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Around Town: China's last narrow gauge passenger train

By in Travel on

2014 editor's note: The schedule mentioned in this article has changed and the train now only runs once per day. Scroll down to the comments section to see the newest details. Many thanks to GoKunming user Ocean for the update.

You may have heard it, or seen it, but very few Kunming residents have actually ridden the small six-car passenger train that passes through the city every morning and afternoon.

For the couple hundred or so people that regularly travel the line, it is a convenient and inexpensive link between downtown Kunming and the city's southeastern and western outskirts. For train geeks, it is a living link to the rich history of rail in Yunnan.

The first rail line in Yunnan connected Kunming – then known as Yunnan Fou (云南府) – with the port city of Haiphong in modern-day Vietnam. The Yunnan-Vietnam Railway was built between 1904 and 1910 by a French government that had its eyes on Yunnan's vast reserves of copper, tin and other minerals.

Due to the challenges presented by Yunnan's mountainous terrain, the French-built line used meter gauge rail, establishing a standard in Yunnan that lasted decades afterward before new lines switched to standard gauge, which is significantly wider at 1.435 meters.

Today Kunming's 35.2-kilometer (21.8-mile) narrow gauge line is the last remaining section of meter gauge passenger rail in Yunnan, or China for that matter. But to be fully accurate, the line is actually composed of two separate lines that meet at Kunming North Rail Station.

First launched in 1938, the western line, which heads just over 10km westward before ending at Shizui (石咀) near the northern tip of Dianchi Lake, was the beginning of an ill-fated attempt to link with the British-built rail network in Burma. China had been building the line when pressures from World War II forced attention away from the project, which was never resumed.

The eastern line, which began operating in 1970, wiggles its way 25km southeast to the small town of Wangjiaying (王家营) on the eastern side of Dianchi. Wangjiaying is just south of Chenggong (呈贡), which is rapidly being converted into "New Kunming".

Speaking with employees at Kunming North Rail Station – the largest stop on the intra-city line – it was apparent that many employees were concerned about the line's future. Plans for urban light rail to pass through some of the same space as the meter gauge track suggest that the narrow gauge track's days may be numbered.

With this in mind, we showed up at Kunming North Rail Station, known as Beizhan locally and Kunming Bei officially, at 7:15 on a Friday morning. The train would depart in 10 minutes.

Ready to board at Beizhan
Ready to board at Beizhan

After a peek into our personal belongings, security allowed us to board the train directly. Tickets, which cost either 1.5 yuan or 2.5 yuan (US$0.23/0.38) depending on the destination, were sold onboard.

The sun's light was just beginning to fill the morning sky. With about 100 other passengers, we boarded the train, which only had four passenger cars. An old green engine proclaiming "The East is Red" in Chinese and a cargo car were at the front end of the passenger carriages. Shortly after sitting down, we plunked down 2.5 yuan per person for our tickets to Wangjiaying Station.

The interiors of the passenger cars, which appeared to have been made sometime in the late 80s or early 90s were rather spartan, with highbacked pleather benches the only seating option. No food or beverages were available, but many people brought their own, which occupied many of the short tables shared by facing stools. A small police office at the end of one of the cars was unoccupied.

Most of the passengers on the train were also going to Wangjiaying — the small handful of people we spoke with on the train said they were headed to work in the factories there. Bleary-eyed and lacking caffeine, we walked to the platform at the back of the rear car that served as a smoking area.

The cold, crisp morning air proved a handy coffee substitute, waking us up and causing our eyes to water. After wiping our eyes, we saw what would be a common sight for the rest of the morning: people waiting for our train to pass as we rolled by very, very slowly. As soon as we passed, all the buses, cars, electric bicycles, pedestrians and the odd dog, cat or chicken would return to business as usual.

Heading eastward, it didn't take long before we had entered terra incognita. We stood on the rear platform, where a few men were smoking, and watched downtown slowly move away from us.

Chenggong Station
Chenggong Station

The sky quickly turning bright blue, we passed through the stations of Heitu'ao (黑土凹) and Niujiezhuang (牛街庄) before reaching Chenggong. The breakneck construction that is causing massive developments to mushroom into the sky seemingly overnight has yet to reach this part of Chenggong, which remains a sea of poly tunnels.

At 8:17 we rolled into Wangjiaying, the end of what is officially known as the 8861 line. All passengers disembarked and most headed off to work. Meanwhile, the engine disconnected from the other five cars and began the slow process of attaching itself to the other end of the train.

The engine now left the cargo carriage at what was soon going to be the rear of the train. Peeking in, we couldn't help but notice that it was spacious and empty. We asked a train attendant who was smoking a cigarette on the platform if it was possible to throw our bicycles in the cargo carriage next time – he said it was perfectly okay. We looked toward the nearby hills with excited thoughts of undiscovered rides.

With 40 minutes to burn before the train back toward Kunming was to depart, we strolled around Wangjiaying to see what was there other than factories. Our conclusion: not much.

We made our way back to the platform, where a small audience was watching the engine back up toward what had previously been the rear of the train. After it had connected, only a handful of people boarded. We threw down another 2.5 yuan for a ticket the length of the line(s) to Shizui Station in west Kunming. Shortly afterward, we rolled out of Wangjiaying.

The train was rather empty between Wangjiaying and Beizhan
The train was rather empty between Wangjiaying and Beizhan

The train virtually empty, we headed back to Kunming with little of the excitement and sense of exploration that we felt when heading out. We stopped at Beizhan, gained several dozen passengers, and things livened up as we headed westward through more familiar parts of the city. Thus ended the 8862 line, beginning the 8863 toward Shizui.

The train crossed the Panlong River via the Panlong Bridge (盘龙大桥) whose Chinese name means Panlong Big Bridge, despite it being a rather small affair. A moment later we were passing through the congestion building up on both sides of the tracks at the Xiaocaiyuan Flyover (小菜园立交桥), where Longquan Lu, Xuefu Lu, Yieryi Dajie, Huancheng Bei Lu and Yuantong Dong Lu meet.

According to our tickets, the next stop would be Mayuan (麻园) near Yunnan Art Institute, but after rolling by a strip of restaurants aimed at the nearby university population, we stopped at an unmarked platform between Kunming University of Science and Technology and Yunnan Normal University, where a handful of students boarded.

We pushed westward toward Mayuan Station and proceeded to head into less familiar parts of the city. For the next ten minutes or so, there was plenty of socioeconomic variety. One moment we were surrounded by old brick homes with tile roofs and no plumbing, an instant later we were looking at manicured walking paths with new residential highrises in the background.

A trackside shoeshine
A trackside shoeshine

Before we knew it, it was 10:45 and we were pulling into Shizui Station. We were considering a taxi back into town, but decided to ride the train back to Mayuan for some lunch after we realized it would be only another 25 minutes before the train headed back toward downtown.

As we waited for the engine to switch ends of the train once more, we noticed that a few of the people that had boarded the train at Beizhan on our way west appeared to be train geeks too. Some had brought their digital SLRs with clumsy telescopic lenses to shoot the train as it posed stoically with a big sky in the background.

A captivated audience
A captivated audience

The engine's recoupling with the rest of the train attracted several onlookers who were clicking away on their cameras, taking photos with their phones or holding back curious kids who wanted to get just a little closer to the action.

We spent 1.5 yuan on our last ticket, which would take us to Mayuan, now the penultimate stop on the 8866 line. With a feeling that we had experienced all that there was to experience on this somewhat anachronistic intracity line, we paid less attention to our surroundings once again – until we passed by what appeared to be a fully inflated blow-up doll lying supine by the tracks.

We hopped off at Mayuan at 11:32 after having spent most of the morning seeing Kunming from a new perspective, one that may not be available in the not-too-distant future.

In addition to morning services, the train has late afternoon services beginning at 4:20, retracing the morning route in reverse.

For most of us, there is little practical value to Kunming's meter-gauge passenger train. It is slow, never reaching more than 40 km/hr (25 mph).

It's also not very practical. As much as we like the idea of maybe one day being in Mayuan at 5:40 in the afternoon and needing to get to Niujiezhuang quickly, it is highly unlikely that that will ever happen.

But in a city where it seems like anything built before 2000 is being demolished, this train serves as a kind of time machine, giving passengers a look some of the oldest remnants of the city as well as the development-focused future that is drastically reshaping the urban landscape.

Should you wish to explore Kunming's meter gauge passenger line before it disappears, here is a schedule, not including the unnamed stop near Kunming University of Science and Technology, which is omitted from official schedules:

8861: Kunming Bei to Wangjiaying
7:25 Kunming Bei 昆明北
7:35-7:36 Heitu'ao 黑土凹
7:45-7:47 Niujiezhuang 牛街庄
8:05-8:07 Chenggong 呈贡
8:17 Wangjiaying 王家营

8862: Wangjiaying to Kunming Bei
9:15 Wangjiaying 王家营
9:23-9:25 Chenggong 呈贡
9:43-9:45 Niujiezhuang 牛街庄
9:54-9:55 Heitu'ao 黑土凹
10:05-10:10 Kunming Bei 昆明北

8863: Kunming Bei to Shizui
10:10 Kunming Bei 昆明北
10:20-10:22 Mayuan 麻园
10:45 Shizui 石咀

8866 Shizui to Kunming Bei
11:10 Shizui 石咀
11:32-11:35 Mayuan 麻园
11:45 Kunming Bei 昆明北

8867 Kunming Bei to Shizui
16:20 Kunming Bei 昆明北
16:30-16:32 Mayuan 麻园
16:55 Shizui 石咀

8868 Shizui to Kunming Bei
17:16 Shizui 石咀
17:38-17:41 Mayuan 麻园
17:51 Kunming Bei 昆明北

8869 Kunming Bei to Wangjiaying
17:56 Kunming Bei 昆明北
18:06-18:08 Heitu'ao 黑土凹
18:17-18:19 Niujiezhuang 牛街庄
18:41-18:45 Chenggong 呈贡
18:55 Wangjiaying 王家营

8870 Wangjiaying to Kunming Bei
19:35 Wangjiaying 王家营
19:43-19:45 Chenggong 呈贡
20:07-20:09 Niujiezhuang 牛街庄
20:18-20:20 Heitu'ao 黑土凹
20:30 Kunming Bei 昆明北

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Comments

Billbob

Choo-choo! I smell a booze cruise!

Thanks so much for this article, Chris!
I've been meaning to ride this train ever since I first moved to Kunming almost 2 years ago (I used to live on 建设路 right next to the train tracks and waiting for it to cross was part of my daily routine). Being somewhat of a train geek myself, I'm embarrassed to say I never actually did it.
But seeing your article now, I'm inspired. In fact, this very afternoon, I think I'll go to the North Station and take the afternoon run to 石咀

JaySU

I am a huge fan of this narrow gauge railway and personally I have travelled many time along this railway from Kunming to haiphone, Vietnam. Actually, this railway had alreay stopped the passenger transport in early 2003 and nowdays, even the cargo trains are rear along the road in Chinese section. I am sure it is sad for every railway fans. Still, we can easily have a ride with this living vintage train arcoss vietnam.

However, I don't tink Yunnan-Vietnam Railway is the last narrow gauge railway in China, since in Taiwan and Leshan, Sichuang, there are still narrow gauge railway running within certain ereas carrying passengers, even most of them have relatively short history.

Besides, there used to be another narrow gauge railway between Yunnan and Burma which was initially proposed by British some 100 years ago.

Also interestingly, majority of the railways in Southeast Asia are narrow gauge railway with internal-combustion engine running.

As a lover of industrial heritage in Yunnan, I hope more people could get to know the history of this land.

sujunjei@126.com

chibbles

cheap trains to nowhere? supine blow-up dolls? ah, the workers paradise.

Owo, it recalled much of my memories on the childhood train experience. When I was a little kid, I had been on such kind of green cover train with that kind of slice hard paper train tickets. I also remembered there was a kind of sugar water sold in the small transparent plastic bags on the platform. Very impressive. Now we can order kinds of newly developed aircon high speed trains to almost every cities, for a day tour, a tour package or a free trekking, all in a convenient way. Recently I was on several bullet-head trains from Xian to Luoyang and Shanghai to Hangzhou, round trip in one day, if in past days, it would take us double hours on the way.

Is this train still running? Will it be operating over the Spring Festival holidays? Is there a contact number to inquire about these details?

Went & tried it. Runs every day through Spring Festival, although the Railway Museum is closed for a couple of days over the break. Very interesting, and the kids loved it!

Oddly, this train may be one of Kunming's better places for a picnic. Inspired by Quester, I rode it again this afternoon with a friend, who brought a nice wine and some freshly baked bread. We hung out on the sunny side of the train with the windows open and shot the breeze as the empty Chinese New Year version of Kunming rolled by... good fun.

I suppose Billbob's first comment on this post was also inspirational.

Billbob

:)

huoche guevara

tempted, but the steam train near Leshan is first on my list
gochengdoo.com/[...]

Leshan steam train is also narrow gauge? It would be cool to try that one too.

To get to Kunming Bei to catch the metre gauge cost me 1 kuai for a 20 min bus ride - how long will it take to get to Leshan?
Although yesterday afternoon my family turned up at the station to discover the afternoon run is closed for some sort of refit. The morning run was not mentioned as closed.

jack

this site is very helpful

Ilija Niel Mickael Kovachevich

We are going on the Yunnan train!!!

sam

we are going to ride the train. since you told me about it I an sure it will be fun.

Cynia

Thanks so much, I am in 11th grade, doing a report on narrow gauge trains. This helped me sooo much. THANK YOU!!!

I went to the station the other day to try the train to Shizui, but it was cancelled. Disappointing. I'll try again another day.

OK, it seems the 4.20pm train to ShiZui (and back) is no more. The other scheduled trains (as above) still operate.

Finally made it on the run to ShiZui today, along with a dozen senior citizens and their grandchildren. Yes, a fairly pointless journey, but a fun (and very cheap) hour or so.

Anyone know if this train is still operating?

The train is still running but only to keep their stake on the real estate with the intention of selling at a higher price.

ShiZui station has been closed already.

@lemon lover

Thanks

Any update on the train to ShiZui? Does the "station being closed" mean the train doesn't go there anymore, or that the buildings there are just locked?

Anybody know which off the services listed above is still definitely running?

For info, we took the train to ShiZui today. Only one trip per day now and it leaves 10mins earlier than previous articles suggest, so:

8863: Kunming BeiZhan to ShiZui

10:00 Kunming Bei 昆明北
10:10 Mayuan 麻园
(...this is just behind "Think UK")

10:50 Shizui 石咀

The engine then decouples and moves to the "back" of the train for the journey home.

As before, there were more workers than passengers, but a friendly atmosphere and, at 2RMB rtn, the cheapest couple of hours' fun you can get in Kunming!

I've added an editor's note to the article reflecting the schedule changes. Thanks Ocean.

The train is back to its former *full* schedule (beginning Aug 15, 2014).

8861 - Kunming North (昆明北站) to Wangjiaying (王家营)

7:31 departs Kunming North (昆明北站)

8:39 arrives Wangjiaying (王家营)

[~40 minutes before return journey begins]

8862/3 - Wangjiaying (王家营) to Kunming North (昆明北站)

9:24 Wangjiaying (王家营)

10:34 Kunming North (昆明北站)

11:31 Shizui (石咀)

[~20 minutes before return journey begins]

8866 - Shizui (石咀) to Kunming North (昆明北站)

11:51 Shizui (石咀)

12:43 Kunming North (昆明北站)

8869 - - Kunming North (昆明北站) to Wangjiaying (王家营)

17:20 - Kunming North (昆明北站)

18:28 - Wangjiaying (王家营)

[~30 minute until return journey]

19:00 - Wangjiaying (王家营)

20:07 - Kunming North (昆明北站)

@Nanzhao - Thanks very much for the update!

Does anyone know if you can still bring bikes on the train stopping at Wangjiaying? I'd like to bike from there to the north of Fuxian lake so as to avoid all the annoying guandu traffic

Finally got around to taking this trip. Still very cheap (5 kuai for the entire morning: Kunming North - Wangjiaying; Wangjiaying-Kunming-Shizui; Shizui-Kunming North).

@opper I think you could probably take anything you wanted on that train and they'd not care.

Can anybody confirm the current train times?
Specifically, is the North Station to ShiZui a 10.00am start or 10.34 or 11.51??

PS (can't edit) Sorry, 11.51 is a return time. But 10 and 10.34 have both been claimed as the start time??

Shizui - 石咀 - Stone Mouth - Now that they are building the subway line along Chun Yu Road in Majie I hope they fix the entrance to this station. Few people even know it is there and are probably not aware that they can get on the train at this station.

Right across the street from this station is Horse Racing Park which is still under renovation. There is a nice temple as well as a small zoo which includes ostrich, camels, yaks, and monkeys.

@Nanzhao
Thank you. I plan to take the train soon and will confirm it's 10.34 or othewise.

@HFcampo
Thanks also. The zoo/temple sounds interesting. Are they near the Horse Racing Park? And if I take a look I will, of course, miss the train back - do you or others know if there's a nearby bus route back to central KM somewhere (as there don't seem to be many taxis around that area). Thanks.

I can confirm that currently, the train to ShiZui leaves North Station at 10.34am.

Thanks for the info Ocean. Seems it'd be nice to look around some before going back.

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