China with a mellow glance

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The legacy of the CFY

It’s not the first time I write about China’s Railways but absolutely not more than a glimpse only. China; a huge country with many rail aspects and hardly to coop with on your own. The latter isn’t any longer my goal. First of all I am getting older, secondly the finances failing to make extensive travels through the land of a rich cultural heritage drowned in the sheer number and inherent infrastructures to keep things moving.
Facts of live stronger than any desire.
During the last decades many new tram- and subway systems were opened and meanwhile China’s High-speed network is the longest in the world but with start-up problems something kept secret from the foreign press and probably for the Chinese media as well unless there’s no other option. Like the mishap on a viaduct – forgotten the date and exact place – where a high-speed train broke down something that remained undetected by the signal system and the next train at full speed hit the stranded one in the back with a lot of dead and destroying.
Far from any advertisement – China’s Railway Industry tries to be in competition with the world, as a beginning South-east Asia – and thus officially kept silent about. China’s equivalent for Facebook – the latter is banned in the country – wasn’t so silent at all, an outcry. It’s not the high-speed network only that got a further shape, other new lines are build as well especially in the Province Yunnan in connection with the planned corridor (TAR-Trans Asia Railway): Kunming – Singapore.
The French were the first, a colonial railway company: Chemin de Fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan (CFY) started around the change of the eighteenth century constructing a meter gauge line from Haiphong (Vietnam) via Hanoi to Lao Cai (border) and further to Hekou (China) and Kunming, the capital of the province Yunnan. The French governor of Indo China by that time – Paul Doumer – even had in mind that this line could help him to colonize a part of Yunnan. Ideas the French government in Paris tempered. Time proofs the course, The French in the end were beaten and so the Americans, the rest history.

Branch lines

During the twenties some branch lines in Yunnan were constructed as well but on narrow gauge (600 mm). These branch lines as well the main line were the sole private managed railroad in China. After the People’s Republic of China nationalized the CFY properties all 600 mm lines were re-gauged (in the sixties) to meter exempt one: the line from Jijie to Gejiu, it kept running till the nineties. It must have been a lovely narrow gauge railway experience to ride the line in a Spartan coach cramped with locals and their belongings most poultry but even pigs. Coaches always mixed with goods wagons for the industry (mining) in between. It needed an average driving time of 160 minutes for 34 km between the two end stations. Today this small enterprise is a goldmine for archaeological railway diggers searching for the things left to wind and weather after closure. My last survey was in 2005 but considering the speed China upgrades its backlog – also in the province by now – less and less reminiscences will be found. The alignment is worth to make a trail out of it, a lovely walk through rural China and mountainous era with some tunnels. The first I concurred without any artificial tools, the second one was a bit too long and dark. Small things in live that keep burning to do it again but this time with sufficient equipment.

All lines of the so-called French network in the Chinese province Yunnan.

Kunming Bei – Hekou 468 km – 1000 mm
Caoba – Baoxiu 140 km – 600/1000 mm
Yugoupu – Mengzi 14 km – 600/1000 mm
Yugoupu – Guanjiashan 20 km – 600/1000 mm
Jijie – Gejiu 34 km 600 mm till closure in 1990
Kunming Nan – Lufeng 125 km – 1000 mm
Dushupu – Anning 9 km – 1000 mm
Kunming Bei – Tapanchiao 21 km – 1000 mm

Street running in Kunming

In Kunming the tracks meandered through the inner city till a diversion to the North Station was build (early nineties) and the city parts closed, most of it turned into a public park. During the same period the line between Kunming and Hekou was still open even with through service to Hanoi (Vietnam). Also the branch to Baoxiu and Mengzi. The first time I arrived here from Kunming was with a through coach as well (night sleeper).
The branch to Guanjiashan only in use for goods. All other lines were already closed by that time exempt a few miles of the Lufeng line to a transhipment yard in the outskirts of Kunming. However, the CNR – China National Railways had in mind to close the meter gauge system completely while it didn’t fit within the standard concept (1435 mm) on one side and on the other the economical situation, decline in goods volume while new roads were build along the existing main line (Kunming – Hekou). The competition road versus rail and many times lost by the latter.
Recently a new line from Kunming via Mengzi to Hekou opened though till Mengzi on another route via Yuxi. Unfortunately I’ve not been on the spot lately to give full report and depending only on what de Chinese media like to publish.
No big deal, my goal in time was to explore the French influences and I am glad that I had the opportunity to ride the lines of a most extra ordinary enterprise although not through the inner city of Kunming almost like street running. I saw turned it into a walking path with greenery a modest way to remember the rail.
The existence didn’t last for ever and I have no idea of a single 21 class locomotive still shunting goods wagons on parts of the network, it would be nice to know?
A tip for the ones going to Yunnan; the Kunming North Station is also the home of an excellent railway museum fully dedicated to the French network highlighting the history on a adult way plus a separate exhibition hall for rolling stock. For me the former Michelin rail-car is piece Nº 1 wonderfully restored and none of the appearance it had when I met it for the first time on the yard of Yiliang in 1998 and by that time flabbergasted that it survived at all.

Picture above: It’s a rather strange sighting seeing a single locomotive (Nº 1498) switching build as double header – two coupled butt on butt. Kunming Niu Jie Zhuang. 14.04.1999
Pictures below: A portrait of class 21 D-loco 052 at the Kunming North Station. 10.04.1998
Remains of a Michelin rail-car at Yiliang. 17.04.1999
Abandoned 600 mm versus re-gauged in Jijie. 26.10.2005

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About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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