Coal cases : the tale of a railway, and the tell of its payload

Electrification of the Jitong Railway has just been completed. In a country where 75% of the rail network has been electrified since the 1990s, the fate of a line in landlocked Neimenggu (Inner Mongolia) may seem anecdotal. Nevertheless, it is highly symbolical of China’s railway, and more broadly economy, evolution.

From steam locomotives to EMUs, in 20 years

The 940 kilometers line running from Jining (in Ulanqab prefecture) to Tongliao (both in Neimenggu) was once famous among rail enthusiasts, as the World’s last main line operated by steam locomotives.

When it was opened in 1995, modernization of the rest of the national network made surplus steam locomotives available and cheap. And the same was true for their fuel in coal-rich Neimenggu. Jitong was thus operated by a fleet of huge 2-10-2 (28 wheels) coal-fired machines, until their replacement by diesel locomotives in 2005.

Just 20 years after that first transition, the picture has radically changed. Rebuilding of Jitong Railway has been made using advanced technologies, including centimeter-accurate positioning of catenaries based on Beidou satellites.

The resulting state-of-the-art line will be run by electric locomotives and EMUs (Electric Multiple Units) replacing diesel-thirsty units, and will thus participate to foreign dependence reduction, and building of a « greener » China.

From coal hauling to more coal hauling

So much for the tale of Jitong Railway. Nevertheless, there is a flaw in the script when looking at the motivations for that modernization.

A major effect of electrification will be higher speeds and higher frequencies on the Jitong Railway. And in the relatively underpopulated area it serves, the main effect will be raising its freight transport capacity.

From 36 million tons before, yearly traffic capacity of the line will rise to 80 million tons of freight after electrification. And as for all rail lines in Neimenggu (the country’s number 2 producer of the commodity), this freight traffic is massively made … of coal.

Despite undisputed and spectacular development of renewable sources of energy (led by photovoltaïcs and wind power), Chinese authorities know the country will still need coal for some (or many) years.

Problems linked to intermittent nature of Renewables, ranging from storage to grid integration, will take time to be solved. And the central government was reminded by an energy crisis in 2021 of the still unavoidable role of coal for answering China’s huge energy needs.

As one of the rail lines ensuring transfer of coal to thermal power stations, Jitong Railway will effectively participate in China’s environmental efforts – supplementary coal it will convey will not be carried using trucks. But when looking at the broader picture, the « Green China » it embodies still needs some time for becoming bright green.

Photo © SASAC (colors modified)

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