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Countdown To the Last Steam Train

These beloved but antiquated locomotives are disappearing from western China.

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David Longman

For nearly 30 years, Chris Skow’s company, Trains & Travel International, has organized trips around the world to seek the train hunter’s greatest prize: the steam locomotive. "In another ten years," he says, "you’re going to be hard pressed to find any steam engines available for operation, unless they’re strictly in a tourist setting."

Railroad museums and tour companies may continue to keep the old steam trains on hand for demonstrations, posterity or simple nostalgia. But for true rail fans, that’s like seeing an animal in the zoo. To see the old iron horse in the wild, on the other hand — what rail fans call "live steam" — is worth a journey of thousands of miles.

"A steam engine has smoke coming out of the stack, the whistle, the steam shooting out the side, the wheels turning, the rods turning," says Skow, "hundreds of moving parts all interlinked – it’s a beast that snorts back at you."

Beitai Steelworks in Liaoning Province, one of the few Chinese steam routes still in operation. Photo by David Longman

"Many rail fans," he adds, "classify steam engines as alive."

For those people, and the trains they chase, we're approaching the end of an era. There is only one place left on earth where steam locomotives are still widely in use: the Chinese industrial hinterland. Rail enthusiasts are now regularly traveling there to witness the last gasps of the engine that created the modern world. Some among them worry it may already be too late.

Weihe Forestry Railway in Heilongjiang, which closed in 2004. Photo by David Longman, 2001.
Jingpeng. Photo by David Longman, January 1, 1999.

David Longman celebrated New Year's Eve, 1998, aboard a sleeper train from Benhong. Longman, an avid rail fan and schoolteacher from Bedford, England, had come to Jingpeng, a ten-hour drive north of Beijing, in search of steam trains.

On New Year's Day, fighting off the effects of his revelry, he scrambled up the hills behind Reshui and took the above photo. (All the photos in this piece are courtesy of Longman and from his travels in China. And he has many, many more.) A guide climbed the hill as well, to bring up a fresh crate of beer. But by the time he arrived, it had frozen solid in the bottles. 

Winter is the best season to shoot steam train photography. Skies are blue and steam columns can rise and linger hundreds of feet in the air. Longman took many such trips to China in the '00s, sitting for hours by the side of the tracks, looking out for gray plumes on the horizon. Temperatures can be as low as 20 or 30 below zero. On industrial lines where the trains ran on demand, not on schedule, Longman sometimes waited all day without seeing a train. Other times he’d see dozens. 

Locals thought he was crazy to spend so much money, and travel so far, to see something they not only took for granted but thought rather unremarkable. I have the opposite reaction: like a lot of people — like most urban Chinese, even — I have never seen a steam locomotive, and Longman's photographs look both antiquated and surreal. They recall model train sets, Thomas the Tank Engine or the Hogwarts Express; they resemble color-enhanced photos of the 19th century. But the photos are real, and there are people who spend their lives trying to take them. 

Xingyeng Brickworks, Henan Province. David Longman, 2005.

"It is a huge hobby," says Skow. "I would put railroad and steam trains as a passion and a hobby close to auto racing. They're on TV every week; we are a more low-key operation." Like many hobby groups, their Internet presence is vast and vibrant. The gargantuan Railfan.net, "Over One Million Rail Images -- By Railfans for Railfans" is only one of many forums for railroad discussion. There are dozens of sites devoted to Chinese steam alone.

Skow organized his first tour in 1984, to South Africa, while he was working as a conductor on the Western Pacific Railroad. Not surprisingly, many trainmen are rail fans. But they keep a low profile. "Some railroads do not openly like rail fans as their employees," Skow says. "They feel that a rail fan might not attend totally to his job -- might attend to his camera if he took it to work. Which we always do."

Nevertheless, word got around. Now Skow has a mailing list of 100,000. (That’s posted mail – these are steam train enthusiasts, after all. Skow is trying to convert them to email, by mail. "The old diehards -- by the time they get a computer all the steam engines will be gone!")

He can’t keep track of how many trips he’s organized since he started – 26 this year alone, split up for "railfans" and "tourists." Destinations include Chile, Mongolia, Indonesia, New England and many more. Skow can’t lead all the trips himself, so he recruits volunteer guides, who get to travel for free.

Xingyeng Brickworks, Henan Province. David Longman, 2005.

Steam-power isn’t as outdated as you might infer from its near extinction in the developed world. Skow remembers his father taking him to watch the big steam-powered freight trains run through the junction at Pasadena, California, in the 1950s. Steam wasn’t systematically phased out in the U.S. until the 1960s. Today, there is still one steam locomotive operating on a Class I railroad in the U.S., the Union Pacific 844.

For the most part, though, the U.S. and the rest of the world have converted to electric and diesel. These new technologies aren’t just more powerful, they are much cheaper: Skow says running a steam locomotive in the U.S. today can cost as much as four times as much as diesel, per mile.

And yet, there are small corners of the world where travelers have been able to see steam locomotives in operation: Cuba, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Cambodia, which was “briefly fashionable as a steam tourist destination” around 2000, according to Rob Dickinson’s International Steam blog. Today, steam enthusiasts still go to Java, which rivals China as a top destination where steam is still widely in use, though the setting and scale are far less dramatic.

If you really care about steam trains, China is the promised land. China was the last country to manufacture steam locomotives — as late as 1999 — and it will be the last to use them on a large scale. Steam was dominant throughout China until the 1980s, supported by cheap coal and cheap labor. In the late '90s, at about the same time that Japan was building its MagLev trains, China had a number of mainline passenger steam locomotives.

Anshan Steelworks repair shop. David Longman, 1999.

But they have since been phased out, victim, according to railfan legend, to a government initiative to eradicate the steam system in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Great Britain, whose Games aesthetic was as retrospective as China’s was forward-looking, put steam locomotives center-stage at the London Olympics, using a steam train to take the torch from York to Carlisle.)

China's legendary investment in high-speed rail over the last few years has been intended both to stimulate the economy and modernize a rail network perceived, Evan Osnos writes in the New Yorker, as a "symbol of backwardness." That undertaking, the most expensive public works project since the Interstate Highway System, has been conducted with unprecedented speed. Suddenly, Chinese steam is an endangered species.

"Get to China before it’s gone," is the new mantra, says Skow. "That goes for railfans in Europe, for railfans in South America, railfans all around the world."

Trains and Travel has organized five trips to China this year. “Steam in the West,” a two-week tour this winter, cost nearly $3,000 a person. Others cost more. Of the 2013 trips Skow has announced so far, half are to China.

These days, for David Longman, there's no longer enough Chinese steam to make the trip worthwhile. “It has declined dramatically since the start of the millennium," he says. “I doubt there are more than 50 or 60 steam lines active in the whole country. I used to see that many locomotives in a day.”

He gives Chinese steam five years, at most. “Less if you’re being realistic.”

Nanpiao. David Longman, 2003.

Longman was one of the first Westerners to go on solo trips in search of steam trains in Chinese industrial regions far from the megacities of the South and East. "Even as late as 1999, I’d show up in places where people had never seen a European. They’d literally come up and touch my clothing, touch my hair."

These days, the scene is very different. The few remaining steam routes are so inundated with foreigners that Rob Dickinson, Longman’s mentor, no longer shares his Chinese trip reports online, citing an atmosphere beginning to resemble the worst of more conventional tourist attractions

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.

A snow-clearing train transports men to shovel the tracks off, Huanan. David Longman, 2004.

The industry around the industry (chartered trains, photo drive-bys, cash handouts to engine operators), Dickinson writes, is ruining what few "authentic" sites remain: "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.'"

It was Dickinson who first encouraged Longman to ditch the tours and explore rural Chinese rail routes on his own. Now the two friends commiserate about the way things used to be.

"Rob said that running a steam website like mine is like running a perpetual obituary column," Longman says. "It really is: here one week, gone the next."

Singing Sands, Baotou. David Longman, 1998.
Huanan. David Longman, 2004.
A crew at Yuanbaoshan. David Longman, 2002.
Tangshan. David Longman, 2002.
Daqing, Tiefa. David Longman, 2001.

Steam Train from Misha Werder on Vimeo.

All images courtesy of David Longman.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.