The Chinese love their trains. If you visit the country you really do need to take a train journey or two to get a glimpse of Chinese life. And the country has several railway museums, and Beijing itself has two.
Although that’s actually slightly misleading. It would probably be more accurate to say there is one museum, in two locations which compliment each other, albeit they are located a long way apart. Right in the centre of Beijing next to Tiananmen Square lies the smaller and less interesting of the two. It’s housed over several floors in part of an old railway station (although from the inside you would never be able to tell – there’s no sign of any period features and from the outside its dominated by signs for a McDonalds and a KFC.) It has only 1 train, a tiny steam engine, but it does attempt to tell the stories of China’s railways from the inception to the present day. Well I think it does – as everything was in Chinese so I can’t be entirely sure!
Some of the exhibits at this museum are going to be beyond the most hardcore of train enthusiasts interests. Axle bearing monitoring equipment is not, in my opinion, the stuff of prize-winning museums (or at least not for someone whose previous job has given them an irrational hatred of bearing monitoring equipment anyway). The highlight is probably the model exhibits, clearly aimed at domestic Chinese tourists and extolling the virtues of China’s massive investment in high-speed rail expansion. There are various mock-ups, not just of trains but also of some of the incredible bridges and stations they have built. Assuming no more of it decides to collapse then there is little getting away from the fact that China has built some world-class, (and visually impressive) infrastructure.
However if you are keener to look at rolling stock then you need to travel further away. A metro ride and then a good 40 minutes on the 909 bus should do the trick. With the aid of GoogleMaps it’s not actually that difficult to find. Here there are basically no exhibits. Just locomotives. Lots of them. In a giant hanger.
There is a good mix of electric, diesel and steam and they come from various different countries, the UK, the US, Japan, there’s even an oddly colour Belgium locomotive. Perhaps reflecting the political climate some of these machines have lived through, the makers plates seem to have been removed at some point from most examples I could see. Some of the steam engines particularly impress for there size and one of them will be familiar to anyone who has spent too much time looking at the National Railway Museum in York’s collection of steam engines – the only other remaining class member of the huge (British built) Chinese steam engine housed in the NRM’s main hall.
Everything is spotlessly clean, there is no rust, there was no evidence of dodgy paint jobs, no one had decided to replace all the glass with black plastic. And no one was having wedding photos taken. A sea change from the previous rail museums I have seen on this trip, and, to be brutally honest, a little less interesting as a result.