JiningNan -Tongliao (JiTong) Railway, Inner Mongolia
When 1996 news spread that a newly built Railway line was discovered in North-Western China that featured a scenic pass section with tunnels, viaducts that was reportedly entirely steam operated, it sounded amost unreal to me.
The British news mag 'World Steam', until the global conquest of Internet the primary source of information on international Steam, wrote back then: "Just as you may have believed that everything is over in the world of steam and spectacular duties a thing of the past, news spreads of a newly built, entirely steam operated mainline with fantastic action in Northern China. Get your camera overhauled, take the offer for early retirement, postpone your marriage (or get divorced and kick your lover out) and get out to JinningNan - Tongliao!"
I quickly made up my mind, told my boss that I need to extend my Christmas holidays (depite having no more credits), purchased a few dozen film rools and got an air-ticket to Beijing - all the rest I would find out in Inner Mongolia.
I dindn't expect too much. China's Ji-Tong - Railway and it's famous Jingpeng pass were simply the greatest show for steam on earth.
While in China steam traction generally was on the retreat and new lines normally electrified or diesel operated right from beginning, the JiTong line was fully equipped with steam infrastructure such as water cranes, shed facilities and an engine workshop. And as to complement this, had most stations got semaphore signals - amazing in a country where virtually all railway lines had been equipped with daylight signals years ago.
We learned that the construction was initiated and founded by Inner Mongolian Province
Government and initial plans went back to the eighties. The line had to be built on a limited budget. And Steam was considered as the most cost efficient motive
power. And while the Chinese Railway industry failed to meet country's growing need of modern diesels, surplus QJ - steam engines could be bought
just for a part of the price from Chinese national railways - many of
the 3000-HP-engines were less than 10 years old!
The JiTong railway purchased no less than 100 steam engines and ovherhauled them. Traffic levels were at remarkable 5 Million tons for the first year, and had, by the year 2000, almost doubled.
While the major part of the 900km from JiningNan to Tongliao leaded trough unspectacular Inner Mongolian plains and semi-desert with distant mountain ranges on and off, the scenery suddenly got mountinous after the small town of Jingpeng. This is where the line got spectacular, winding up in multiple horseshoe curves, tunnels and bowed viaducts, gently climbing towards a pass.