Datong, China — "Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!"m Qianjin 3221's first whistle resounds joyously across the clear blue sky. Engineer Yu Zhenhai opens the throttle, and slowly, majestically, the 260-ton behemoth, gleaming black with red and white wheels, moves down the railway track on her first tryout.
Inside the spacious cabin, engineer Yu and his assistant, Wang Zhenguo, have their eyes on the track ahead, while stoker An Guohua demonstrates how, with one swift movement, he can scoop coal from the tender, open the doors to the glowing furnace, and throw the shovelful onto the fire. "I was trained to make this movement 28 times in 16 minutes," says An, "but once we're on the track we mainly rely on the automatic stoker."
All three crewmen are tall, big-boned, northern Chinese. They are taking care of the final stage of Qianjin 3221's progress from lumps of metal to gleaming steam locomotive: a tryout on the tracks. "This engine is supposed to go to work in Chengdu," says engineer Yu. "We have to be sure everything is in perfect order before we allow it to leave our factory."
Qianjin 3221 is indeed a monster. It gulps 40 tons of water, 14.k to coal, and can go up to 100 kilometers without reloading. Its top speed is 80 kilometers per hour.
Elsewhere in the world, steam locomotives are being relegated to railway museums. Here in China, the Datong Locomotive Works of the Railway Ministry each year turns out 300 or more steam locomotives, each of them crafted with loving care by some 7,700 workers.
"We are the only factory in China that still produces steam engines," says Xu Liuyi of the manager's office. "The others have all converted to diesels or electric locomotives."
Mr. Xu is not worried that he or his factory will soon be out of jobs. "China has tremendous resources of coal, and for some time to come we will continue to rely on steam engines to haul freight and even, to some extent, passengers," he says.
Mr. Xu, a lively Shanghailander who gestures with great gusto as he talks, trained at Dalien Engineering Institute and has been with the Datong locomotive works since its inception in 1956. The workshops we visit are immaculate, (as are most factories this correspondent has seen so far), and though the pace of work seems stately, it is being done with care.
"The great disadvantage of a steam engine is that it is so inefficient, in energy terms," says Mr. Xu. "For every hundred kilograms of coal it burns, only five kilograms directly power the engine. The rest is waste heat -- it just goes out the smokestack. We in China have managed to get the ratio up to 8.35, whereas in most other countries using steam engines it is 5, 6 at most 7. A diesel engine uses 25 to 30 percent of the fuel burned, and an electric locomotive 40 percent.
So you can see, in the future the most efficient way for us to use our coal is to go electric, but this takes time. Meanwhile, we have to do the best we can to make steam engines as efficient as possible." Engineers are not trying to upgrade energy efficiency to 10 percent.
Last year the factory produced 310 steam engines, valued at 94 million yuan -- a little more than $60 million. The profit on that figure came to 14,500,000 yuan (nearly $10 million), according to Mr. Xu. The average salary at the plant is 60 yuan ($40) per month. With the new scheme of incentives and bonuses, most workers can expect to get 10 or 20 percent more than their normal monthly wages.
As with most other large enterprises, the factory has its own housing across the road, with rents set at nominal terms: 6 to 10 fen (4 to 6 cents) per square meter. Nor is education neglected. The factory runs one technical school, two ordinary middle schools, and one primary school, with a total enrollment of 5, 500 pupils. Besides this, some 1,500 workers attend night school.
With all this education, was it possible that some day someone might design a totally new steam engine, one that would be very much more energy-efficient and that would take China forward into the 21st century?
"What a marvelous idea," says Mr. Xu. "We do have scientists who are working right now on getting steam engines at least 20 percent energy-efficient. That would be twice anything we can realistically expect today, and would require a totally different design. The coal would require a totally different design. The coal would have to be liquidized. I'm afraid this is not a possibility for today or tomorrow, but we have come so far already, who knows how much further we may go in the future?"