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Letting Off Steam Into the Chinese Sunset

Asia: The last country to use steam locomotives in large numbers is saying goodbye--and in some cases good riddance--to a link to the past.


TONGCHUAN, China — Liberation 2368 is a beautiful beast living on borrowed time.

On most days, the huffing, puffing steam engine pants back and forth through the honey-colored hillsides of central China, pulling loads of coal with hacking hisses of complaint. But the end of the line is in sight.

"This engine's off for a major overhaul next month. They'll test the pressure of the boiler and if it's still up to scratch, it'll go for another year. If not, that will be the end," says Xiao Tang, a driver of the 45-year-old behemoth.

With barely a tear or backward glance, China is saying goodbye to steam. And when it turns the page, so will we all.

China is the last country still using steam locomotives in large numbers. Their demise will all but close the steam chapter of history--an era that spanned the Industrial Revolution to the Atomic Age.

Liberation, Construction, Victory, Peace, the People--the names of China's great steam locomotives echo a time when the People's Republic was young.

After the civil war ended with communist victory in 1949, railroads helped knit the broken country together. On their steaming backs they hauled steel, coal and other building blocks of a new China. They took troops to war in Korea. They shipped rice and revolution to and from far-flung Chinese provinces.

Today's China of the Internet and mobile phones, of space launches and microwaveable Peking duck in a bag, feels little nostalgia for the past.

Modernization is the mantra now; diesels and electrics rule the rails. Hypermodern Shanghai is building a high-speed train that will ride on a magnetic cushion instead of wheels.

Swedish-built electrics called "New Speed" whisk passengers between the go-go southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, 91 miles in 55 minutes. Chinese trains have become faster, cleaner, more comfortable than ever.

But where's the adventure?

"Globalization can mean tremendous progress, there's no doubt about it. But on the other hand, it's a kind of disease of dull uniformity --one culture, one size fits all," says Rob Dickinson, a Briton who is loco about steam and travels to China to track down lines where it's still used.

"The steam locomotive--it's a living creature," he says. "You've got to look after it. It has individuality."

Under the communist government, China's rail network has grown into one of the world's largest--43,500 miles of track that carried 1.05 billion passengers last year.

But rail had a difficult birth in China.

Although Chinese labored on the American transcontinental track completed in 1869, back in China, railroads were shunned. Chinese feared the tielu--iron roads--would swallow farmland, destroy jobs and, most important, speed encroachment by Western powers eyeing China's markets and resources.

They also feared railroads would disturb graves and feng shui--the spirits of "wind and water" Chinese believe are essential for human harmony with the environment.

They might have been echoing Wordsworth's lament in 1844 over plans to run a train through his beloved Lake District, "with its scarifications, its intersections, its noisy machinery, its smoke, and swarms of pleasure-hunters."

The first track, a nine-mile, narrow-gauge built by the British firm Jardine Matheson in Shanghai in 1876, was bought by the Chinese government, which ordered it torn up.

"To us, railways mean free intercourse, enlightenment, commerce and wealth; to the Mandarins, they suggest rowdyism, the overthrow of time-honored custom and tradition, disturbance and ruin," commented the North China Herald, a foreign-run newspaper of the time.

Nevertheless, foreign powers forged ahead. Over time, Chinese attitudes changed too. China had 13,500 miles of track when the communists took power. It doubled in 25 years.

When the chaotic Cultural Revolution erupted in 1966, millions of young radicals--the Red Guards--careered around China in jampacked trains, squeezing into luggage racks, between cars, even into toilets. Many trains were powered by steam.

"Chairman Mao, thank you for letting us travel all over the country without paying a cent," read a Red Guard poster of the time.

Even locomotives got revolution. The Qianjin model, which means progress, was for a time renamed "Anti-Imperialism."

China was the last country to manufacture steam trains. Production of large locomotives continued until 1988. Smaller ones were produced into the late 1990s. In all, 10,000 were built.

Today, as many as 400 remain, says Fang Shujiang, secretary of the China Steam Engine Assn. Although largely vanished from national lines, they still ply provincial and local tracks, serving mines, steelworks and lumber yards.

In northern China's Inner Mongolian region, Qianjins haul passengers and goods between the towns of Jining and Tongliao. It's the last long-haul steam route in the world, Dickinson says. The trains cover the 585 miles in 25 hours.

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