Apologies for the lack of technical detail to any steam enthusiasts reading this! I've added a few notes below that may be of some help, based on my observations and a quick chat with the station staff before going on our jolly:
The line was opened in 1995
It is single track with passing places
On our run, we passed a fully laden coal train running from Shenchi to Shuozhou. This was diesel hauled.
The operation has two sets of diesels (three units in each set) in addition to 5 pairs of QJs we saw
There are usually about three or four return trips per day, but they are not scheduled and depend upon demand
I'm not sure if steam operations continue beyond Shenchi, but this would seem likely.
Full coal trains leave from Shenchi, heading northeast to Shuozhou. On reaching Shuozhou West Station (1 1/2 hrs), the locos uncouple from the train, reverse back along an adjacent line, cross over and pick up a set of empty waiting trucks to return to Shenchi. The full trucks are picked up by a single diesel to continue their journey to Shuozhou main station. What happens to them then I don't know!
The line is currently being electrified (as you can see from the photos). No one knows whether this will mean the end of steam, but it is obviously a possibility. The rail staff said that steam was far more economical (there is much coal in this part of China!) than diesel but didn't mention electric. They had not been told whether steam would be discontinued but seemed to want it to carry on
The sheds, coaling facilities etc are all at the Shenchi end.
There is a huge amount of railway construction in this area. Some QJs are used to haul works units, cranes etc. (photo).
If anyone wants to visit the steam operations, they would need to travel from Beijing to Datong (51/2 hrs on the express train) and then head south to Shuozhou (about 2 hrs). From there, I'm not sure whether there are passenger trains to Shenchi, but there may be. Otherwise it would be a bumpy taxi ride (about 1 hour and probably about RMB200 for the day). Overnight accommodation would have to be in Shuozhou or nearby Pingshuo.
All the rail staff were very welcoming, but an interpreter would help. They probably wouldn't be too thrilled to be overrun with people, but I shouldn't think that they would mind a few casual visits.
A few numbers for the real enthusiasts: QJ 7160, 6542, 6698
Contact me if you have any more questions! (Richard
Footnote: Steam appeared to be all but finished at Shenci by the time we left China in 2001.
By the way, we're now selling our house in Southend-on-Sea, so click here to have a look: