The Legacy of Qinghuayuan

The trains running through this historic railway station honoured my neighbourhood with 27 traffic jams a day.

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Rails but no trains. Wudaokou, Beijing, 6th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

On 22nd October, expat magazine the Beijinger reported the imminent closure of the Railway station closest to Wudaokou, Beijing’s student district. Qinghuayuan station was built in 1910 as part of the line between Beijing and Zhangjiakou, the first ever railway in China.

Until 31st October, two trains stopped at this station every day. One, the #4471, was among the slowest category of trains in China. The 325 kilometer journey between Beijing and Chengde, the location of the Emperor’s summer residence, took 10 hours and cost 25rmb. It stopped at Qinghuayuan for 22 minutes once every day at 9:19am.

The more popular S2 train, between Beijing and two sections of the great wall at Badaling and Yanqing, stopped at Qinghuayuan 26 times daily, costing 7 rmb for the 90 minute journey to one of the country’s largest tourist attractions.

The station was usually empty, as very few passengers chose to catch the train at Qinghuayuan due to its inconvenient location a couple of hundred meters from the North fourth ring road and half way between two distant subway stations. In fact, its existence was rare knowledge among most residents of the area.

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Rails dismantled, Wudaokou, Beijing, 12th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

Those who spend time in Wudaokou, however, will have the frequency of those trains engrained upon their memory. Just north of Qinghuayuan, the tracks cross a major road almost directly under the elevated subway platforms, causing serious traffic jams 27 times a day.

Every closure of the level crossing was audible for a mile in any direction. The female announcement voice, siren, and warning bells rang through the surrounding streets, echoing out a cautionary challenge to travellers: can you get past before the barriers close?

A pair of bored police officers stood around, constantly waiting for their moment to shine. With the wave of a flag ahead of the approaching train, they let the world know, ‘I’m helping the world stay safe.’ Cars, buses, and cabs queued up either side of the crossing while bikes and pedestrians crowded the barriers, everyone raring to go and revving motors as soon as the slow, noisy trains came into view.

Crossing the tracks was always a test of how best to time a journey, how to navigate the crowds, how to chose a route through the oncoming traffic and get past the intersection without stopping at the jolt of blaring sirens.

The end of last month saw the closure of this 106-year-old station and redirection of all trains, away from the busy heart of student city.

The speed with which the railway line has been disassembled is testament to the powerful decision-making going on in the city’s heart. There is no reticence here, no public opinion polls, just action. Once the demolition of this small part of Beijing’s history was wished, it was granted. Imagining the obstructing road might be a hindrance to deconstruction, the quick and constant disintegration of this small part of my home has come as a shock, particularly considering the apparent lack of workers involved in this destruction.

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The end of the line, Wudaokou, Beijing, 12th November 2016 © Cas Sutherland

Where once stood an inconvenient level crossing, which doubled as an unsafe pedestrian walkway, now stand railings dividing foot- and cycle-paths and the busy road. Several meters of metal tracks are still exposed underfoot, embedded in an uneven rubbery surface that pretends to work as a road. The lines of unfettered traffic attest to the improbability of resurfacing. But those tracks lead nowhere, dropping off into piles of rubble at either side of the road, where once-wary hawkers have claimed an extension to their territory.

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No doubt the memory of this old station will soon slip away, lost among disuse and imagination. The building will continue to stand, visible only to those passing above it and watchful enough to actually notice through the steamy windows of the hectic subway. Let the legacy live on.

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