Master Zhang and his beloved train-- DF9 Quasi High Speed Diesel Locomotive

On August 6, 2022, Car fans from Beijing, Shenzhen and Foshan all kept the appointment and arrived at Jiwuduan Street, Guangzhou----They all agreed to meet Master Zhang at 1pm. At five to thirteen, A white-haired old man riding a electric car shouted at the doorway of the Guangzhou Locomotive Depot: “ Come in, young men!”

The first time I knew about DF9 was early 2022 when I was watching a video about the 170km/h high speed impulse test carried at Beijing Ring Railway Experimental Base. The video was uploaded by a senior of “Guangdong Railway Fans Network”, in which expatiates the full preparations for the operation of DF9 by the research teams from the Ministry of Railways, Qishuyan Locomotive Works, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Changsha Railway Institute, etc. One video comment got my attention, which said the driver has still been living in Guangzhou Locomotive Depot where he used to work at and his name is Zhang Zhongying. The video uploader was very enthusiastic, who forwarded the messages and contact information of Master Zhang to me right after I contacted him.

HIs Railway Career Started at the Age of 15

Master Zhang’s father is a steam train driver who also works in Guangzhou Locomotive Depot. The KD7 steam locomotive that he drove was assisted by UNRRA to assist China’s postwar reconstruction after the end of World War 2. Like most people in that era, Master Zhang dropped out of school after fifth grade and worked as steam locomotive stoker for his father at the age of 15.

When it comes to Master’s father, he had countless stories to tell— such as the iron lunch box from the Republic of China era that he collected.

Master Zhang shows us the lunch box used by his father
Words on the lunch box: Shanghai Lisheng No.1 Manufacturing Factory Twenty fifth years of the Republic of China (1936)

Master Zhang demonstrated to us, “Put the food in first, then find a hook, put the lunch box into a coal-fired combustion chamber- the lunch box will burn red in two or three minutes. Then find a basin of water, put the lunch box into water to cool it down, open the lid, the food will be cooked.” In recent years, The locomotive has been installed with microwave oven which makes it very convenient for locomotive crew to cook meals; but what I did not expect was the cooking method of steam locomotive was so primitive and clever.

An anecdote: Once, Master Zhang’s father came back from the work to Shenzhen and put the laundry soap bought back from Hong Kong with some person’s help into the lunch box. Out of curiosity, Maser Zhang secretly opened the lunch box and dipped some “food” from the lunch box, he wanted to taste the food- thank god it did not harm him for a bit, but he almost swallowed the laundry soap.

This lunch box carried all the expectations of Master Zhang from childhood to adulthood. After he dropped out of school in the fifth grade, he had started bring meals with this lunch box to his father. As he recalled, the station track distribution of Guangzhou Locomotive Depot fifty years ago was almost the same as it is now. When the lunch time arrives, Master Zhang walked to the north end of the locomotive depot and gave the meal to his father. As a reward, his father would bought him into the steam locomotive and drove a round at the turn-around triangle line. If he was lucky, he could adjust the direction of the steam locomotive with the turntable. His father was a person with a sense of humor. His father would covered the brake handle held by his left hand with the long sleeve of his dress and said : I would not tell you my brake secret- In the steam locomotive era, every driver has a secret technique that he can only taught to his disciples, which is the brake secret that their sons should not even know.

Master Zhang’s first job on the train is to be a stoker. He said “ although shoveling coal is a very tiring, I love this job.” He made a analogy to me: the steam locomotive costs 7 tons of coal per hour and a locomotive is equipped with two stokers, which means each person needs to shovel three and a half tons of coal per hour. The frequency of coal shoveling and the amount of coal sent into the burner should be carefully controlled. If the coal is less than it needs, the locomotive will not run; if the coal is more than it needs, the flame can not be in full contact with the air, which can easily cause the crash of the locomotive.

In 1977, Guangzhou Locomotive Depot completely replaced all the locomotives with the main-line diesel locomotives, steam locomotives were successively discontinued and DF4 diesel locomotives were the replacement for the production operation. Maser Zhang remembered it like yesterday- DF4 0001-0012 locomotives are affiliated to Beijing Fengtai Locomotive Depot, the rest are affiliated to Guangzhou Locomotive Depot. Master Zhang’s career as a driver had started a new chapter with Guangzhou Locomotive Depot.

Master Zhang showed us the concrete structure of the steam locomotive

Accidentally Heard Locomotive Test

It was an accident that Master Zhang heard that DF9 diesel locomotive was about to be tested in Beijing. Just like Master Zhang recalled:

It was rare to have a chance to be a locomotive crew for a lifetime. Fighting for the position is hard, I am just lucky to have a chance to participate in the 160km speed test.


In 1990, one night at Shitan Station, Zengcheng, Guangdong. Master Zhang drove his familiar DF4 diesel locomotive on the Guangzhou Shitan Railway. The train formation on that day was scrim instead of the normal the passenger/freight carriages.

“The home signal of Shitan Station is good, Train no.55201 is ready to stop”, Master Zhang confirmed the the home signal at the entrance overbridge and the signal tower.

The engineer on the said interrupted Master Zhang and Said: “ Master Zhang, wait a minute before you enter it. First, pull the handle, accelerate at maximum power till emergency brake at 80km/h, the on-board engineers will measure the brake distance.” Master Zhang complied with confusion. DF4 was a advance locomotive at that time. The train was roaring and rushing into the Shitan Station.

“ Seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eighty! Brake!” The brake wheel sparked with a high-pitched screech. Master Zhang immediately felt frustrated. The main blast line began to supply air to the brake and the air pressure dropped from 600kPa to 300kPa. The train steadily stopped the entrance overbridge of the Shitan Station.

DF4 diesel locomotive that Master Zhang drove, the vehicle fans gave it a nickname: “Watermelon”

“What a badass you are, Master Zhang, What a firm brake you just pulled, this vehicle are so obedient.” On-board engineers said jokingly.

“I have been driving this badass locomotive for more than ten years, of course it obeys me.” Master Zhang is very straightforward and loves add the word “badass” to highlight his exclamatory mood.

“ Master Zhang, tell you a great news, we did this test to make the preparation for our later quasi high speed locomotive test. I think you are great for this job. The new locomotive is called DF9. Qishuyan Locomotive Works has produced a prototype, whose mileages they are testing. Train 0002 will be built soon and will be affiliated to our railway bureau. You will go to Beijing Ring Railway then. Would you like to participate in this great job?”

It was late at night, Master just nodded without even thinking about the significance of the job and his own participating in the locomotive test. He steadily drove the train into the Shitan Station. Shut down, call it a day!

When Master Zhang rested in the staff dorm, he felt that he had missed something. He took out the business card that the on-board engineer gave and signed off by Zhang Duan, bridge engineer, Academy of Railway Sciences, Ministry of Railways. “ Who” Master Zhang sighed, “ I did not expect that this guy is a big shot. Thank god I did not miss anything.”

The next day, Master Zhang drove one train to Sichuan Ziyang Locomotive works and took the newly ordered DF4-3550 and DF4-3554 locomotives back to Guangzhou Locomotive Depot. While resting in Ziyang locomotive works, Master Zhang borrowed the wire phone from the reception. He called Qishuyan Locomotive Works and asked the concrete detailed about DF9 test. It was Li Guoqiang, the director of Qishuyan Institute that received the call at the end of the line.

I directly said I was Zhang Zhongying, a drive from Guangzhou Locomotive Depot and wanted to know the information about the quasi high speed locomotive from your work. He told me the information, I fixed the shuttle without anybody knowing it. After receiving the information, I sent the test locomotive from Qishuyan, Df9-0002 to Beijing Ring Railway. because this locomotive needs to be affiliated to Guangzhou Locomotive Depot and I was the only driver of Guangzhou Railway at that time. So it only makes sense that I drive at the high speed impulse test.

1992: the Fastest Train Driver

DF9-0002 Locomotive under test

What you see is the DF9-0002 locomotive, a test locomotive painted with red. It would break the record of the highest speed in China’s railway history in 1992 and announced the arrival of the era of quasi high-speed [ 160km/h ] passenger trains to Chinese people. Master Zhang is the noble driver, the first railway driver of the all the railway drivers who drove DF9 diesel locomotive that broke the speed record. [160km/h级]

(Continued) It was Master Zhang that has been crowned the title of “the fastest of China railway”, How come? On one hand, Master Zhang accidentally heard the news; one the other hand, all the bosses thought Maser Zhang had paid his dues on locomotive business with stubborn spirit, although was very straightforward, never a man of words and not of deeds, never took no for an answer.

It was said that a new DF9-0002 locomotive that had been sent to Beijing Ring Railway, because the wind pressure appeared abnormal right before the high speed impulse test. The wind pressure of the brake pipe rose from 600kPa to 800kPa. One the brake pipe breaks down, it will cause accident because it can not decelerate when the train reaches a fairly high speed. Not to mention that this was a quasi high speed train test. If the accident occurs at 160km/h, the survival rate of the vehicle and the vehicle crew will be extremely low.

DF9-0002 Locomotive is ready for acceleration test.
The staff at each monitoring point are debugging the device before the test.

The staff of Qishuyan Works had been debugging the device for hours but found out nothing. Master Zhang became a little angry and told the staff to eat. He found out the problem while they were eating- it turned out that it was the air leakage of angle cock of the locomotive that caused the rise of the wind pressure. Master Zhang closed the angle cock that was not properly closed, and the wind pressure of the locomotive returned normal.

In the next 15 days, the DF9 locomotive had carried out acceleration test gradually, from the initial 80km/h to 165km/h and 170km/h. Master Zhang tightly grasped the power handle with his eyes seeing nowhere but the speed indicator. According to Master Zhang, due to the influence of the power of the train, even the southeast wind in Beijing will affect the speed of the train.- the train can usually reach 175km/h at the first semi cycle can usually but can only usually reach 165km/h. The ring railway test base had conducted superelevation treatment for this high speed impulse test, that’s why the train is always inclined on the track. If the speed of the train is not well controlled, there is a risk of turnover.

For Master Zhang, when the train reaches 170km/h, the most dangerous thing is to run through the transition curve on the south and north sides of the ring railway. The Academy of Railway Sciences installed high-speed turnout on the transition curve on the south and north sides of the ring railway with the sole purpose of testing the stability of the new movable turnout under high-speed operation. The switch is made up with wooden sleepers, while the main line of the test is made up with cement sleepers. This is how Master Zhang described the feeling while he went through the movable turnout:once he got to the wooden sleeper, he felt the car sinking; once he got to the cement sleeper, the head of the train lifted up again, which was very unstable. Not to mention this is a curve where the risk of turnover is at the highest.

The most dangerous turnout that Master Zhang ran through thirty years ago
Master Zhang recalled the position of the turnout of the ring railway thirty years later

However, Master Zhang seldom felt afraid.

It was the bosses who were worried. I had already told my family that they would got my body straight to the ancestral grave in Hebei from Beijing if I had an accident. I dropped out of high school when I was young.Although I received the least education, I earned the most money. Besides, there are so many other people in the locomotive, what am I afraid of!

Everybody was running high when the DF9-0002 locomotive reached 170km/h. The train Master Zhang drove had become the fastest train in China for the past five thousand years! Zhang Zhongying, a train driver of Guangzhou Railway bureau, and hundreds of researchers who tackled key problems on quasi high-speed diesel locomotives launched the era of quasi high-speed train in China at Jiuxianqiao Ring Railway, Beijing.

Master Zhang tightly grasped the power handwheel
The train gradually accelerated and reached 170km/h at the end
Master Zhang gave interviews after the test ended


The fully worked protecting wire for the southern section of Beijing Guangzhou Railway had not been built in the 1990s. Many pedestrians usually walked on the center of the railway just it was village lane.there is an interesting rumour inside the railway bureau that every train driver carries several lives. When we asked Master Zhang if the the rumour was true, Master Zhang deeply sighed.

Master Zhang recalled that at early 2000, Mater Zhang drove the DF9 at Qingfengting Tunnel to Pingshi Station in Shaoguan, Guangdong, seeing a mother and her daughter walking in the center of the track far away. He hooted a warning, the mother left the track, but for whatever reason, the daughter was not aware that a train was coming. He hooted warnings over and over again and turned the brake handle to the EB emergency brake position with his left hand. The brake disc of the DF9 sparked, the fan engine was fully supplying the air, and the brake had started to work to the maximum extent. Unfortunately, it failed to prevent the tragedy. When the train fully stopped, the mother realized that her daughter had had an accident. “ Never could I forget the mother’s desperate howling.” Master Zhang told us this story with a sinking heart.

Qingfengting Tunnel of Beijing Guangzhou Railway where the accident happened

An another accident happened in the first day of Hong Kong’s return. Master Zhang drove the DF9 on the Guangzhou Shenzhen Railway and the bosses returning from Jiulong Station was in the train. After departure from the Shenzhen Station, in order to show the high performance of the train, Master Zhang accelerated the train during the Buji Station (Now it is called Shenzhen East Station) and raised the power to the highest level. But what was not expected was that there were two primary school students playing at the end of the Buji’s bend who did not know that the training was coming. Although the effective braking distance is 1100m, it is far less than the distance between the train and the place where two students were playing. Although the situation was helpless, Master Zhang still hooted the warning, released the brake handle off the release position and turned on the emergency braking position. “ After getting off the train, I only saw a crack in the cowcatcher of the DF9 locomotive.” Master Zhang recalled.

During the Spring Festival of 1998, once I drove a temporary train from Guangzhou to Dongguan. At 11pm, the train stopped at the Shitan Station for three minutes, I tried to confirm if the door was closed with my head hanging out the window and saw two girls running towards me. They told me they were kicked off the train by the train conductor because they did not bought the ticket to the Dongguan Station. I thought, who does not want to go home and unite with their families at the Spring Festival. Besides, it was already dark, there were no decent hotels around the Shitan Station, it was not very safe for two little girls in this situation. “ Get on the train and I will take you to DongGuan.” Master Zhang said. The two little girls without tickets sat at the copilot seat for more than one hour. Before arriving at the DongGuan Station, Master Zhang called the signal station to stop the train for the two little girls. “ Right here, can you see the overbridge of the Dongguan Station? You can walk to three where the ouside of is the main road, get off the train quickly! Otherwise, station attendant will catch you two because you do not have tickets.”

If DF9 Has Feelings Like a Horse Does, It will Remember Me For Sure

The group photo of Master Zhang and manufactured parts of DF9 at Qishuyan Locomotive Works
Train Brake

I did not come home after work on New Years’ Eve, so my wife took the kids to meet me and found me at the garage where is at the north end of the station. They found me repairing the train at midnight. I had repaired DF9 many times because I knew which part is the most likely to be broken and which part is the least likely to be broken. The train broke down that night and was detained at the locomotive depot, Guangzhou Locomotive Depot had called the people from the factory to repair the train, but they failed to repair it. Because the maintenance staff only knew the specific structures of each component but did not understood the all the relationships between the parts. I am a jack of all trades and more familiar with all the parts of the locomotive than manufacturer.

“ Give it to me, I will repair the car, go back to eat dumplings.” Master Zhang dismissed the manufacturer’s personnel and tried to find out the broken parts with a flashlight. When he walked into the machine room and found two screws on the ground.- This is the key to the problem. It turned out the screws of the lid of the generator was loosened, the position of the screws had changed and now was leaning against mechanical cabinet. The main circuit were in touch with the ground, so the locomotive can not be started.

“ It is this simple. The lid is attached to to the chassis, causing the whole train touching the ground. I thought the manufacturer’s personnel threw the train into the repair depot without trying to repair it carefully. They thought it was not a big deal whether the train was repaired or not because the train was for the test. They could repair the train the their abilities, but they simply did not want to repair it. I hated to part with this train, which in my opinion was still very useful. Because it is not easy to produce this train. Mr. Fan who designed this DF9 told me how difficult to produce this train and to compete for the right to produce it. It was just like a father only loving one of the two sons. The locomotive works of the Ministry of Railways are like his sons.

There is another reason I love this train. The trains before DF9 all had spherical slide, which were like being placed on the top of slides and vibrated greatly when it ran; DF9 was different, whose body was placed on the spring and tottered like a car when it ran, which was very satisfying. I once said, once something was invented, it needs to be protected even during the test, otherwise, it would gave you lots of headaches.

That’s why I said I believed that if DF9 had feelings just like a horse did, no matter where it went, it would remember me as its first director.

In the second half of 2010, DF9-0001 locomotive were stored at the Shaoguan Operation Works of Guangzhou Locomotive Depot and DF-0002 locomotive were stored at the Guangzhou Operation Works of Guangzhou Locomotive Depot. In December of 2010, Guangzhou Railway Group released the scrapped locomotives’ bidding announcement through China Railway procurement Network and implement online bidding sales for the two DF9 locomotives as scrap metal. In May 2011, the two DF9 locomotives were disassembled.

Df9-0002 locomotive was being disassembled at Guangzhou Locomotive Depot
Now, a she was built where DF9 was disassembled and more train parked

At that time, DF9 used up-lift coupler, which can cause accidents because it was convenient for pedestrian to manipulate. I suggested Li Guoqiang from Qishuyan Institute that all couplers should be changed to be down-lift. Later, the successor of DF9, aka DF11, used down-lift couplers.

As a train driver, my opinions of a locomotive’s usability represents the opinions of 60% or 70% train drivers. Once, the DF12 was on exhibition in Beijing, I told chief designer that I should get on the train and pick holes- For example, I found that sitting on the driver seat of DF12 was not very comfortable. I made another suggestion that a separate lamplet should be set up for the driver, which made it convenient to write time point. All these suggestions were adopted later.

Compromises Behind the Glory

Master Zhang still lived at Guangzhou Locomotive Depot.

He usually travels by electric wheelchairs. The place where DF9 was disassembled in 2011 was less than 200 meters away from the crib he lived.

He usually travels by electric wheelchairs. The place where DF9 was disassembled in 2011 was less than 200 meters away from the crib he lived.

Although I had contributed so much, my bosses paid little attention to me.

After the my participation in DF9 test in Beijing Ring Railway, I has been marginalized by other drivers. This new type of locomotive is given more fuel, which naturally makes it easier for me to win fuel saving award. One of my former co drivers (disciple) told me: “ Master Zhang, all the other drivers marginalized you because you are unwilling to treat the bosses of the locomotive depot.”

Sometimes, DF9 broke down at the locomotive depot. When there is not enough time to call the manufacturer, they only only count on one person, Zhang Zhongying- I knew this locomotive better than everybody else from Guangzhou locomotive depot. After I repaired the train, you would think they would let me run this train out of my reputation. However, the reality was always contrary to my expectations. The shifter told some newbies to run it instead of me.

I refused to come home because I was not sure if the train was totally safe. You were unwilling to let me run it, then I would just sat on the second driver’s cab. I was just worried of the newbie not knowing the switch when the train encounters any failures. At that time I was 40, whose sole focus was DF9 instead of my wife, my daughter or anything else.

Once I drove DF9 to Shenzhen. The train was at a long downhill slope of 18 ‰ to Luohu Station and suddenly were unable to brake due to the breakdown of the air compressor. I told the Shenzhen Station to turn the white signal light on. I would rush into the Shenzhen River if I the train could not stop. Don’t let me drive to Luohu Bridge. It would be very troublesome if the train entered Hong Kong.

Walking With Trains: Half of My Lifetime