Rail construction boasts a rich history in China and symbolizes the country’s modernity
A sightseeing train runs on the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall in Badaling, Beijing. (ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY)
Qinglongqiao Railway Station, a one-story building of gray bricks and red tiles in Beijing’s suburban Yanqing district, incorporates traditional Chinese and Western architectural styles.
The Great Wall meanders across nearby mountains, and from the station, the towers of the Badaling section of the wall are clearly visible to the northwest.
The Juyongguan section lies to the southeast, in a valley high in the mountains.
Built together with the railroad it serves, the station is an important landmark on the 201-kilometer Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway. Also known as the Jingzhang Railway, it was the first rail line constructed in China without foreign assistance.
The railway, built from 1905 to 1909, is still in use today, as is Qinglongqiao station. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the railway opening.
As a dark blue locomotive pulled into the station, hauling a long line of green cars and traveling south from Baotou, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, passengers flocked to the windows to take pictures.
Standing beside the station building is a monument commemorating the opening of the railway and a statue of Zhan Tianyou, its chief engineer. Zhan, who died in 1919 at the age of 57, is buried in a small cemetery nearby.
Zhan Tianyou (front row, third from right) chief engineer of China’s first railway line, poses with his colleagues at the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
The Chengdu-Chongqing Railway, passing through mountainous areas in the southwest, was completed in 1952. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
In 1881, Zhan was the first Chinese to graduate from the Civil Engineering Department of Yale University in the United States. He designed a Y-shaped switchback railway in a valley near Qinglongqiao station, reducing the length required for the Badaling Tunnel through the mountains.
Yan Quanzhong, a worker at the station, said: “The design has proved effective over the past century. The Y-shaped switchback means that the trains lose height more gradually as they descend through the mountains. The line drops only 3 meters for every kilometer traveled.”
Construction of the line started in Liucun village in Beijing’s southern district of Fengtai, before passing through the Guangou Valley, where Qinglongqiao station is located, and ending in Zhangjiakou, Hebei province.
Yang Cunxin, the stationmaster, said: “Many people claim that the Y-shaped design was Zhan’s invention. But I have met several groups of his descendants over the years, and they believe that he was not behind it. But it is fair to say that Zhan, at the time, introduced the most advanced railway construction concepts and technologies to China.”
The line, which has four tunnels, 14 stations and 125 bridges, now forms part of the 824-km Beijing-Baotou Railway that extends into Inner Mongolia.
Passengers board a train on the Chengdu-Chongqing Railway. (LIU CHAN / XINHUA)
Trains connecting Beijing, Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, and Moscow, the Russian capital, used to stop at Qinglongqiao station for about eight minutes, where tourists would get off to take pictures. But this service was switched to another route more than a decade ago.
The fate of Qinglongqiao station has not been decided. Since 2016, a new high-speed rail line has been under construction alongside the Jingzhang Railway, and is scheduled to open at the end of the year. The new line, with an operating speed of 350 km/h, is a major project for the Winter Olympics, which will be staged in Beijing and Zhangjiakou in 2022.
Trains on this line will use long tunnels that pass through the mountains just under the Y-shaped switchback.
Yang said: “The new railway, and the old one, both represent China’s top engineering skills. Since railways first appeared in China, they have always been symbols of the country’s modernity.”
Enthusiasts are worried that the old line will be phased out with the arrival of the new one.
Wang Wei, who photographs trains, wrote in Chinese National Geographic that the old railway, especially the section in the mountains beside the Great Wall, should remain in use so that it can be preserved as a “living cultural heritage”.
A steam locomotive could travel on the old railroad, and the route could also be an attraction for those coming to watch the Winter Olympics, he wrote.
Workers lay tracks for a high-speed rail line alongside the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway. (YANG SHIYAO / XINHUA)
In India, steam locomotives ferry tourists along the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which was built from 1879 to 1881 in the state of West Bengal. In 1999, the railway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In Austria, the Semmering Railway, which carries tourists for more than 41 km through Alpine terrain, and was built from 1848 to 1854, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. In Switzerland, the Glacier Express, known as the “world’s slowest express train”, started running in 1910, and was given a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 2008.
The Jingzhang Railway has a special place in Chinese history, as just two decades before it was completed, the nation was continuing its long-time objection to railways.
Records show that British envoys and merchants started appealing to the Imperial Court of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to build railways in China after the First Opium War (1839-42). In 1825, the world’s first railway carrying goods and passengers had started operating between Stockton and Darlington in the northeast of England.
However, the Qing court was not interested, because it still thought its empire was sufficiently advanced for it to reject the “insignificant skills of barbaric tribes”.
It was the Qing empire’s crushing defeat to Britain and France in the Second Opium War (1856-60) that awakened some its more enlightened officials, among them Li Hongzhang, a pioneer in building modern industries and also China’s first modern navy.
A bird’s-eye view of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway at the Juyongguan section of the Badaling Great Wall. (XING GUANGLI / XINHUA)
In 1863, Li reported to the court on a joint proposal he had received from envoys and merchants in Britain, France and the United States. It urged the Qing court to consider building a railway connecting Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and Shanghai.
The court replied that the fact that three countries had made a combined proposal was evidence that a railway more than served business needs. However, it said such proposals should be blocked, and all ports instructed to be vigilant and take precautionary measures against similar suggestions.
In 1877, Li founded China’s first modern coal mining company in a suburb of Tangshan, Hebei. To transport the coal, Li managed to persuade the Qing court to approve construction of the 9.3-km Tangshan-Xugezhuang Railway.
To win over opponents, Li promised to use horses to draw the freight cars, to avoid them causing a disturbance and damaging local feng shui.
With British engineers as supervisors, the project was started on June 9, 1881, and was completed one year later, making it the first China-built standard gauge railway. In 1888, the line was extended by 130 km to Tianjin.
Tensions with Russia in Northwest China in 1880 and with France in the south of the country in 1884 significantly advanced the cause of railway proponents. Even the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) realized how fast troops could be transported to the borders by train, which could make a huge difference in times of war.
A high-speed train leaves Chongqing for Chengdu, Sichuan province. (LIU CHAN / XINHUA)
In 1888, Li built a 2-km railway on the empress’ estate, connecting her residence and dining hall. However, after just a few days, she replaced the noisy locomotive with four eunuchs to pull the luxurious rail car she used. To her delight, this new means of transportation was smooth and comfortable, and almost overnight she changed her mind about railway construction.
Over the last 30 years of the Qing Dynasty, some 9,000 km of rail lines were built nationwide. By 1949, China had 21,000 km of railways, the majority of it in coastal regions and the northeast.
The 504-km Chengdu-Chongqing Railway, passing across mountainous areas in the southwest of the country, was completed in 1952, the first to be built after the People’s Republic of China was founded three years earlier.
Sun Yisun, a writer from Zigong, Sichuan province, who helped build the railway, said: “Part of it was first built in the Qing Dynasty, and then by the Kuomintang administration. Many engineers were educated at Imperial Tientsin University in the late Qing Dynasty, and many technicians were from Kuomintang factories in Chongqing.
“Railways have combined efforts made by different generations. They have brought different people together. Farmers along the Chengdu-Chongqing Railway even donated the timber they had reserved for their own coffins to make the sleepers. They really wanted to see a train.”
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