The railway is in a vast open cast coal mine in Inner Mongolia. Many of the trains are based on an American design from the 1920s, which were still being built in China until about a decade ago. But by spring this year all the trains in the mine were finally scrapped, passed over as inefficient and costly, and replaced by modern dump trucks.
The mining town is called Zhalai Nouer.
The town is rich in coal, and its main landmark is a massive open cast coal mine, nearly four kilometers long, called Lutien mine. There were still around forty steam trains working day and night in the mine when I was there. But in the past, more than double that number had operated in the pit.
The mine is built as a series of steps, with track that runs in rings leading down to the bottom. In recent years the mine had become an attraction for railway enthusiasts from all over the world: Australia, South Africa, Germany, Britain and America. Now they were lamenting the imminent passing of the trains. "It's the last great steam show left on earth," one of them told me mournfully.
At Sherjiang deep mine I met two women who operate the heavy cable drum that pulls the coal wagons up to the surface. The room they worked in seemed totally at odds with the nature of their work: there was a shiny marble floor, velvet curtains and brightly painted machinery.
By contrast, the nearby train repair workshop was a massive old hanger with its interior blackened by years of soot and grime. I was surprised to find a group of Chinese train spotters there too. They were smartly dressed and had come by coach from the nearest major town. They flaunted the latest digital cameras. These people had money. They seemed to represent the new China and were keen to show it. But the railway workers they photographed seemed to represent the past and all it stood for. For me, the divide between the two could not have been sharper.
— Ollie Woods