A history of China’s first successful railway and how a Hebei museum park reveals the forces that tried to derail it
Chinese history
  • The China Railway Origin Museum gives a glimpse of some of the country’s earliest tracks and how a train-mad Englishman put the wheels in motion

Standing a few blocks east of Tiananmen Square, Beijing Railway Station is one of the Ten Great Buildings constructed in 1959 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China.

In 2019, at the tail end of the Lunar New Year, entering this faux-Ming eulogy to so­cial­­ist liberation proved almost as challenging as getting into the Forbidden City during the actual Ming dynasty would have been.

Our IDs were checked every 100 yards or so by security person­nel managing New Year human traffic.

Once inside, railway enthusiast Wang Wei and I attempted to warm up in the main hall of the station while admiring murals of communist grandeur and their contemporary equivalent: a big screen playing videos of trains racing through dazzling landscapes.

The recent development of the railways in China has been nothing short of extra­ordinary. Since unveiling its first high-speed connection, between Tianjin and Beijing, in 2008, the country has constructed the largest such network in the world, with 37,900km (23,500 miles) of fast track connecting all the nation’s major cities.

But back in the 19th century, China was a reluctant convert to the church of the iron horse. As Briton Peter Crush writes in Imperial Railways of North China (2013): “In 1880, China still had no railways and was some 40 years behind Europe, America and many small countries.”

A replica of the Rocket of China, built by Claude Kinder in 1881, at the China Railway Origin Museum in Tangshan, Hebei province. Kinder built the locomotive in secret so that China’s conservative factions wouldn’t be aware of it. Photo: Thomas Bird

Crush comes from a family that worked on British railways for four generations. He didn’t follow in their footsteps but, having moved to Hong Kong in 1965, did run The Railway Tavern, in Tai Wai, from 1985 until 2015. He also operated portable model trains that children would sit on as they rode around a track at Hong Kong social events.

Crush has amassed a huge collection of Chinese railway memorabilia, some of which he shared with the China Railway Origin Museum, in Tangshan, of which he has been made an honorary curator.

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“Last time I was up in Tangshan [a prefecture-level city in Hebei province], they hadn’t put any English signs up. If you do visit the museum could you check they’ve got the translations right?” he asked me and Wang, when we met over pints of Gweilo beer in a pub in SoHo, Hong Kong, in the summer of 2018.

Wang and I decided to make that the impetus for a visit to Tangshan, although we also wanted to trace China’s original standard-gauge railway to the city that haphazardly birthed the national network.

Having burrowed our way through the Beijing Railway Station crowds to our allocated seats aboard the K1301 – a slow class of green train – we began rolling slowly through the snow-dusted capital suburbs, finding our way, just past Yong­dingmen, onto the route the Imperial Railway would have taken. While referencing Crush’s book, Wang observed, “The tracks reached here in 1901!”

Vintage trains and carriages at the China Railway Origin Museum. Photo: Thomas Bird

We were employing Crush’s book as a rough guide to the lonely northeast. But the story it details is as much about a man as it is about China’s first successful railway. Claude W. Kinder was another railway-mad Briton.

Born in Ireland in 1852, Kinder’s childhood was a rootless one. His father, Major Thomas William Kinder, served rather unsuccessfully as the master of the Hong Kong Mint between 1863 and 1868, before the family moved onto Japan, the mint having been closed down.

After studying at a German-managed locomotive works in St Petersburg, Russia, Kinder Jnr cut his teeth as an assistant railway engineer in Japan, a country that, unlike China, enthusiastically embraced Western technology. In 1877, Kinder arrived in Shanghai and soon found work with the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company in Tangshan, our train’s third scheduled stop.

We lunched on egg and tomato soup noodles in the dining carriage while the train lurched through Langfang, then Tianjin. Beyond the sealed windows were half-built highways to nowhere and cranes standing over mounds of bricks. Judging by the photos in Crush’s book, when Kinder was there a little over a century ago, it was a rural expanse.

Now it’s an emerging megalopolis.

Kinder arrived in China in 1877. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Crush
Tangshan was the epicentre of a devastating 1976 earthquake, but emerging from the station, it was evident the city had been thoroughly rebuilt: big, bold and uniformly ugly.

Our cab rolled between rows of identikit concrete towers until we reached Kaiping district. Since the Ming dynasty, this corner of Hebei province has been a ready source of coal for the capital and the mining tradition is commemorated at the Kailuan National Mine Park, home also to the China Railway Origin Museum.

The park is as curious a place as you might find in China, the pit head of an old yet still operational mineshaft towering behind an ostensibly modern museum complex. It was a scene that shivered to the soundtrack of heavy machinery. The jolt and clank of metal on metal. The howl of taut wires. Clumps of thick blue ice had formed around the leaky seams of large water pipes. The noxious odour of industry collected in the back of the throat.

A locomotive pulled away from the colliery with its freight of coal trailing behind, one gondola after another, on tracks these days reserved solely for cargo.

“Check out this building,” said Wang, as we wandered around the park. “Mineshaft No 3 was built in 1898.”

The railway yard near the No. 1 coal mine in Tangshan. On the left and centre are two Stephenson tank locomotives imported from the UK. On the right is the Rocket of China. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Crush
The Rocket of China photographed shortly after completion and before brass mouldings of Chinese dragons were added to the side tanks. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Crush

Little else appeared to date to Kinder’s time, judging by the red-star-adorned buildings, which evoked Mao Zedong’s China. But opening Crush’s book, Wang pointed to a photograph. “Peter says this might be the first railway tunnel in mainland China …”, and ahead was the structure depicted in the book.

The Imperial Railway of North China, or what the Chinese have long known as Guanneiwai Tielu, “the railway within and beyond the Great Wall”, stretches past Shanhaiguan – where the wall meets the sea – and into deepest Manchuria.

The railway was not built from one end to the other but began here, in the middle and from where coal needed transporting, spreading in two directions, segment by segment, overcoming not just geographical obstacles but political problems, as power ping-ponged between pro-railway reformers and anti-industrial traditionalists inside the imperial court in Beijing.

Ultimately the railway won, connecting Tangshan to Beijing by way of Fengtai in 1897 and reaching distant Mukden (Shenyang) in 1903.

But it was no walk in the park for Kinder and company. Construction of the railway came to a halt in 1894, when the first Sino-Japanese war broke out; a few years later, the Boxer rebellion – an anti-imperialist peasant movement – raged through northern China, again hindering progress.

China’s first railway deaths occurred in an accident in March 1889, when two trains collided near Junliangcheng; the following month, boatmen in Tianjin objected to a steel bridge that had been built across the Haihe River, and it was dynamited.

The scene of devastation at the Fengtai locomotive shed following its destruction by Boxer rebels on May 28, 1900. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Crush

Towards the end of his tenure in China, Kinder experienced a minor breakdown. In 1909, after almost 30 years as chief engineer of the Imperial Railway of North China – a 845km standard gauge railway that had begun life as a donkey-powered tramway from Tangshan to a nearby canal – he rolled back to England along the Trans-Siberian railway and into retirement.

There are two museums in the mine park, the Tangshan Mining Museum as well as one devoted to the origins of rail in China. The latter is almost a 3D realisation of Crush’s book, although a more Marxist take on history is conspicuous in the museum introduction: “The imperialists had been encroaching on Chinese sovereignty continually after two opium wars and they considered railway construction an important way to obtain more benefit. With the support of their governments, foreign merchants arranged several trial runs for trains, attempting to persuade the royal court of the Qing dynasty into agreeing to build railways.”

This railway tunnel in the Tangshan colliery was the first railway tunnel excavated in China and is still in use today. A carved marble plaque records the construction date as 1899, however some sources say it was in use six years earlier. Photo: Thomas Bird

It was, according to both book and exhibition, reformer Li Hongzhang, the viceroy of Zhili – modern-day Hebei province – who set the wheels in motion: “In 1878, Li Hongzhang appointed Tang Tingshu to establish the Kaiping Coalmine. To solve the problem of coal transportation, Tang told Li the necessity of building a railway to carry the coal.

“In view of the royal court’s refusal to use locomotives, Li Hongzhang claimed that donkeys and horses would [instead have to] be the driving force, and finally won the approval of the royal court.”

Yet it was Kinder who decided to build the tramway to a track width of four foot, 8.5 inches – known as standard gauge – conscious of the potential to develop the track into a fully fledged railway down the line.

The first machine shop in Tangshan, where the Rocket of China was constructed. Photo: Courtesy of Peter Crush

In 1881, Kinder built a locomotive to supplant the mules, the Rocket of China, out of scrap materials and in secret, so that conservative factions wouldn’t be aware of it. A scale model now stands in the China Railway Origin Museum grounds, complete with brass dragons and bran­dishing its Chinese name, Long Hao – “the dragon”.

As part of an outdoor exhibition, an old train carriage was parked beside a huge black steam locomotive from Changchun. Tracing the path of the vintage trains led us onto the tracks proper and we followed them southwards for 10 minutes until we reached little-known Tangshan South Station, which looked more like a British country stop than the enormous depots these days found scattered across China.

“This is what I wanted to show you,” said Wang, excitedly, as we walked along a narrow central platform bound by a steel railway bridge. He turned in the book to an image of Kinder, the engineer holding his spectacles triumphantly, walking before this very same bridge, surrounded by a crowd – European men with large hats in the foreground, Chinese on the periphery, their shaved foreheads adding to the sense of bewilderment over these mustachioed outsiders and what they were building in this corner of China.

A freight train rolls out of the mine and museum complex in Tangshan. Photo: Thomas Bird
A passenger footbridge over Tangshan South Station that dates back to Kinder’s time. Photo: Thomas Bird

Six thousand miles from Britain, we examined steel girders from Lancashire and Scotland. We posed on the railway bridge and on the spot in which Kinder once stood, as if having just disembarked in Didcot or Swindon. It was a surreal scene, the icy station frozen like a picture, now girdled by blocky Mao-era tenements and no longer serviced by passenger trains.

What a difference a century has made. One can only wonder at what Kinder would make of the three-hour service from Beijing to Shenyang that traces the tracks of his railway. It would have taken him more than 34 hours to travel from Peking (Beijing) to what he would have called Mukden.