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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON CHINA

Back to China's Future, Full Steam Ahead

The last steam railroads on the planet are an endangered species.

June 26, 1998|RON HOLLANDER | Ron Hollander, coordinator of journalism at Montclair State University in New Jersey, is a former Fulbright scholar in China who is writing a book on Chinese steam railroads

OK, I know it's not human rights or trade imbalance. But couldn't Bill Clinton and China's Jiang Zemin spend maybe five minutes in a corner of the Forbidden City on how to keep China's steam railroads, the last on the planet, alive?

I know it's not up there with global warming as a subject for presidential tete-a-tetes. But for an impassioned group of us around the world, the accelerated dieselization of China's great railroads produces profound sadness. In 1997, there were 3,751 steam locomotives in China, down from 8,000 a decade ago. The rate of scrapping is increasing: In 1996, 566 were cut up, compared to what had been an average of 300 annually. Daily the knell sounds: Harbin, in Manchuria, completely dieselized; Baotou, transportation hub of Inner Mongolia, main line dieselized; Changchun, in the industrial Northeast, only diesels.

Not Changchun with its 32-stall roundhouse, where on Chinese New Year's Eve in 1995 I stood ecstatically in a snowstorm for hours taping the icicle-draped locomotives. Not Baotou, where I laughed giddily as steamers blasted past every 20 minutes, leaving long calling cards of smoke hanging in the late winter afternoon. Not Harbin, where I once counted 30 locomotives, their smoke swirling so mysteriously I never could get them all in one picture.

Is this then at last the end of the great machine that nurtured the Industrial Revolution?

While I know we steam aficionados are viewed as a suspect lot, given to pining for our Lionel trains, we really don't want the People's Republic to remain in a technological time warp. But China, especially in the north, has plenty of coal and water, the necessities for steamers. Most of all, for a country of 1.2 billion, where rising unemployment and the unrest it can spawn is a constant bogeyman, the steam locomotive is wonderfully labor-intensive, requiring a crew of at least three for each engine. By comparison, two men can run any number of diesels. Unemployment will only intensify with Jiang's planned sell-off of worker-padded state industries.

Why is China scrapping superb locomotives with many years left on them? Because, I fear, it wants to appear "modern," whether it makes economic sense or not.

So all we hope for is five minutes on the presidential agendas to let the thunder continue. Maybe it could be squeezed between toasts that their friendship will remain "on track" and that their nations will continue to move "full steam ahead."

After all, it wasn't a colorless diesel about which Emily Dickinson wrote:

I like to see it lap the miles,

And lick the valleys up . .

Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges.

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