Three years ago, locomotive crews on a regular run from this center of China's transportation system liked to stop the train beside a rice field and go off to buy chickens at a favorite market.

A few months later, with Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung dead and the political turmoil he inspired coming somewhat under control, Peking sent out a tough Army general, Guo Weicheng, to straighten up the mess here.

In this historic, tree-shaded town where China's key north-south and east-west rail lines meet, Guo's junior officers lectured train crews on their responsibilities, troublemakers were weeded out, and chronic political squabbles quashed.

As a somewhat dubious reward for his success, Guo was promoted to minister of railway, overseeing one of China's most trouble-ridden industries which, however, is also the lifeblood of its economy.

With far more miles of train track than paved roads, China cannot afford the chronic breakdowns that have affected the huge railyard here for the past severl years. Under Guo's military-style direction, the system has reported steady progress in the last three years. The New China News Agency said 20 million more tons of goods were transported by rail this year through Dec. 26 than last year. But compared to a tonnage of 1.08 billion, this is a comparatively small improvement. A 5 percent increase in passengers in the same period is also small, and indicates a system using old equipment straining at the seams.

Du Po, an official of the Zhengzhou railway bureau, interviewed here, said he could provide no statistics on improvement in the bureau's tonnage record over the last three years, although he insisted much improvement had been made.

Both a foreign diplomat and I were turned down when we requested to see the depot repair yards, sites of the most serious production problems in the past. Some recent official calls for increased Army guards at public places seemed to be designed to reduce thievery and other problems around rail stations.

Other official complaints suggest that much of the problem stems from the generally lackadaisical treatment of state property by peasants, who are the railroad's neighbors over most of the 34,000 miles of track now in existence in China. A letter to the People's Daily from an inspector on the Huaihua rail line said peasants had cultivated slopes so close to the line that a landslide resulted, stopping trains for a day and a half.

"Illegal automobile crossings at some points on the rail lines have caused repeated collsions of trains with motor cars," the writer, Zeng Gingshui, said. Peasants tethered cows within 10 yards of the track, causing serious damage to one train when it hit a cow. At other places, signal poles along six miles of track and trees along four miles of track were spirited away, apparently by peasants affected by China's great scarcity of wood.

"We do need to increase our production and improve our work," said Du, the railway bureau official here. But generally speaking our work now is smooth."

The rail workers in this city have an old revolutionary heritage, beginning with a rail strike in 1923 that is honored by a huge tower in the center of town. The train crews have remained confident of their status in a Marxist society and ability to coordinate action quickly through the whole country when new policies bother them.

Guo, the rail minister, reported last fall an intense effort to solve the crew's chronic complaint of bad equipment. New tracks and electrification, Guo said, would expand capacity 50 to 100 percent. He admitted that steam locomotives still predominate, but said the Chinese are shopping in Europe and Japan for more modern equipment.

Whether all political squabbles have been solved is uncertain. Du refused to name major culprits of the 1976 troubles, a sign that final verdicts are not in. It was enough to say, he said, that "All trains now run on time."