October 4, 2005


Sentimental or Not, a Steam-Powered Journey Is Ending (HOWARD W. FRENCH, 10/04/05, NY Times)

At one end of the rail yard, mechanics with two-foot-long wrenches fuss lovingly over the workings of a handful of black steam locomotives, while other workers load them up with coal or wipe their huge, cylindrical air compressors clean with large rags.

The men in the old yard seem more like boys, taking turns tooling up and down the tracks under a gray and drizzling sky, blowing off huge white jets of steam and sounding their shrill whistles for no better reason than the sheer fun of it.

The moment lent a special poignancy to their play, for these are the final days of steam on the Jitong railway, a 567-mile line in the province of Inner Mongolia that rail experts say is the last mainline steam-powered railroad anywhere in the world. Sometime in October, perhaps just as the first snows fall, the last of these coal-fired behemoths will pull out of the yard for a final run, to be replaced by a shiny new diesel.

"These trains are the best," said Gao Hongbo, 35, as he escorted a visitor into the toasty engine room, opening flaps to reveal the red hot coals in the belly of the beast. "I don't know why they don't want to use them anymore."

In fact, Mr. Gao knew very well. Indeed, all the men in the yard knew. Along the hectic road to something called progress, there is very little time for sentimentality. Diesel trains are cheaper to operate and maintain, haul bigger loads and run at faster speeds. It is as simple as that.

As every loyal fan of Thomas the Tank Engine knows, diesels are evil.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 4, 2005 11:36 PM

Diesel trains are cheaper to operate and maintain, haul bigger loads and run at faster speeds.

Exactly why steam locomotives took over from mule teams.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 5, 2005 1:05 PM

China was building new American-style 2-8-2s and 2-10-0s at Datong well into the 1980s. Must've been glorious.

Posted by: Mike Morley at October 5, 2005 1:05 PM

Cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, higher work capacity == evil? Who knew????

Posted by: Kirk Parker at October 5, 2005 2:04 PM

Yeah, and the position is ridiculous.

Posted by: ghostcat at October 5, 2005 2:48 PM