Lyu Maolin, Lyu Shunping, and Lyu Xiang are three generations of locomotive drivers in Zhengzhou. Over the decades, they sat behind the controls as China upgraded its locomotives from steam engines to high-speed bullet trains.

Lyu Maolin began working at Zhengzhou Locomotive Depot in 1956. Back then, diesel locomotives were gaining popularity rapidly all over the world, but China was still using steam engines imported from other countries.

Lyu Maolin receives an interview at his home in Zhengzhou, capital of central China's Henan province, Sept. 10, 2019. [Photo/China SCIO]
Lyu Maolin started as a new recruit shoveling coals in the engine room. He recalled that the locomotive would burn tons of coal for a trip and pull the carriages at around 30 to 40 kilometers per hour. At that time, it took nearly 20 hours to get from Zhengzhou to Beijing.

After four years, Lyu Maolin became a steam locomotive driver thanks to his dedication to the job, but he admitted that the job was often labelled with being "dirty" and "tiring" in that era.

The hands of steam locomotive drivers were all calloused due to lots of manual labor, with dirt under fingernails. Moreover, he had to deal with long working hours and poor working environment.

A steam locomotive. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]

He described the engine room as a stove in summer, where he would feel scorching heat on his face. When winter came, with view blocked by the frost on the locomotive window, he had to lean out half way to see the way ahead; after a trip, half of his body would be covered with frost but the other half with sweat.

Worse still, equipment like the hatch lamp often broke down, posing threats to safety.

His son Lyu Shunping was luckier. When he became a locomotive driver in 1987, he drove one of the first diesel locomotives in Zhengzhou.

At that time, diesel locomotives had already been operating on routes in some Chinese cities for years. The country had also been continuously attempting to produce its own locomotives.

Compared with steam locomotives his father drove, Lyu Shunping recalled that diesel ones were much cleaner, and capable of a higher speed of 120 kilometers per hour.

In 1997, merely a decade later, Lyu Shunping began to drive electric locomotives. He was amazed by its even faster speed and cleaner space, and he no longer had to put up with the smell of diesel oil.

Lyu Shunping driving an electric locomotive. [Photo courtesy of Lyu Shunping]

It was in the same year that China began the first large-scale acceleration of its regular-speed trains. The speed of China's trains picked up rapidly since then.

Over the ensuing 10 years, China accelerated its regular-speed trains for another five times, adding up to 200 kilometers per hour and above.

Lyu said he is proud of Zhengzhou Locomotive Depot for being the testing ground for speed increases of China's regular-speed trains, with its drivers continuously setting records on existing railway tracks at the time.

"China's railways have been developing fast," Lyu said. "But in my eyes, the recent 10 years was a decade when China's railways developed faster than ever."

In 2016, two China Railway High-speed (CRH) trains, completely built in China, successfully passed by each other at a speed of 420 kilometers per hour, a world record.

"Technology progress in recent years not only allows locomotive drivers to drive more easily, but also offers passengers safer travels," said Lyu Xiang, the youngest of the three generations who became a train driver in 2005.

With automatic signals inside locomotives, drivers can control operation speeds accurately even in foggy days; the protective monitoring devices supported by the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System can help maintain a safe distance between trains operating on the same line.

A CRH train runs on Zhengzhou-Lanzhou Railway in 2017. [Photo/Xinhua]

Like his father did before retirement, Lyu Xiang now drives locomotives frequently between Zhengzhou and Beijing.

Decades later, the route is now traversed by a variety of locomotives, with the fastest — the high-speed Fuxing bullet trains running up to 350 kilometers an hour — taking as little as 2.5 hours to go through the length.

Zhengzhou is developing its railway network into one extending in all directions. Two more railway lines between Zhengzhou and other cities outside Henan province are scheduled to open by the end of this year.

"The trains not only let the three generations of my family to have a fulfilling career and live a satisfactory life, but also allow us and other people to go to other places and see a bigger world in a more convenient way as they become increasingly fast," Lyu Xiang said.

Feng Wei, a retired administrator of Zhengzhou Railway Station, recently took a tour of the newly renovated station with his old colleagues.

Learning about the tour last-minute while visiting his parents in another city, he took a high-speed train and made it to Zhengzhou in less than an hour. That trip when he first began working in 1981, Feng noted, would have taken six hours.

But train speed was not the only thing that has been improved over those years. Although he has only been retired for two years, Feng said he saw great changes in the railway station that is now providing much better experiences for passengers, especially people with young children.

A sign by the entrance shows a map of the station, which now includes an infant care room. The room itself is dressed with warm colors and equipped with infant beds, a sofa, a diaper counter, a washing basin, baby sockets, and a water dispenser.

A children's playground next to the infant care room at Zhengzhou Railway Station. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]

Next to the infant room is a small playground for young children. Hanging from the ceilings are boards updating passengers on departure status, so parents would not miss their trains.

Since 2018, the century-old Zhengzhou Railway Station has invested over 40 million yuan (US$5.65 million) to improve its facilities like waiting lounges, general utilities, and the infant care room.

Feng said, "The higher sense of service lies not just behind the installation of such facilities, but behind the attitudes and behaviors of the station staff, who are always there to offer help."

During the tour, a station guide by an escalator helped a mother with a piece of luggage and a baby in a stroller to take an elevator.

Also on the tour for retirees was Yao Shuying, former deputy Party secretary of Zhengzhou Railway Station. She retired 12 years ago.

As Yao recalled, when she began working here, station workers were often tasked with pushing and shoving passengers to squeeze them into overcrowded trains. Today, their priority is to offer passengers a pleasant and comfortable experience at the station.

A railway worker helps a passenger with her luggage. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]

Among all the changes Yao saw along the tour, the new toilets impressed her the most. Since last year, the station carried out a "toilet revolution" and overhauled its bathrooms.

A new central ventilation system eliminates odors, and passengers at the station no longer complain about the dirty and smelly toilets. There are also facial scanning toilet paper dispensers installed outside the bathrooms.

Yao said these changes were just the tip of an iceberg of improvements the station has made in the past decades.

Seventy years ago, Zhengzhou Railway Station was a few tile-roofed houses. Every day, six trains go through the station, carrying a total of a few hundred passengers. Now, its station building covers 122,000 square meters, and receives and sends out 400 trains during the busiest Spring Festival period. This May Day holiday, 225,000 people went through the station, setting a station record.

People used the 12306 mobile app to find information about the trains and book tickets instead of relying on timetable printouts. Passengers no longer have to wait in the open and get a paper ticket to get into the station. Instead, they could stay in air-conditioned lounges and check in by scanning their ID cards.

A passenger scans her ID card to enter the station. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]

"The improvement of facilities not only get passengers access to more considerate services, but also benefit the station staff," Feng said.

When another retired worker, Zheng Jiping, former Party branch secretary of the operation department of the station, began working here as a switchman in 1982, the switch of railway points relied on manual labor on the spot. Now, it takes the click of a mouse.

A switchman works at Zhengzhou Railway Station in the past. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]
In recent years, the station staff no longer have to be all involved in days with moderate or light snow like they did before. The head of the station could oversee passenger flow in a monitoring center rather than from atop a high platform.

The operation center at Zhengzhou Railway Station. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]

As the faster trains and more comfortable station facilities bring better traveling experiences for passengers and working environment for station staff, it is also bringing Zhengzhou tremendous opportunities for growth. In fact, a historian from the city calls the train industry the reason Zhengzhou recovered after World War II.

"Had there been no trains, Zhengzhou would probably have continued its decline after suffering the strife-torn years," said Zhao Shengfang, a retired annals editor from China Railway Zhengzhou Group.

File photo of Zhao Shengfang. [Photo courtesy of Henan Railway Law Society]

Zhao grew up in a railway worker's family in Zhengzhou and worked for its railway industry all his life. He said that, in the years just before the founding of the People's Republic of China, war had paralyzed the two major railway lines crossing in Zhengzhou. Around 30,000 out of 106,000 people in the city lost their jobs due to the interruption of the railway transportation.

On Oct. 22, 1948, the second day after the liberation of Zhengzhou, the railway transportation between Zhengzhou and Kaifeng, then-provincial capital of Henan, was restored after a long interruption.

The rapid restoration and development of railways afterward offered convenience for the economic and social progress of Zhengzhou and the surrounding regions. The volume of goods moved from the city kept increasing since then and surpassed 10 million metric tons in 1954.

"It was not only about the economy, but also about people's livelihood," Zhao said. As the number of railway workers grew, some people even said, "Railway workers filled half of the city."

Despite working as a record keeper on Zhengzhou's railways, Zhao admitted that changes in the railway industry over the decades happened too fast for him to keep up with them all.

A CRH train. [Photo courtesy of China Railway Zhengzhou Group]

He said he remembers two articles he wrote in 1984 and in 1991, which depicted Zhengzhou's railways as "extending in all directions." What happened over the later years, however, gave him new understanding of those words.

In the past, there were some railway lines connecting Zhengzhou and other cities in the country, but there were also many safety threats and inconveniences, like difficulties in getting a ticket or a seat on a train or finding a train to deliver goods. But now, people can deliver goods by train and go on a trip at almost any time.

Zhao said he is very glad to see Zhengzhou's railways extending in all directions in a real sense now, and connecting the city with the rest of the world.

One route to ramp up the city's international connectivity is the Zhengzhou-Europe Railway Express, which plays an important role on the Silk Road over land. The trains run eight trips in both directions every week and carries a wide variety of high-value goods.

Zhengzhou-Europe Railway Express in 2017. [Photo/Xinhua]

As a railway professional, Zhao takes pride in seeing the city thriving with the rapid development of trains. Meanwhile, the train industry in China as a whole has grown in leaps and bounds over the years.

According to Zhao, China's railways early on were characterized with "small scale" and "backward equipment," and the industry adopted patchy standards of different countries in the past. Since then, the country not only pushed forward many national railway projects of its own and caught up, it also manufactured its own trains, exported them overseas, and has overtaken other countries in this industry.

Zhao said he now looks forward to seeing a new generation of railway workers surpassing the previous ones, and leading the industry as a forerunner.