CHINA, April 11, 2016 (UPI) — China lurches ever forward into a modernized future, but it’s keeping one leg of a train route firmly in its turbulent industrial past.
A short bus or motorcycle taxi ride from Chengdu, the bustling capital of Sichuan Province with more than 14 million residents, the Jiayang Railway trundles back and forth between Shixi and Bagou, site of a former coal mine. It’s the last narrow-gauge steam passenger train service in operation anywhere on the planet, making it a tourist draw.
China built the narrow-gauge steam train line in 1958 to haul coal and the original steam engines are still in use. Covered in rust, they look even older than they are and max out at about 20 mph on the 12-mile stretch of railway.
A train engineer hooks up to passenger carriages at the Shixi depot. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A man smokes a cigarette while waiting to depart Shixi station. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A Jiayang steam train arrives at Yuejin station. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A passenger steam train passes through a tunnel near Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
No one is in a hurry on the Jiayang Railway line. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
As the coal mining faded, so did the towns on the route. Bagou’s population dropped from a peak of 20,000 to about 1,500 today.
Though the train’s tourist draw could keep these towns from further decline, the out-of-time look is part of what makes it such a compelling destination.
Passenger carriages are hitched up at the Shixi depot. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A passenger train chugs past rice paddies on its way to the next village near Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
The train slowly chugs past a small village. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
The Jiayang Railway steams slowly through some of China’s most picturesque countryside. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A sign advertises the passenger steam train ride in Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A farmer walks along the tracks near Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A woman considers the options among passenger cars. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
The trains are a natural draw for train enthusiasts from Britain, Germany, America and Japan, who can choose to ride in air-conditioned cars or in passenger cars used by local residents where seats are not guaranteed. A growing number of Chinese tourists also are making the trip to see a piece of industrial China. One stop along the route still has murals from the cultural revolution.
Passengers cover their mouths and put on face masks as coal smoke billows into their passenger car. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A train passes through a small village where residents take in a game of cards near Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A woman sorts through spent coal from a steam train for pieces that can still be used. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Local residents board full carriages before their steam train departs Jiayang. Air-conditioned tourist cars with guaranteed seats are sometimes available. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Amenities are few aboard the old steam train passenger cars, but that appears to be part of the draw for tourists. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Passengers board a steam train carriage enroute to Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Rail workers remove rocks from the narrow-gauge tracks used by old steam trains in Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A formally dressed rail worker takes a break from track maintenance. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A man cooks up stirfry pork and peppers before passengers board at Shixi station. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Another steam train sits idle on a siding. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A passenger smokes while passing through Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Passengers arrive at Shixi steam train station. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A woman carries her goods along the tracks in Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A resident walks along the tracks through a tunnel in Jiayang. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI