Railways drive China on high-speed track

A train carrying 41 containers departed from Tangshan in Hebei Province in late April, marking the inauguration of a further line of freight between China and Europe.

A train carrying 41 containers departed from Tangshan in Hebei Province in late April, marking the inauguration of a further line of freight between China and Europe.

The train will travel 11,000 kilometers to the Belgian city of Antwerp through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany in 16 days.

By March, freight trains were operating between 43 Chinese cities and 41 cities in 13 European countries, becoming a major freight transport means between China and Europe.

Tangshan, a coastal city some 150km away from Beijing, is known for its coal resources and steel industry.

In 1881, a 9.7-km railway line from Tangshan to Xugezhuang opened for coal transport. Designed by English engineer Claude W. Kinder, it is the first line with a global standard track gauge of 1,435mm in China.

Earlier, local coal had to be carried on horseback to the sea port before it was loaded on ships to the Beiyang navy fleet in Shandong Province for use, said Liu Fuzeng, deputy Party chief of Tangshan locomotive operation and maintenance section of the Beijing Railway Bureau. The bureau manages railway operations in Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei.

The line was later extended to Mukden, now called Shenyang in Liaoning Province, transporting both cargo and passengers.

During the extension project, Zhan Tianyou, a Yale graduate and designer of a railway bridge along the line, Luanhe Bridge, drew attention of the government, according to Liu.

Zhan was later appointed as chief designer of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou line, the first railway designed and built by China in the early 20th century, which is still in use.

“Although the design and construction were done by Chinese people, all parts, including every single nail, were imported from abroad,” said Gu Lin, manager with the Tangshan South Station, the starting point of the Tangshan-Xugezhuang line.

‘Rocket of China’

While the line was being built, a locomotive designed by Kinder was secretly being assembled with second-hand boiler and cylinders.

The locomotive, called “Rocket of China,” was put into use in 1881, according to the “Imperial Railways of North China,” a book written by British writer Peter Crush.

Having no idea of what a rocket was, Chinese mine workers named the “fire breathing, smoke and steam puffing monster” as “the dragon,” according to the book.

Li Zhensheng, 57, joined the driver team as a boiler worker on steam locomotives after he retired from the army in 1986. He and the assistant driver had to take turns to keep filling the coal, spade by spade. The water they drank was filled with coal dust.

As the boiler blocked the drivers’ view in the front, they had to pop their heads out of the side window constantly for safety checks. Many of them developed shoulder and neck problems.

When Li served as an assistant driver of a diesel locomotive in 1989, he saw it as a “leap-frog progress.”

When the electricity locomotives were operating on the line in 2010, drivers got air conditioning and a microwave oven. “The train became faster and faster, and more and more comfortable,” he said.

On a China-made high-speed train, which runs as fast as 350km per hour, a coin is able to stand still.

Since China initiated reform and opening drive in 1978, a market economy has resulted in increased freight and passenger mobility.

The railway network in the country measures 127,000km in length at the end of last year, including 25,000km of high-speed railway.

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