China Railway Museum (Zhèngyáng Mén Branch) 中国铁道博物馆正阳门馆

前门东大街
British-built station in the heart of Běijīng houses highly partial account of Chinese railway development

The British-built western terminus of the line to Tiānjīn and on to Manchuria, the smartly-striped brick Zhèngyáng Mén Dōng Chēzhàn (正阳门东车站), began operations in 1906, but in modern times was hidden behind a patina of modern contruction and advertising hoardings and largely forgotten until a renovation in 1999, which reopened it as an electronics shopping mall with a McDonald’s in one corner. This closed in 2005, and the building was renovated yet again in 2008 and eventually reopened in 2010 as an extension of the China Railway Museum.

It lacks the vast locomotives that make its parent attractive, being filled mostly with photographs, diagrams, models, and documents detailing a highly partial history of the development of railways in China. While the building itself is hailed as a fine example of early Chinese railway architecture, no mention is made of the fact that the British both forced its construction on the Qīng and built it. Similarly, the claim that there were 5006.5km of track in China by 1911 omits to mention that this was almost all foreign-built, although the point is to throw into relief the expansion of the railway system after 1949 and its breakneck growth in recent decades.

Unlike at the main museum, the foreign-built line in Shànghǎi of 1876 is admitted to be the first commercial railway. There’s a photograph of it alongside a painting of the first Chinese line of all, a half-kilometre demonstration track constructed by a British businessman called Trent just outside Běijīng’s Xuanwu Mén in 1865. The engine depicted looks similar to Stephenson’s Rocket, pictured just above it.

Zhān Tiānyòu, the engineer on the first entirely Chinese line (Běijīng to Zhāngjiākǒu) in 1905, gets a statue, and there’s a model of his switchback solution to climbing the hills near Bā Dá Lǐng Great Wall (see Zhān Tiānyòu Museum at Bā Dá Lǐng).

Other exhibits include bonds and other documents from the early days of railway development, assorted bits of railway kit, and many early photographs, including ones of the loop of line the foreigners built round the exterior of the northern part of the city, for which many of the enceintes were removed, and the building in which you are standing. It looks as if at some point the station’s clock tower was moved from the southwest to the northwest corner, but in fact this is an early example of China’s approach to ‘preserving’ its heritage.

When the new Běijīng Station opened in September 1959 its forebear became redundant and in 1971 was scheduled for demolition to make way for the Qián Mén metro station. Instead, the main body of the building was taken down and rebuilt on the southern side of the tower in an approximate mirror image of its former self. According to the head of the China Railway Museum, quoted in Beijing Today, the north wall was built using bricks from the original station, but the remainder was recreated in concrete: that’s conservation in China. However, the same source says the station was originally on the west side of Qián Mén Dàjiē and was rebuilt on the east side, although photographs and maps make it clear that the station was always on the east side. Such is ‘expertise’ and media accuracy in China. There was actually a much more modest Belgian-built affair on the west side, now vanished.

Space upstairs is mostly devoted to promoting China’s new high-speed lines without any mention of the assorted scandals that have beset them, including the 2011 arrest of Liú Zhìjūn (刘志军), the Minister of Railways, alleged to have accepted as much as US$250 million in bribes, owned 16 cars and 350 flats, and kept 18 mistresses. The high-speed system had left the Railway Ministry (subsequently disbanded) with ¥1.3 trillion of debt by 2011, and construction largely came to a halt. By the time of his brief trial in 2013, the figure for the Minister’s bribes had miraculously come down to about US$10.5 million. In 2014 he was given a two-year suspended death sentence, likely to be converted to life imprisonment, and China was busily exporting high-speed train technology, and agreed in principle a high-speed line all the way to Moscow. Premier Lǐ Kèqiáng announced in March 2015 that ¥800 billion would be spent on domestic railway construction that year. Maybe it will.

In 2011 a crash between two high-speed trains killed at least 40 people and probably more. In the haste to use excavators to bury the mangled carriages without proper investigation, a newly orphaned two-year-old who had survived the accident narrowly escaped entombment alive, only being rescued 21 hours after the crash at one police captain’s insistence that a final check be made.

Funding has now been restored, and there are photographs of new lines under construction and notes on how travel times have shrunk. As recently as 1997 Běijīng to Shànghǎi took 17hrs 26mins. By 2007 this had been reduced to 9hrs 59mins and is now given as 7hrs 27mins. In fact the museum hasn’t kept up to speed itself: the fastest journey is actually 4hrs 58mins. There are several models on display and a mock-up that can be boarded for a five-minute video-recreation of a journey (¥10; half-hourly from 9.30am, hourly in the afternoon).

The basement has giant table models of long sections of track, stations, and bridges, together with vast wide-screen videos of trains zooming through the countryside to stirring music. Shops have trains of various types and sizes, from little toys for ¥40 up to seriously detailed models for thousands of ¥RMB.

Zhōngguó Tiědào Bówùguǎn Zhèngyáng Mén Guǎn, Qián Mén Dōng Dàjiē, t 6705 1638, www.china-rail.org, 9am–4pm, Tue–Sun. ¥20. m Qián Mén (Line 2) exit B. b to 前门: 快速公交1线, 专1, 专2, 特4, 5, 特7, 8, 特11, 17, 20, 22, 48, 59, 66, 67, 69, 71, 82, 93, 120, 126, 301, 723, 729.

The various sights of Tiān’ān Mén Square are immediately north, the Běijīng Planning Exhibition Hall immediately east, and the shopping round Dà Zhàlàn Jiē (Dà Shílànr) and various restaurants a short distance south down Qián Mén Dàjiē.

Related: There’s a rail ticket office just to the right of the entrance (8am–10pm, Mon–Fri). A mock-up of the tram system that used to run all over the city has now been re-installed in the recently pedestrianized and reconstructed Qián Mén Dàjiē running to the south. ¥20 per ride.

A steam-hauled predecessor of the metro ran along a strip of empty space between the city walls and a now drained and filled-in moat that ran parallel to them, looping south around the enceinte of the Zhèngyáng Mén. One signal box built for the line has been reopened as a cafe in the Míng City Wall Ruins Park about ten minutes’ walk east. The main China Railway Museum, northeast of the city centre, has a large and impressive collection of historic locomotives.

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