Powering China’s Juggernaut: Truckers Hauling Coal
Hunched over his steering wheel, Zhu Dexiu turned the key in the ignition as the engine rumbled awake and his coal truck lurched forward. The journey lasted about 30 feet. Then Mr. Zhu switched off the engine and waited for the next flurry of driving, maybe another 20 minutes off.
It was 2 p.m. His goal was to reach the inspection station here on the eastern border of Shaanxi Province by 10 p.m. All that stood in his way were other battered trucks carrying cinderblock-size chunks of coal destined for China’s east. There were maybe a thousand of them.
The line was five miles long.
”We’ve been waiting in this line for 24 hours,” complained Mr. Zhu, a green towel draped over his head and behind his ears as if he were a beleaguered Egyptian pharaoh. ”We have no choice but to be patient.”
Given China’s status as the workshop of the world, and given that coal, more than anything, is powering that workshop, men like Mr. Zhu could be called the coal-truck drivers of the world. They carry the coal that powers the country’s restaurants, office buildings and high-rises, as well as the factories that make cheap exports for the West.
They also spend hours, sometimes days, waiting in line, a small example of the epic scale, and epic inefficiency, of China’s coal economy. The grimmest barometer of that inefficiency is not measured in hours wasted but in lives lost: nearly 6,000 coal miners died in accidents last year, often in illegal mines where owners sacrificed safety in the rush for profits.
But the journey of the coal driver is a reminder that often beneath the juggernaut of the Chinese economy are three guys squeezed into the cab of a filthy truck hauling coal, a trip multiplied daily by untold thousands. In this fashion ”” one restaurant, one shopping mall or one factory at a time ”” much of China gets its energy.
First, though, the drivers must get out of coal country in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia and neighboring Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces. On a gray, drizzly afternoon in August, Mr. Zhu was part of a small caravan of trucks carrying 90 tons of coal to a karaoke bar and bathhouse in Baoding.
Mr. Zhu had collected his load a day earlier from a small mine in Shenmu, a major coal hub in northern Shaanxi. He estimated that the 260-mile trip to Baoding would take five days, including at least two at the inspection checkpoint in Fugu before he could cross the Yellow River and head east. For a poor province like Shaanxi, the toll collected there is like a tithe for every pebble of black gold leaving its borders: the fee for a ton of coal is about $7.
Drivers see the fee as just another shakedown. On a different morning, just south of the ancient city of Togtoh, in Inner Mongolia, a different caravan of about 20 coal trucks was parked on a roadside. They had sent a scout to a nearby traffic circle to check for a police officer with a reputation for dispensing dubious tickets.
”He’s got to make his quotas,” said one driver, smoking a cigarette as other drivers napped on the road beneath the shaded undercarriages of their trucks. The scout’s job was to notify the other drivers when the officer broke for lunch so the caravan could beat it safely through town. ”Otherwise,” the driver said of the $6 ticket, ”we could not make any money.”
The inspection station in Fugu is an unavoidable bottleneck for the trucks heading east from the mines in Shenmu. Drivers spend so much time waiting that a floating commercial district has arisen on the roadside. Hawkers on bicycles and mopeds peddle Mao amulets, military magazines, spare keys, boiled eggs, noodles and fingernail clippers.
”Corn! Corn!” shouted a woman selling food from the back of one bike.
In their idle time, drivers play cards in the cramped cabs of their trucks or read magazines. Some compare waiting-in-line stories the way other men compare fish stories.
”The longest we had to wait was two weeks,” Mr. Zhu said. ”People set up restaurants beside the road.”
Another driver in the convoy, Li Wenshun, said he once waited in a line that stretched more than 30 miles, all the way back to the mines in Shenmu.
”Before there was a road,” mused Mr. Li, ”there was a line.”
For the Chinese government, bottlenecks in coal transportation are a critical issue partly blamed for power shortages in cities and factory districts along the southern coast. The government has responded by rapidly expanding railroad lines dedicated to coal and upgrading port facilities to expedite sea shipments of coal to power plants and factories in the south.
Experts say those improvements have begun to help ease the bottlenecks. But the demand for coal remains so insatiable that the more informal, and chaotic, network of truckers continues to play a vital role. Coal trucks seem to be everywhere. Anyone who has driven in China knows the not-always-comforting feeling of looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing a coal truck barreling closer.
Mr. Zhu said he now made the trip from Shenmu to Baoding about six times a month, earning about $600. Many of the drivers were once farmers who could not earn $600 in a year and are looking for a way out of rural poverty. ”We have no choice,” said another driver. ”There is no other way out of the countryside.”
On this trip, Mr. Zhu was traveling with a backup driver and his son, an apprentice driver who hopes to have his own coal truck one day. They sat patiently inside the cab as, every hour or so, coal trains whizzed by the paralyzed truck line.
”I like the lifestyle,” said the son, Zhu Dongliang, 20. ”There aren’t that many jobs out there. This is good work.”
If sometimes tedious: a few minutes later, the elder Mr. Zhu cranked up the engine and lurched forward another 30 feet. Then he turned it off.