The 2:15 to Shanghai - Episode 5

2020.03.20

The station master's whistle blew again, signalling the departure of our train.  The diesel-electric engine roared to life as it pulled us out of the Jinan station.  The train made the turn south, away from the mainline to Beijing, and accelerated to full speed on the mainline to Shanghai.

As with the Beijing mainline, the tracks here were doubled and in many cases a third line was added for passing.  This is the way all the mainlines are in this part of China.  Most of the track is continuous rail, which means it is quiet and smooth with none of the 'clickety-clack' that I used to hear when I rode a train through the prairies in Canada.  Continuous rail is common on Canadian mainlines now.

China is dependent on the railway for both freight and passenger service.  The passenger service is so important that all passenger trains get the right of way and the freights must wait on the passing tracks—just the opposite of what happens on the prairies in Canada.

Just before six, the head waiter from the dining car, a woman of about thirty, who was dressed in a red railway uniform, came through the coach announcing dinner and selling tickets for the meal.  Our understanding was that there were two meals available: one, diced chicken, the other, deep fried shrimp.  We gave her our choices.

I noticed that many of the locals had brought their own food and goodies and spread out their food for supper in the compartments of the sleeping car.  I thought this could mean one of two things.  Either the dining car was too expensive, or, the food served there was too awful to consider eating.

We decided to wait for the rush to the dining car to subside, which it didn’t, but at about 7:15 we heard the last call for supper.  We walked the access corridor through five cars, squeezing past numerous gatherings of people, most in animated conversation.  We found a vacant table in the dining car and sat down.

The food was plain, a bit greasy, and salty.  I learned during my many visits to China that one eats what one gets—there isn’t anything else.  I tucked into the meal, but had a large Quingdao beer as well and that helped it go down.

After finishing we sat back and watched what was going on around us.  We noticed that the two choices we were given by the head waiter in our car were not the only ones available.  The choices she had provided were the specials of the day and by ordering them we were assured of quick service.  If we had come to the dining car earlier we could have ordered from a menu that had a selection of dishes and then waited until the meal was cooked.  We saw some tasty looking dishes that came to those that ordered this way.  Once again, our inability to speak the language left us short of what could have been a more enjoyable meal.

Also available were 'box lunches' that are prevalent in China and Japan.  These are premade with rice, meat and vegetables all in a small box with a lid on it.  In the train these boxes were of styrofoam, but traditionally they are made of woven bamboo.

By the time we finished our meal and had a chat about our experiences of the day, we felt tired and headed back to our compartments.  We were surprised to find our compartments locked, but within seconds our conductor appeared and unlocked them for us.  There was one conductor for every first class car.  Unknown to us, she had kept an eye on us when we left and was quick to lock up our compartments.  It was part of her job and it added a sense of security to two strangers travelling in this foreign land.

Shortly after we finished our meal together, Mr. Graves, Mr. Wang, and Mr. Zheng got off the train near Jining.  They told us they were meeting a driver who was to drive them the final 25 km into the city.  This left me with the compartment all to myself so I settled down to do some reading before going to bed.

After a few minutes Al appeared at my door.  “Jack, I’m having a conversation with an older Chinese man in our compartment.  He is an engineer and we are finding lots in common to talk about.  Do you want to join us?”

“Not right now, thanks Al, I’m going to read a bit and then go to bed.”

A half an hour later Al again stuck his head into my compartment, “Jack,you really should join us.  That old fellow has had an interesting career as a locomotive engineer.  With your interest in trains you’ll enjoy talking to him.”

Now he had my complete attention.  "A locomotive engineer!" I replied, "I can't believe it.  Does he drive locomotives or design them?”

"He is a designer," Al replied, "but I don't really know what he does.  Why don't you come in and meet him?”  I was off my bed, shoes on, and half way out the door almost before Al finished his sentence.

So began an interesting evening of talk for this railway enthusiast, with history that I would never have been able to hear about, first hand, anywhere else in the world in 1989.  Here was another professional engineer who was the real thing—a steam locomotive designer.

Mr. Shi (pronounced 'shir') had been designing locomotives since 1955.  In China this meant that he had been both a steam locomotive and diesel locomotive designer. Steam locomotives were still being used, and, to my knowledge were still being manufactured in China.  I could not believe my luck.  I have always been curious about steam locomotive design.  I’ve absorbed everything I could from writers such as Tuplin, Ransome-Wallis and others, but here I was, face to face, with professional engineer who had designed steam locomotives.  An engineer who could talk about engine efficiency, cutoff, superheat, tractive effort and such other things that make an engineer’s ears perk up and listen.  Mr. Shi’s English was excellent.  It didn’t take long for me to realise that Mr. Shi was a senior engineer and well respected.  He had done a lot of international travel to evaluate and select engines and railway cars for many years.  Only someone respected and trusted would be permitted to do that in the period  he told us about, which was mainly in the 60’s through to 1989.

Al Chan-Mr Fu steam engine designer-Jack 1990-web

Al, Mr. Shi, and me

“I've worked at the Dong Fang Hong locomotive factory for many years," said Mr. Shi.  "There we produce the Dong Fang Hong Shi (East Wind 4) diesel locomotive with 4000 HP and the Dong Fang Hong San (East Wind 3, or DFH-3) locomotive with 2700 HP.  We used to make steam locomotives, but we just service them now.  The only remaining steam locomotive factory is in Datong in the Shanxi Province, but I don't know if they are still producing them.  We are planning to stop the production of steam locomotives soon and just use what we have.  Many of the steam locomotives from the southern provinces are being moved to the north where the coal fields are, so there is ample fuel supply nearby.”

Mr. Shi went on to describe what he worked on.  "My responsibility right now is to try to make the diesel locomotives from our factory as efficient as possible.  With so many locomotives in use in China, even a half percent in efficiency goes a long way to conserving fuel.  I used to work on making the steam engines more efficient, but that is a very difficult task.  We never got our efficiencies much above 7.5%.  I did evaluate a design from the United States that approached 10%, but when we looked at it, it seemed to require too much maintenance to consider."

"Have you ever seen any of the Canadian Pacific designs?" I asked.

"No, what were they like?"

"Well, I don't remember their details; however, there were some very significant locomotive designs that were developed for the mountainous regions of Canada.  They were large and powerful, and had many special design features for working in very cold weather.  One that was very successful was a 2-10-4 locomotive called a 'Selkirk'."

"We never hear much of what goes on in Canada in terms of railway expertise,” he noted.

I thought this was in line with what I hear about Canada wherever I travel.  We don't seem to blow our horn enough compared to other countries and much of our expertise is overlooked.  I wondered if this was a reflection on our Canadian culture or an indication of our poor ability to present ourselves outside our own country.  This is something that I’ve never understood.  Do we not realise how exceptional some of our people and products are?  Do people of other countries not pay attention to our capabilities?

"I notice that there are a lot of diesel and electric locomotives in China that come from the United States and France."

"Yes," Mr. Shi continued, "during different periods in China we found ourselves short of locomotives and had to purchase them from other countries.  In 1960 we bought 50 electric locomotives from France and in 1970 we bought another 50 diesel electrics also from France.  We also bought some locomotives from Romania, but our most recent purchase from abroad was from the United States.  In 1986-87 we purchased 420, General Electric 4000 HP units."

"I've seen those around,” I explained.  We call them U-40s.  They’re common in the United States, but not in Canada.  You seem to run them much faster than the Americans do."

"Our freight trains tend to be smaller than yours and our tracks are good, so we can run them fast even with only one engine pulling the train,” he said.

I could vouch for that.  I had witnessed many single engine freights whistling along at speeds that most of us in Canada would consider to be suitable only for express passenger trains running between Toronto and Montreal.

We talked into the night.  Before retiring I promised to send Mr. Shi a book on Canadian Railways and locomotives.  He promised to give me a tour of his company's locomotive production facilities in Quingdao the next time I was in that area.  I told him that I would be sure to take him up on his offer.  Unfortunately, I never did.  I made three more trips to China after 1989, but was never back in Quingdao.

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Last steam engine in Beijing 1985-web

The Last Steam Engine in Beijing - 1987

This picture is a story in itself.

In 1987 I was sitting outside my hotel in the centre of Beijing when I heard a steam train whistle.  The next day, I asked my translator if he would find out if I could visit the railway yard where that whistle was coming from.  He was able to organise the visit, so I went there with several of the Chinese engineers I was working with.  The railway men in the yard said this was a Jie Fang engine, but I think it looks like the Dong Fang Hong Shi (East Wind 4, or DFH-4) that Mr. Shi told me about in 1989.  Regardless, what was unique about my visit was that this was the last operating steam engine within the Beijing city limits and this was the last week it was operational.  We were there at a unique moment, but the Chinese engineers didn’t show any interest.  After much discussion with some of them I think I learned why.  Unlike me, none of them had owned and played with model trains when they are kids nor had they ever dreamed about being the driver of a steam engine.

I sent this picture to Mr. Shi along with a book of our railways.  He wrote a nice letter back and included some pictures of the last steam locomotive that was built in his Quingdao factory.


Next week, Episode 6 - we arrive in Shanghai