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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

An engine named for Chairman Mao: A train from revolutionary China

In October, 1946 Chinese railway workers in Harbin, China -- which had been newly liberated by the People's Liberation Army -- used scrap locomotive parts to build an engine that they called the Mao Zedong in honour of the Communist Party leader. This was during the civil war and prior to the victory of the revolution in 1949.

This train went into service immediately to aid the Communist cause and after the revolution was used to haul freight on the north Beijing-Shanhaiguan line. After 15 years, by 1961 it had already covered 1.2 million kilometers.

Eventually the original locomotive was replace by other more advanced ones and the Mao Zedong train now is a HXD3D-1893 electric engine that transports passengers instead of freight. As of 2019 it ran between Beijing and Changsha the capital city of Hunan province.

In February, 1961 this English language article was published in the Communist Peking Review about its creation and remarkable story. It is a story of courage, fortitude and working-class innovation.

"The Mao Tse-tung locomotive and its crews have set a splendid record of socialist industrial achievement. Their story is typical of China's working class, a story of quiet heroism, of ingenuity and steadfastness in overcoming difficulties and forging forward to success."

(Please note that this article uses translations of the names of people and cities that are no longer used.)


FIFTEEN years ago this spring. just after Harbin up In northeast China was liberated, a group of railway workers in that city built the Mao Tae-lung locomotive. Taking the parts of an old engine which had been lying around for years and working with the energy and drive of the newly liberated, they rebuilt it in their spare time in 27 days. In gratitude to the Communist Party and Comrade Mao Tse-tung, they named it after China's leader.

Under the hands of a succession of fine crews it has lived up to its name. Running on the north China Peking-Shanhaikuan line, it has covered 1.2 million kilometres without a single mishap. From the beginning of the First Five-Year Plan (1953-57) up to the present, it has pulled half a million tons more freight than its quotas called for. The coal saved from its allocation is more than enough for a year's use. Throughout Its 15 years of life it has kept the lead among locomotives of its class in tonnage of freight hauled, average speed, economy of fuel consumption and safety. In the technical revolution on the railways, it is consistently a pace-setter.

It has been a school for outstanding railwaymen. Four chief drivers and 71 drivers, assistant-drivers and stokers have served on it successively, many of them got their professional training and won their spurs on this job. Among them Li Yung, the first chief driver, is now Vice-Chairman of the National Committee of the Railway Workers' Trade Union of China; Kuo Shu-teh, Li's successor, is getting advanced training in a railway college and Yo Shang-wu, the third chief driver, is now deputy director of the important Fengtai Locomotive Depot. Now it is in the competent hands of chief driver Tsai Lien-hsing. Some members of the crew were delegates to the Eighth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party: others have been elected to the National People's Congress.

The Mao Tse-tung locomotive and its crews have set a splendid record of socialist industrial achievement Their story is typical of China's working class, a story of quiet heroism, of ingenuity and steadfastness in overcoming difficulties and forging forward to success.

A Railway Epic

Chief engine-driver Li Yung was the first hero in this railway epic. He became an odd-job man on the railways at the age of 17; it was not until he was 37 that he became a full-fledged engine-driver. Yet all the 30 years he worked on the railways prior to the liberation of Harbin never brought in enough wages to give his family a decent living. Liberation transformed him from the engine's slave to its master. His whole crew threw themselves into support for the People's Liberation War. Under enemy fire, they took ammunition and other supplies to the front. As the people's army advanced to the liberation of the whole mainland, their slogan was "Where the army goes, there goes our locomotive!" In 1949, Li Yung and his crew of eight were with the first units of the People's Liberation Army as they drove down from the northeast to Peking, and then south to Chengchow.

It was during the war to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea that the crew of the Mao Tar-tuna initiated a nationwide emulation campaign to increase the haulage capacity of locomotives. Its results completely disproved the conservative view that damage would inevitably result if a locomotive hauled more than the optimum tonnage it was originally designed for. By adopting appropriate measures, they greatly increased their engine's haulage capacity and kept it in the lead in the campaign besides increasing its speed. This campaign gave invaluable aid to the Chinese People's Volunteers fighting against the U.S. aggressors in Korea and to construction in China. Under the impetus of the upsurge in socialist transformation in the latter part of the First Five-Year Plan, together with other outstanding locomotive crews, they succeeded in raising haulage capacities even higher.

Li Yung (left), first chief engine-driver of the Mao Tse-tung locomotive, passes on his experience to the present (fourth) chief driver. Tsai Lien-hsing

True to its tradition, the Mao Tse-tung locomotive was again in the lead for speed during the Great Leap Forward. Its crew answered the call to catch up with and surpass Britain in the output of major industrial products in about 15 years (later shortened to around ten years) by setting a new technical speed record for their type of locomotive. This inspired other crews to revise their targets upwards. helping to speed up all railway transport.

Last year. faced with the competition of more modern locomotives, they renovated their engine to such good effect that it surpassed new models in both haulage capacity and technical speed.

This episode is typical of the spirit and way of work of the crews of the Mao Tse-tung locomotive that have literally made it a locomotive pulling the whole of New China's railway transport forward. It is a small saga of revolutionary determination, concentrated study and hard work.

As the Great Leap Forward got under way in 1958, the volume of railway freight naturally increased. To cope with this, all the older engines on the Peking-Shanhaikuan line were replaced by the "Construction" locomotives, China's latest model. The only exception was the Mao Tse-tung locomotive. This veteran had become the only one on the line with relatively out-of-date equipment. This put the crew at a severe disadvantage in emulation drives. Something had to be done. But what?

Beating the New Models

After careful deliberation, they decided to reconstruct the locomotive.

The first step was to find out exactly where they were behind the "Construction" model. First, they compared the blueprints. Next, in working tests driving alongside a "Construction" model. they made detailed comparisons of each separate part. They discovered that the trouble lay chiefly in the relative inefficiency of the old engine's ventilating equipment and its steam valves and in the absence of a hot water pump.

Plans were laid immediately to remedy these defects. With encouragement and help from the Communist Party and experienced workers and technicians, the work of reconstruction went smoothly ahead. When it took to the lines again the old engine's haulage capacity and average speed were not only up to, but actually surpassed those of the "Construction" model.

But this was only a start. The movement for technical innovations and the technical revolution was on in every Chinese enterprise. After the initial technical transformation of the locomotive, it was decided to eliminate all heavy manual labour and streamline operating procedures. This called for automation and semi-automation wherever possible. The crew promptly turned themselves into a scientific research group, analysed the techniques and experience they had learnt as well as those of other crews and studied a mass of relevant technical literature. They wrote eight technical papers of their own and organized meetings for study, instruction and discussion. Every crew member put up new ideas for technical innovations. Like Yu Kung, the Foolish Old Man of the Chinese legend who, by his dogged determination, moved the gods into carrying away for him the two big mountains blocking the way from his house, they set out with the same indomitable will and energy to remove the "two big mountains" barring their path — heavy physical labour and too complex working processes.

They started with modifying individual operations and proceeded from there to studying afresh and modifying an entire process, such as oil, watering, firing, etc. From individual processes they went on to consider all the processes involved in running an engine. In all, they introduced 108 technical innovations on the engine. Every part of it except the boiler and wheels underwent changes.

The most labour-consuming processes -- oiling, watering, firing -- were made automatic. The one, backward-looking face of their engine was practically eliminated. An almost entirely new Mao Tse-tung locomotive emerged from the shed after this transformation. At a competition organised by the Railway Science Institute of the Ministry of Railways, the new Mao Tse-tung locomotive surprised everyone by out-performing all the newer models in speed. reliability, haulage capacity and the way it held the rails under all conditions.

Masters of the Country

There is an old saying: When steel strikes steel there is bound to be an accident. But the wheels of the Mao Tse-tung locomotive have hit the steel rails for 15 years with never a mishap. Rather the opposite, things have gone better and better. Wherein lies the secret?

As one-time chief engine-driver Kuo Shu-teh puts it, it's a matter of a working-class sense of responsibility.

Every crew has shown in action their devotion to the socialist cause, their devotion to the engine their country has entrusted to them. They act as what they are— the liberated working class, masters of their country.

Love of their locomotive has been the fine tradition handed down from crew to crew. Early in the difficult war years, in 1947, Li Yung, the locomotive's first skipper, ransacked his poverty-stricken home to find sack cloth, straw mats and bits of cloth waste it could ill spare to polish up his beloved locomotive. Every member of its crews has kept alive that spirit and way of work. This is an engine polished with love. And it shines bright. Every rule and work procedure is scrupulously followed. For Instance, winter or summer, a check-up is made as soon as the train stops, needed repairs are done immediately or as soon as possible, nothing wrong is left untended. Whenever they have time they give it an extra sprucing up. Each time they set out on their route, they keep in mind a mental picture of every siding, every bridge, every curve and slope on the way so that they are always fully prepared to adjust their speed or take any other action needed. They have built up a wealth of valuable experience in combining speed with safety. In bad weather, they work with even greater concentration.

Strict economy has become a way of work with them. It has given the Mao Tse-tung locomotive exceptional results in economizing coal and oil. Young Lo Chih-hsiang newest addition to the crew who left middle school only a couple of years ago, relates the following Incident that has become an unforgettable part of his education. Once during a stop, he suddenly heard the clang of something hard hitting the cabin floor: it was a chunk of coal about the size of an egg which someone had thrown in. Looking out he discovered engine-driver Hu Chun-tung bent double picking up some pieces of coal that lay on the line. Young Lo says he was struck by the thought: "Hu may be a very skilled driver, but it is really because he values coal more than gold that he has been able to save so much of it!" It is with such examples before him that, like everyone else in the crew, young Lo has learnt to put every piece of coal and every drop of oil to the best. use.

Year after year, month after month, day after day, the crew of the Mao Tse-tung locomotive continues to make careful plans to haul more. to go faster, more efficiently and ever more economically on the socialist transport front.

The Mao Zedong locomotive 2019


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