On Friday, March 20, 1987, however, I came closer to realizing that dream than I would have ever thought possible. The location was not the Danforth Hill but Nancha Bank - not Toronto, but northern Manchuria - some 12000 miles away. Fellow BRS member Joe Toscas and I had joined twenty-one keen railway photographers from seven countries on a rail tour of northeastern China.
Nancha, Heilongjiang, is a relatively small city. Its guest house has poor plumbing, mediocre food, and a water supply full of black iron. For railfans, however, the hill out of town on the branchline to Wuyiling is amazing.
First of all, all service on the branch in is steam-hauled. QJ (Peace) 2-10-2's on freights and JS (Construction) 2-8-2's on passenger trains. During the weekdays, there is a train in each direction each hour roughly. Even better, the ten-car passenger trains require a 2-10-2 helper and the loaded freight trains require two. Finally, the hill offers many photographic opportunities, including standing in the wheat fields at the bottom and following every centimetre of the three kilometre climb through the lense of a video camera.
On the particular Friday in question, a heavy snowstorm had begun just after noon diminishing photo possibilities but still providing amazing views of the activity. Because of the falling snow, an upbound coal train had required three runs at the hill before finally making it. We naturally applauded the crew of the rear helper as they were cut off by the crew in the caboose and started to drift back down the bank (British for hill). Much to my surprise, they stopped and motioned me aboard. At first I was apprehensive, but I decided that I wasn't going to get too lost; besides, it was a lot warmer in the cab.
Thus it was that I became the fourth person in the cab of QJ 1987, built in 1976. There was a driver who looked in his early forties and two assistant drivers who looked in their early thirties. All were as friendly as could be, considering the language barrier; one even offered me some of his lunch.
A pull down seat on the door behind the driver was duly set up for me. The driver sits on the left hand side of the cab. We drifted back down the hill into town at a speed approaching what seemed like sixty kilometres per hour. In town, we travelled another four kilometres to the main servicing area near the station. There the crew repaired a sander that had been causing trouble, cleaned the fire, and took water.
It was my observation while in China that the Chinese appeared to be a casual people. I was surprised therefore to see the driver constantly checking .his watch. Then it dawned on me that our next assignment was to push the 3:15 passenger train up the hill.
The route from the servicing area to the station was set up and controlled from an unseen control point. Electric light dwarf signals beckoned us beyond the station, across the main lines', and into a stub track. There, one of the assistant drivers got out with his red and green flags. These are used instead of lanterns for signalling during coupling (although in other areas we did see Canadian style portable radios being used). With gentle applications of throttle and brake, the giant 2-10-2 softly coupled onto the rear of the waiting train - tender towards the last coach. The train had come in with a RM-type Pacific, but was not going out in the opposite direction with JS 5710.
While awaiting departure, I could see the steam at 15 kgf (about 215 pounds per square inch). During the rest of the trip, I never noticed this gauge move. The water glass in the light of the naked light bulb hanging above it was at three-quarters. According to the book Locomotives in China (Peter Clarke, Roundhouse Press, 1983), QJ's have a Worthington type feed water heater, but the crew regularly worked levers which I assumed were for the injector.
Similarly there was a stoker for the fine, almost slurry-like coal, but while in the station, each crew member (including the driver) took a turn throwing coal through the air-operated fire door.
Trains setting off in China go through elaborate whistle blowing sequences, rather like a North American football game - one minute warning, thirty second, 10 second, and finally off (a very long whistle). The engine brake was released, the cutoff moved to between 20 and 30% and the throttle slowly advanced as we moved through the station track work.
Speed built up after we passed the crossing on the main street and the throttle was moved to about half - from which it was not moved until the summit was reached. As we hit the bottom of the hill at what I guessed to be eighty kilometres per hour, the assistant driver put the stoker on full. Through the slightly open fire door, I could see the coal falling before it was blown into the white hot fire. As we proceeded up the grade, the speed dropped and, as we hit the 2.7% portion, the JS at the front began to slip. Our driver carefully massaged a red lever which I guessed to be a sander. No one moved or spoke in the cab. Would the train stall?
No - there was a whistle from the lead engine. The summit had been reached. Our driver tapped his toe on the foot button to activate his steam whistle. We had made it!
The rest of the trip was anti-climactic. We went about five kilometres down the other side of the pass to a little town. There the assistant driver cut us off and got a staff for our return journey. After a few minutes, we headed back towards Nancha. The crew stopped the engine at the summit to let me out where I had got on. Now they were worried.
It was snowing like mad, the light was almost gone, and there were no "long noses" (as foreigners are called) visible. Then Al, "The Crazy American", apeared out of the snow, struggling with two huge bags of camera and sound equipment. I got out of QJ 1987 and helped him down the hill. Others came back to help when we were part ways down. How he got left up there in the exhausted state he was in, I never found out - but what an end to living the "Impossible Dream".
POSTCRIPT: CN 4100 VS CHINA RAIL QJ 1987
Canadian National Steam Power. Clegg Corley, Trains & Trolleys: 1969.
Locomotives in China, Peter Clark Roundhouse Press, Australia: 1983.
Our thanks to Bob Meldrum for these photographs of China which he took during his trip there last March.
On the Nancha Bank, Heilongjiang, China, steam locomotive #QJ1987 is putting its all into pushing the branch-line passenger train. This photograph was taken the morning after the big snow storm on March 21, 1987.
JS 5710 returns with the passenger train from Wuyiling China on March 21, 1987.
QJ2281 drifts down Nancha Bank on the morning of March 21, 1987, Heilongjiang in China. Surprisingly similar to CN's T-2-a class in terms of their machinery, this QJ was probably built in the late seventies.
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, July-August 1987, page 4.