The newest railroad in China has just gone into service in Yunnan province. After a decade of planning and construction and a months-long, freight-only trial period, the Yuxi-Mengzi Railroad (玉蒙铁路) finally opened its doors to passengers on April 28, 2013.
It is an impressive feat of engineering that features no fewer than 35 tunnels and 61 bridges. Together those account for more than 50 percent of the line's 141-kilometer length. At ten kilometers, the Xiushan Tunnel (秀山隧道) is the longest ever built in Yunnan. Its construction posed unique challenges to geologists and engineers as the tracks traverse several fault lines and caves.
Having followed this project for some time, we set out just before the line was scheduled to go into operation. We wanted to scope out station locations and get a view of the railroad from a distance.
We tried our best to keep up with the tracks as they climbed out of ugly industrial suburbs surrounding Yuxi (玉溪) and then passed over factory-scarred hills into the fertile Tonghai (通海) plain. From there they sloped gently down into the subtropical Qujiang (曲江) valley, rose back over more hills to Jianshui (建水) before finally arriving in Mengzi (蒙自).
We followed the railroad as much as possible. It routinely disappeared into tunnels, only to reappear crossing valleys on dramatic viaducts. Everywhere along the line the rails were either elevated on raised beds and viaducts or hidden away in tunnels so as to maintain maximum straightness and minimum grading.
Opening day — announced as May 1 — came three days early, and we missed it. That was probably just as well, as the first day saw crowds exceeding seat capacity by 30 percent. The following day several extra cars were added to the train to handle demand. Media reports were full of ebullient stories of the train's maiden voyage. Passengers praised this "new, convenient, safe, and fast mode of transportation."
Officials claimed the railway would "enhance connectivity, tourism, and economic development in southern Yunnan." News reports also contained one critical piece of information that surprised us. They described passengers boarding Mengzi-bound trains in Kunming. Kunming? Did the Yuxi-Mengzi Railroad not begin, as its name implies, in Yuxi?
In China railroad lines are commonly divided into distinctly-named segments — in fact, this is done with expressway and river names as well. The Yuxi-Mengzi moniker refers only to the latest section of the railroad. The new train service, which does indeed begin in Kunming, also utilizes an older track — the 1993 Kunming-Yuxi Branch Line (昆玉线).
This is a good thing. Being able to board the new train directly at Kunming's main train station is infinitely more convenient as it bypasses an hour and a half bus ride through Kunming's sprawl.
Riding the iron road
The train waiting at Kunming station looked like any other. In fact, nothing was new about the train itself — the cars were clearly old and the train's destination placards were hastily improvised with temporary stickers. Yet there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air.
Every passenger we spoke to was riding this train for the first time and many came prepared with cameras. At each station, crowds of curious onlookers crammed to snap photos and as we zoomed through rural territory, farmers in their fields stopped to stare, clearly not yet accustomed to the train's presence in their backyards.
It was a long train with 16 cars and every one was hard-seat only. But with a travel time of only four hours, this was not an issue. There was no dining car, but attendants sold snacks from rolling carts. Our train was not as crowded as the one opening day, but it was filled nearly to capacity by the time we reached Mengzi.
The journey began on familiar ground, following the old Kunming-Chengdu Railroad west out of the Spring City. In Anning (安宁), we turned south onto the Kunming-Yuxi Branch Line, marking the first resumption of passenger service on this track in more than a decade. Our train traveled slowly as it made its way through Anning's industrial suburbs and past a huge, under-construction logistics hub.
The train alternated back and forth between the old tracks and newly-constructed parallel ones. After winding around the back side of the Western Hills (西山), we hit Dianchi Lake (滇池) at the town of Haikou (海口) and then followed the lake shore south to the city of Kunyang (昆阳). From there the train wound down through a series of slow switchbacks and tunnels before reaching the Yuxi plain. Along this stretch we could see yet another railroad being built parallel to ours.
The train attendants could not answer our questions, but we are fairly certain what we were seeing was construction of the Kunming-Laos Railroad. We passed through the strange 1990s-era Yuxi station and then faced our only delay of the day when we stopped for 20 minutes at Yuxi South Station to wait for the train from Mengzi to pass.
From there on it was all new track and new stations. The train picked up speed until is was cruising at roughly 100 kilometers-per-hour. The railroad is not part of China's high-speed railroad network, and was never intended to be. However, it seemed plenty fast as we whizzed along the smooth tracks, cutting across valleys and through mountains, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding topography.
This train route will never be known for having the best scenery in Yunnan, but it is pleasant enough, passing as it does through red-tilled earth terraces, flooded paddies, and the occasional vineyard. The last stretch, between Jianshui and Mengzi, crossing a narrow corridor in the mountains which it shares with an expressway, a national highway, and a branch line of the 1910 Yunnan-Vietnam Railroad (滇越米轨铁路).
We arrived a few minutes behind schedule at what we thought was Mengzi. In fact, no passenger trains will reach Mengzi for at least another few years. For now, the terminal station is Mengzi North in the town of Yuguopu (雨过铺), 14 kilometers north of Mengzi proper. Fortunately, a long line of empty buses await the arrival of each train and take travellers the rest of the way for two yuan.
Connecting southern Yunnan and beyond
The Yuxi-Mengzi Railroad and its Kunming extension have the potential to revolutionize transportation in Honghe Prefecture. With the exception of the old narrow gauge line, it is the first railroad to extend into southern Yunnan. It is also a harbinger of big changes to come, just one of several railroad projects currently under construction or in planning phase.
In the next stage, it will be extended to Hekou (河口) on the Vietnam border. This segment has an estimated completion date of 2016. However, if it is any indication, the Yuxi-Mengzi section opened one year behind schedule, and the rails to Hekou must overcome far more challenging geography. New tracks laid in Vietnam will replace the old narrow gauge line there and thus the first of Kunming's three trunk line railroads to Southeast Asia, known collectively as the Trans-Asian Railway (泛亚铁路), will be complete.
The other two trunk lines are the Kunming-Laos-Thailand Line — which we could see under construction near Yuxi — and the Kunming-Ruili-Myanmar Line, which is also already under construction. Provincial railway plans do not stop there. Additional railroads linking remote and isolated regions of Yunnan are also in the works. This includes lines to Shangri-La (香格里拉), Tengchong (腾冲), Lincang (临沧), Yuanyang (元阳) and Wenshan (文山), not to mention high-speed lines to Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
But while those railroads are still at least several more years off in the future, Honghe Prefecture will begin to see the impact of the Yuxi-Menzi Railroad immediately. Just days after opening, the Honghe Bus Company had already reported significant drops in passenger volume. Forty-seven daily buses connect Kunming with Mengzi, and the train had eaten into morning bus ridership by a reported 30-60 percent.
It's not difficult to understand why. The bus requires schlepping out to the East Bus Station and then spending up to six hours on the road. The journey costs 104 yuan and includes an old section of highway which is often jarring and congested. The train, by comparison, departs from downtown Kunming, takes only four hours, and costs just 49.5 yuan.
It is not just rail passengers who stand to benefit. As the capital and transportation hub of Honghe Prefecture, Mengzi has good bus connections to all the counties falling under its auspices.
Since the train arrives early in the afternoon, passengers from Kunming bound for counties such as Gejiu (个旧), Shiping (石屏), Honghe (红河), Yuanyang, Lüchun (绿春), Jinping (金平), Pingbian (屏边), and Hekou now have the option to take the train for the first part of their journey.
They can then switch to a bus and arrive at their destination the same day. This will save both money and time when compared to taking long, often overnight, buses from Kunming straight to their destination.
Birth of one railroad, death of another
If you try to find the new railroad on any published map, you won't — it is just too new. What you may notice, instead, is the Yunnan-Vietnam Narrow Gauge Railroad (滇越米轨铁路), which connects some of the same places, as it has for more than a century.
Designed and financed by the French and built by Chinese laborers between 1904 and 1910, this masterpiece of engineering was the first railroad in Yunnan. Until this year it was the only railway to serve Honghe Prefecture. As such, it has been a major backbone of the region's economy as well as a crucial link to the outside world, for decades.
Its twisting and turning path through canyons and over mountains meant trains could never move very quickly. One of the last passengers to ride these rails before service was cancelled in 2003 recounted how the journey from Kunming to Hekou, despite being full of historical charm, was an arduous 30 hours.
When passenger service was discontinued, the official reason given was concerns over landslides. The actual reason was most likely that buses were simply much faster. Freight trains, however, have continued to ply the old tracks and tourists, railroad enthusiasts, and history buffs have begun exploring and photographing the old line.
But all that could change soon now that the new railroad promises to displace much of the old line's freight traffic. A recent article in the Yunnan Daily laments the passing of the age of the narrow gauge railroad in Yunnan.
Although this railroad was once a symbol of China's humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialists, it later became a source of national pride when it was used in the war against Japan. It was crucial in the development of the Gejiu mining industry as well.
While riding the new train, we made the acquaintance of Wang Jinde (王晋德), a pensioner who used to work on the narrow gauge railway. He told us, somewhat bittersweetly, that freight service on the line is already being phased out and will probably cease completely in about two years.
Currently there is only one train in each direction per day between Kunming and Mengzi. From Kunming, the K9652 departs at 8:42am and arrives in Mengzi at 12:37pm. It stops at four stations along the way: Yuxi, Yuxi South, Tonghai, and Jianshui. Heading in the opposite direction, the K9654 departs Mengzi at 9:03am and arrives in Kunming at 1:01pm. The cost of a full journey ticket is 49.5 yuan for a hard seat — the only option available.
In the near future, there will be two or three trains per day along the route, at least one them being a slow train. Ten additional stations are slated to be opened in the future. They include Anning, Haikou, Kunyang, Dianjuba (甸苴坝), Shihuacun (柿花村), Qujiang, Lihaozhai (李浩寨), Jianshui North, Yanzidong (燕子洞), and Jijie (鸡街).
In the more distant future, the railroad will be extended to Hekou. Passengers will once again be able to continuously travel by train from Kunming to Hanoi, Vietnam, just as they could in the old days of the narrow gauge railway, albeit much more quickly.
Images: Matthew Hartzell© Copyright 2005-2016 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.