Beyer-Garratts to IndoChina-Yunnan Railways

In working on a series of posts about East African Railways I have noticed that 6 Beyer-Garratt locomotives from The Kenya-Uganda Railway (KUR) were sent to Indo-China to work on metre-gauge lines there. This post investigates two possible options for the location of those Garratts after they left East Africa. Their KUR numbers were 41, 42, 43, 44, 51 and 53. Various sources indicate that their reference numbers in Indo-China were 201-206. [8][9][10]

Research suggests that there are two possible locations for these locos operations after leaving East Africa. The first, initially seeming the most likely, is the Burma-Yunnan Railway which was a British project. The second was a French project. We spend a little time focussing on each project before some final observations are made at the end of this post

  1. The Burma to Yunnan Railway

The Burma–Yunnan railway was a failed British project to connect far southwest China’s Yunnan province with the recently established rail network in British-ruled Burma. The bulk of this post is taken from the Wikipedia article about this line. [5]

The British project was working against the background of the successful French Yunnan–Vietnam railway that had been established on the nearby Hanoi to Kunming route from 1904–1910, some 30 years earlier. To secure the rights to construction, Britain referred to Article IV of the Anglo-French Siam Convention for ‘mutual privileges’. It seems as though there was an element of competition in the decision to proceed with the building of the line.

Maria Bugrova‘s article The British expeditions to China in XIX century discusses the question of a railway to Yunnan from Burma.

In the 1880s, Great Britain drew special attention to the Upper Burma region and the roads to southwestern China. The former colonial officer of British Burma‘s administration, A.R. Colquhoun, and an engineer of the Civil Works Department in India, H. Hallett, traveled in 1882 from Canton to Rangoon. A.R Colquhoun returned to England and sent his proposal to the Chamber of Commerce of Great Britain to investigate the question of building a railway between Rangoon and southwestern China through the Shan states. His proposal was approved by the Chamber. According to a preliminary calculation, the cost of work was about seven thousand pound sterling. One half of this amount had to be presented by the Chambers of Commerce, and another part had to be contributed by the Government.
By the end of 1884, Hallett and Colquhoun received 3,500 pounds from the Chamber of Commerce for the investigation of building a railway. They found important information about climate, population and minerals. They drew special attention to Likin. From their point of view, penetration of British goods into China depended on the amount of this tax. The difficulty of Likin question substantially explained the British traders’ interest in building a railway. In case of this building it would be possible to avoid the payment of Likin transferring goods to the interior of China. Colquhoun telegraphed daily to The Times about the expedition. [1]

The wikipedia article says that there are references in the 1898 British Hansard regarding possible construction of the line. [2]

Archibald John Little‘s 1905 book The Far East mentioned the proposed route on page 124: [3]

A railway, starting from Mandalay, goes north-east to the bank of the Salwin which is to be crossed at Kunlong Ferry in latitude 23 degrees 20′, whence, if ever built, it is to be taken north in Chinese territory and run parallel with the prevailing strike of the mountains, due north to Tali-fu; but this line will pass through a wild thinly-peopled country and it is doubtful if a private company will be found to build it.

In 1911, Leo Borgholz, the US Consul General in Canton, published a trade report entitled ‘Yunnan Trade Districts and Routes’, in which he mentions that the British appeared to have shelved the project for lack of financial viability. [4]

In 1938, Edward Michael Law-Yone travelled to Yunnan from his native Burma to see the proposed route. [5] By 1938 construction had begun. In 1941 25 metre-gauge 2-8-8-2 mallet-type articulated engines were ordered from the American ALCO company, and America promised to supply steel for the construction effort. [26]

In 1939 it was proposed to construct the western section of the Yunnan–Burma railway using a gauge of 15 14 in (387 mm), since such minimum gauge facilitates the tightest of curves in difficult terrain. [6]

An article by Royal Arch Gunnison published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday, 27th November 1941 stated that American Engineers still expected around 12 to 15 months to complete the railway. [6]

Research has resulted in a few images of the construction work coming to light. [11] These images show work in and around the Nam-ting River Gorge in 1942.

Unfortunately, it seems that construction of the line was abandoned due to Japanese advances, and was never resumed. Burma’s limited trading value to China and its internal political and military instability have probably been two major contributing factors.

Commemorative sign at the site of the Manzhuan Tunnel.

Today the Yunnan side of the line lies in ruin. Though signs here and there attest to its presence, there is little actual rail left, and the line has all but vanished from local history and barely graces itineraries of all but the most determined travellers.

One such sign can be glimpsed opposite the ferry to Baodian, slightly south of Manwan in the far north-eastern section of Lincang prefecture. The sign records a tunnel from the construction, but the entry has long been covered over and there is no visual hint to the line’s presence whatsoever.

In the Geographical Journal of March 1940 (Volume 45 No.3) there is an article about the Yunnan-Burma Road, work on which was taking place during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), and in the final stages of Britain’s long rule over Burma. Brief mention is made of the Yunnan-Burma Railway which was then under construction, a British project to connect China’s Yunnan province with the then recently established rail network in Burma, which ultimately failed. [7]

So, although it initially appears as though this would be the natural location for the Garratts after leaving East Africa in 1939, our investigation suggests that it is actually very unlikely to have been their destination.

If correct, this means that the British probably sold the Garratts to their erstwhile competitors in Indo-China – the French.

2. The Yunnan to Vietnam Railway

The Faux Namti (Wujiazhai) Bridge over the Sicha River, in the Nanxi Valley region (right). More than 800 Chinese coolies died here. [12]

The Yunnan–Haiphong railway is an 855 km (531mile) railway built by France between 1904–1910, connecting Haiphong, Vietnam with Kunming, Yunnan province, China. The section within China from Kunming to Hekou is known as the Kunming–Hekou railway, and is 466 km long. The section within Vietnam is 389 km (242 mile) long, and is known as the Hanoi–Lào Cai railway. The railway was built as a metre-gauge line due to the mountainous terrain along the route. Currently it is the only metre-gauge main line in China.

In the 19th century, the French colonial administration worked to develop regular trading networks and an efficient transport infrastructure between Indo-china and south-west China. The primary motivation for such an effort was to facilitate export of European goods to China. A railway would also give France access to Yunnan’s natural resources, mineral resources and opium, and open up the Chinese market for Indochinese products such as rice, dry fish, wood and coal.[13]

Prior to the construction of the railway, the standard travel time from Haiphong (the closest sea port to most of Yunnan) to Kunming was reckoned by the Western authorities to be 28 days: 16 days by steamer and then a small boat up the Red River to Manhao (425 miles), and then 12 days overland (194 miles).[14]

The right to build the railway was obtained following China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–95). At a cost of 95 million francs (€362 million), the railway was among the most ambitious colonial projects undertaken by France, and was put into use on 1 April 1910.[13][15]

In the context of French technology and manufacturing over a century ago, the construction of a several-hundred-km long railroad through the red-earth mountain plateau of Yunnan called for political will allied with vision, courage and hard work; without these, one of the most magnificent projects in the history of railroad construction would not have been possible.

This railroad represents the highest level of engineering technology in the early 20th century. For 80 percent of its length it runs between perilous and precipitous mountains. Within a linear” distance of 200km. Between Hekou at 76m above sea level to Mengzi at 2,000m above sea level, there is an altitude disparity of over 1,900m: the section between Baogu and Baizhai involves a climb of 1,200 m within just 44 km.

In order to complete the project at the least time and cost, the Hekou to Kunming project was divided into 12 separate sections which were progressed simultaneously. The French Yunnan-Vietnam Railway Construction Company recruited more than 60,000 Chinese labourers from all over China and there were over 3,000 French, American, British, Italian and Canadian engineers involved in the construction. Along this 465-km-long railway, 107 permanent railway bridges of various types were built and 155 tunnels excavated; 1.66 million cubic metres of earth and stones were dug out and over 3,000 temporary bridges and haulage routes were built. The difficulties encountered were beyond the imagination of the decision-makers in Paris.

The climate was sweltering, particularly around the Nanxi River valley area, where summer temperatures could exceed 40 centigrade; it was humid and oppressive, and infections from tropical diseases and plague were always possible. Statistics show that during those six years, 12,000 people died and are buried alongside the 465km of railway. 10,000 of these died in the Nanxi River valley, most of them Chinese labourers who gave up their lives in order to earn a living. There were also several hundred Frenchmen and other foreigners, drawn from afar by this railroad, who never made it back to their native soil.

One of many bridges along the route is the 67 metre-long steel railway bridge over the Sicha River in the Nanxi valley. To Chinese, this handsome and delicate structure is known as “Wishbone Bridge.” Since its completion in 1909, the “Wishbone Bridge” has never had an adverse impact on railroad traffic. Hardly a bolt has had to be changed. [27]

Under pressure from Japan, France closed the line on 16 July 1940 to cut supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. During the Japanese occupation Japanese National Railways Class 9600 2-8-0 locomotives were shipped to aid their invasion, and after the completion of the “death railway” it was possible for a time to send through traffic to Burma and hence to the Indian metre gauge network. This is now not possible, as sections of the railway were destroyed during the conflicts since World War II. [16]

During the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the railway bridge across the Nanxi River at the two countries’ border was destroyed, and the trade between China and Vietnam came to a halt for several years. [17]

Twice-a-week, cross-border passenger services operated as late as 2000; the second-class passengers had to transfer from a Chinese train to a Vietnamese train at the border station, while the first-class car passengers could remain on board as their car was transferred to the train across the border. However, landslides caused frequent delays. [18]

Eventually, in 2005 the passenger service on the Chinese section of the railway (the Kunming–Hekou railway) was terminated,[9] [10] and most of the passenger coaches were donated to Myanmar. [19]

In 2008, a passenger service on a small part (37 km long) of the Chinese section of the railway was resumed, but on a very limited scale. As of 2012, two daily trains ran from Kunming North railway station on the metre-gauge tracks to Shizui (石咀) Station on the western outskirts of Kunming, and to Wangjiaying (王家营) east of the city. [19]

As of 2016, this service still continued, with 2 daily trains to Wangjiaying and one to Shizui. In December 2017, in order to leave room for the construction of the Kunming No.4 Metro line, the commuter train service between Shizui and Wangjiaying was terminated again, and parts of the metre-gauge railway in the urban area was demolished. Freight services continued to operate throughout the Kunming–Hekou railway. [20] Some rolling stock continues to be maintained in working condition. According to a 2015 news report, over the seven preceding years, 63 metre-gauge flatcars had been refurbished at the Kunming North Station’s workshop, for use in trans-border container shipping. [21] In 2016, 100 mothballed freight railcars were selected to be refurbished at the Kaiyuan workshop and to be put into use again. [22]

Among important cargo types moved internationally on this line are chemical fertilizers. [21] Since 2015, direct trains have been run from the phosphate fertilizer manufacturers in Kaiyuan to consumers in Vietnam. [23][24] In the opposite direction, sulphur and zinc ore concentrate are imported to China from Vietnam. [24]

The overall role of the Kunming–Hekou meter-gauge line in the Sino-Vietnamese trade significantly declined in the 21st century, as compared to the railway’s heyday in the first half of the 20th century. According to one article dated 2015 and describing the trade as it operated prior to the opening of the standard-gauge railway to Hekou in 2014, the most common route for cargo shipped from Kunming to Vietnam would be the rather circuitous one: via the Nanning–Kunming railway (opened 1997), the sea port of Fangchenggang, and then by ship to Haiphong. [25] However, since 2015, the amount of trans-border shipments on the meter-gauge line has been on the increase again. [23][24] According to a 2017 report, the first quarter of 2017 saw 166,200 tons of freight shipped by rail on the trans-border line, which represented a 66.2% increase from the same period of the previous year, and 12-year record. [24] This consisted of 74,100 tons of fertilizers exported from China to Vietnam and 92,100 tons of sulphur and zinc ore concentrate imported to China from Vietnam. [24]

On the Vietnamese side, the Hanoi–Haiphong and Hanoi–Lào Cai railways continue to be important for domestic and trans-border cargo transportation. Passenger trains continue to run both from Hanoi to Haiphong and from Hanoi to the border town of Lào Cai. [20]

3. The Disposition of the Beyer-Garratt Locomotives from East Africa.

Whatever the intention of the Kenya Uganda Railway (KUR) in sending their locos to Indo-China, it seems that they will have ended up on the French-owned line from Vietnam to Yunnan. There is some supporting evidence for this …..

Huochemi on the National Preservation Forum [28] comments that:

“although Charles Small in “Far Wheels” has a chapter on the KUR/EAR, he does not deal with these Garratts. The roster info is truncated as Small notes that this info was given in the Railway Magazine. He does not mention the date but it must have been prior to 1959, the date of his book. There is a distant shot of a Garratt in service on the Yunnan Railway in “Chemins de Fer de la France d’Outre-Mer” (p131).

After Pearl Harbour, there was good reason for Britain to help out with motive power for the (essentially French) Yunnan Railway but in 1939 it does not seem so likely and indeed, according to Chang Kia-Ngau, Britain was still minded to take note of what the Japanese thought of potential unfriendly actions such as providing anything that might be construed as military aid to the Chinese.

It could of course have simply been a meeting of minds i.e. France wanted some more motive power and the KUR was happy to sell. My first thought was that the locos may have been intended for the Burma-Yunnan Railway, in which British had a greater interest, and discussions were underway from 1938 on this. Only a portion of that line was built and it may be that the Garratts’ use on the Yunnan Railway line was intended to be temporary (the only route in was via Vietnam and the Yunnan Railway), but in the event they remained there permanently.”

M636C on the Vietnam thread on the Classic Trains Forum [29] comments:

“There was … a former French line to Kunming … which remained metre-gauge. This line had 4-8-2+2-8-4 Beyer-Garratts purchased second hand from the East African Railways.”

Tkautzor on Les Forums de Passions Metrique et Etroite provides some very helpful comments in French (translation below):

Selon Frédéric Hulot dans “Les Chemins de Fer de la France d’Outre-Mer” les six Garratts du KUR ont été achetés par le CIY en 1939 et déchargés en octobre de la même année, mais n’ont vu que peu de service avant que la ligne coupée en juillet 1940. Alors qu’elles étaient capables de soulever des charges de 500 tonnes sur les pentes les plus raides de la ligne, ils n’étaient pas populaires auprès des équipages car elles ne pouvaient pas être tournées sur les plaques tournantes de la ligne en raison de leurs longueurs.”

(According to Frédéric Hulot in “The Railways of France Overseas” the six Garratts of KUR were bought by the CIY in 1939 and unloaded in October of the same year, but saw little service before the line was closed in July 1940. While they were able to pull loads of 500 tonnes on the steeper slopes of the line, they were not popular with crews as they could not be turned on the turntables on the line because of their lengths.)

My thanks for the comments made by members of different railway forums which appear to have answered the question raised by this blog!☺ As huochemi says on 25th June 2018:

“Just to be clear, we know what happened to the Garratts. All six are shown on the 1948 roster for the Yunnan Railway, and five for the “1960s” (60 年代) (from Yunnan Province History – Railway History 云南省志 – 铁道志 published by the Yunnan People’s Publishing House in 1994). My interest is how they came to be sold by the KUR to Yunnan. Incidentally, looking at your updated note, I cannot see anything in the ALCO Works List for 2-8-8-2s for Burma/China around 1941, and I wonder if it ever got as far as a firm order.” [28]


  1., accessed on 23rd June 2018.
  2. British Hansard, 17 February 1898 – Early discussion of the line. … Vol 53 c865 … (MR. JOSEPH WALTON(Yorkshire, W.R., Barnsley): … I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, in view of the great commercial importance to British interests of opening up early railway communication between Burma and China, the recently reported acquiescence of the Chinese Government in such a policy will be promptly acted on by Her Majesty’s Government causing the necessary surveys to be made for a continuation of the Burma railway system into Yunnan? …….. THE UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Mr. CURZON,)Lancashire, S.W., Southport: … The question of the hon. Member is based upon a report which I am not in a position to confirm. In any case, I think it will be advisable to construct the railway to the Chinese Frontier before coming to any decision with reference to possible continuations beyond.)
  3. Archibald John Little, The Far East, The Far East Cambridge Library Collection – Travel and Exploration in Asia Edition illustrated, reprint, reissue, Cambridge University Press 2010, p124.
  4. Yunnan Trade Districts and Routes”, 1911 as published in Daily Consular and Trade Reports, p1223ffp1223ff
  5.–Burma_railway, accessed on 23rd June 2018.
  6.  “TOY railway”The Northern StandardDarwin, NT: National Library of Australia. 8 December 1939. p. 15, accessed on 23rd June 2018 & Construction Miracle: China’s Yunnan Burma Railroad. Royal Arch Gunnison, San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, 27th November 1941.
  7. The Yunnan-Burma Road; The Geographical Journal, Vol. 45 No. 3, March 1940, p161ff.
  8., accessed on 14th June 2018.
  9. Roel Ramaer; Steam Locomotives of the East African Railways; David & Charles Locomotive Studies. Newton Abbot, Devon, UK, 1974, p88.
  10. A. E. DurrantGarratt Locomotives of the World (rev. and enl. ed.). Newton Abbot, Devon, UK, 1981, p177.
  11., accessed on 24th June 2018.
  12. accessed on 24th June 2018.
  13. Jean-François Rousseau; “An Imperial Railway Failure: The Indochina-Yunnan Railway, 1898–1941;” Journal of Transport History, Vol. 35, No. 1, June 2014.
  14. H. WhatesThe Politician’s Handbook, Vacher & Sons, 1901, p. 146.
  15. Clarence B. Davis; Kenneth E. Wilburn Jr.; Ronald E. Robinson; “Railway Imperialism in China, 1895–1939”Railway Imperialism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1991. p159.
  16.  A Picture Album of Steam Locomotives in China, 1876 – 2001. China Rail Publishing House.
  17. William D. Middleton;  Yet There Isn’t a Train I Wouldn’t Take: Railway Journeys, Railroads Past and Present Series, Indiana University Press, 2000. p189.
  18. Wayne Arnold; “This Train Beats Walking (Sometimes);” New York Times, 3rd December 2000, accessed on 24th June 2018.
  19. 滇越铁路徒步第一程(昆明——宜良) (A walk along the Kunming-Vietnam Railway. Part 1: Kunming-Chenggong);, (Chinese), accessed on 24th June 2018.
  20., accessed on 24th June 2018.
  21. 昆明铁路局修竣63辆米轨平车投入国际联运, 4th May 2015 (Chinese), accessed on 24th June 2018.
  22. “上半年中越米轨铁路国际联运增长106.9% (The first six months’ international freight volume on the meter-gauge China–Vietnam railway has increased by 106.9% [compared to the previous year])”, 新华云南 (Xinhua Yunnan), 4th August 2016 (Chinese), accessed on 24th June 2018.
  23. Yunnan’s First Fertilizer Train Bounded for Vietnam, 19th March 2015, accessed on 24th June 2018.
  24. 胡, 晓蓉 (Hu Xiaorong); 张, 伟明 (Zhang Weiming) (2017-04-04), “中越米轨铁路国际联运运量持续攀升 (The volume of international shipments on the China-Vietnam meter-gauge railway continues to climb)”, 云南日报 (Yunnan Ribao) (Chinese, accessed on 24th June 2018.
  25. Lu, Hua (陆华); Guo, Weina (郭薇娜) (2015-04-24), 昆明铁路局:国际铁路联运开启云南货运新篇章 (Kunming Railway Bureau: An international railway link opens a new chapter in Yunnan’s freight transportation)(Chinese), accessed on 24th June 2018.
  26. Mallets built for export by North American locomotive builders. Includes reference to Yunnan/Burma railway 2-8-8-2 engines, accessed on 24th June 2018.
  27., accessed on 24th June 2018.
  28., accessed on 24th and 25th June 2018.
  29., accessed on 24th June 2018.
  30., accessed on 25th June 2018.

6 thoughts on “Beyer-Garratts to IndoChina-Yunnan Railways

  1. Thomas Kautzor

    According to Frédéric Hulot in “Les Chemins de Fer de la France d’Outre-Mer” the six KUR Garratts were purchased by the CIY in 1939 and unloaded in parts in October of that same year, but only saw little service before the line was cut in July 1940. While they were able to lift loads of up to 500 tonnes on the line’s steepest gradients, they were not popular with the crews as they could not be turned on the line’s turntables due to their length.

  2. Jani

    Click to access Ch._fer_IC-Yunnan-docu.pdf

    page 41

    Les moyens de traction devenant également insufisants, nous avons racheté, en
    décembre dernier, les 4 locomotives extra lourdes que nous avions cédées en 1935
    à la Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien.

    Nous avons, de plus, acheté au début de 1939 trois locomotives d’occasion et nous prévoyons l’achat de quelques locomotives articulées type Garratt, d’une puissance double de celles de nos plus fortes machines actuellement en service.

    L’augmentation de notre parc de matériel roulant et de traction était nécessaire,
    non seulement pour faire face aux besoins exceptionnels de la période actuelle,
    mais aussi pour réprondre et contribuer à l’essor économique, que nous pensons
    durable, du Yunnan et de toute la Chine du Sud-Ouest.

    Pour faire face aux charges de ces acquisitons de matériel, le prélèvement opéré
    sur les recettes au titre des travaux et fournitures complémentaires a été fixé, en
    accord avec la Colonie, à 29 millions de francs pour l’exercice 1938, au lieu de 3
    millions de francs en 1937.

    1. rogerfarnworth Post author

      This is a translation of the above text. It is a statement, I think, written by the railway company in Yunnan province?

      “As the means of traction also became insufficient, we bought back, in last December, the 4 extra heavy locomotives we sold in 1935 to the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer Franco-Ethiopien.

      In addition, we bought three second-hand locomotives at the beginning of 1939 and we plan to buy a few Garratt articulated locomotives, twice as powerful as our strongest machines currently in service. (NB: these were I believe sourced from the Uganda Railway.)

      The increase of our fleet of rolling and traction equipment was necessary, not only to meet the exceptional needs of the current period, but also to condemn and contribute to the economic growth, which we believe sustainable, Yunnan and all of Southwest China.

      To meet the costs of these purchases of equipment, the sampling carried out on income from additional works and supplies has been fixed, in agreement with the Colony, at 29 million francs for the 1938 financial year, instead of 3
      million francs in 1937.

      1. Jani

        The above was taken out of the report from the Regular shareholder meeting on May 23rd 1939 as reported by L’Information d’Indochine, économique et financière, 24 juin 1939

        Transcription on the page 82 not 70, sorry.

        Click to access Ch._fer_IC-Yunnan-docu.pdf

        It does not say where the meeting was held, but the company’s seat and major shareholders were in Paris.
        Compagnie française des chemins de fer de l’Indochine et du Yunnan

  3. Pingback: Uganda Railways – Part 30 – The Railway Magazine 1950 – June 1950 | Roger Farnworth

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