 Min)

By & available from :

Keith Till, Appledene, Bank Brow, Roby Mill, Upholland, Lancs, WN8 0QF, ENGLAND

E-mail : keith@tillaa.freeserve.co.uk

PRICE (incl post & packing)

UK : GBP 8

EU : GBP 9.50

Rest of the World : GBP 10.50


Rob Dickinson

Email: webmaster@internationalsteam.co.uk