The loneliness of the last steam train spotters
Nostalgic enthusiasts travel the world to photograph the magnificent old steam engines while they still can
Near Ashton, July 1 2023
The mist had barely lifted from the valley and dew gleamed on the rails to Bonnievale. The air was thick with birdsong and the smell of buchu herb.
The track curved around a hillbehind from which a column of steam and black smoke rose into the morning. Over the birdsong came the sound of a steam engine struggling uphill with heavy, plodding exhalations of locomotive breath.
The uneven tempo of the exhaust said the crew were having a hard time of it as the engine’s wheels spun on the wet track. Three figures trudged slowly around the curve, and up the line, sprinkling sand on the rails.
“It’s the dew,” said one, pointing a booted foot at the tracks. “Also the slugs. They make the wheels slip. If you see any, chuck them in the bush.”
Trains do not usually run on Sundays on this forgotten railway, or on many days of the week at all, and especially not steam trains. This one had been hired by German rail photographers wanting to recreate the sight of a typical SA Railways branch line train, and they had paid thousands of euros to do so.
The sight of the steam engine had stopped the traffic on the road below. People stood with their cellphones in the air while their children stared and pointed. At the summit, just 300 slug-slick metres away, a man named Frans and his sheepdog were also waiting for the train.
Frans always wanted to be a train driver but after getting rejection letters for years he went and drove trucks instead. He lived down the road in Ashton, listening for the sound of train hooters so he could run out of the house and watch them roll by.
A few hundred kilometres away, another German tour party was heading home after spending a couple of days photographing steam-hauled charter trains on a lonely branch line near Kimberley.
Their tour leader was a man named Bernd Seiler, a German rail enthusiast and photographer and one of those rare people who has managed to make money, if only a little bit, from arranging steam train excursions in countries where promises are as easily broken as they are made: North Korea. Myanmar. Eritrea. Bulgaria. Zimbabwe. Bosnia. Bulgaria.
Places where red tape flourishes like a Canadian wildfire behind which officials can hide their bafflement and obstruction.
The proposal is simple: Seiler’s clients, many of whom might occupy the more obsessive end of the spectrum of rail oddity, want to photograph trains in their original state, before those railways all went to hell and took the steam engines with them. For Seiler, this has meant a peripatetic life, travelling from one blighted locomotive depot to the next, urging, cajoling, pleading for locomotives and wagons to be fixed and lines to be cleared of bush. It has cost him an untold amount, much of it his own.
“The thing you have to know about Bernd,” a photographer named Florian told me one bitterly cold morning in China, “is that he is funding all the broken railways of the world to keep their steam engines going.
“China, though, was the one place where Seiler did not have to spend his own money fixing steam engines. Because on a railway out of a opencast coal mine in a scruffy town called Sandaoling, the steam engines were the real thing.
It was here, some time in late 2022, at the edge of the Gobi Desert, that the machines invented by a Cornish engineer (and champion wrestler) named Richard Trevithick and which went on to conquer the world, were the last of their sort in daily freight service — filthy, battered Iron Roosters, thrashed to the limit by their crews, day after day, night after night.
In the pit at Sandoaling. Midnight.
It’s deathly quiet down here at the bottom of the pit. Not a breath of the scouring wind bringing the cold from the Tian Shan mountains that you can see only sometimes through the haze of dust and smoke. A light gleams from a small shed by the tracks. A red signal glows. A dog whines.
Seiler stands by the track, hands deep in his pockets. “This is probably my very last time in Sandaoling,” he says. “A place that most people haven ever heard of.”
Seiler first came to the mine in 2004. By then the place was well known, at least by name, to those who cared about the world’s last steam trains.
Sandaoling. A coal town on the edge of the Gobi Desert, halfway betweenUrumqi and Hami in Xinjiang in China’s distant northwest.
There’s a power station, and the ruins of the old town from which the people were moved decades ago to the new town. Only the wind still carried the dust and coal smoke to the new town so why did they bother?
“It used to be a forest,” Seiler says. “Now that forest is beneath our feet.” He and his group were the first steam enthusiasts to come to Sandaoling.
“The people who guided us were really surprised that we wanted to see the pit, the workshop and the depot. They were interested in why we came to this dirty, dusty place. They even took pictures of us.”
It’s different now. Smiles are guarded. CCTV cameras track us as we walk in the streets. A policeman sits all night on a Formica chair in our hotel lobby, smoking one cigarette after another.
The first time Seiler came to Sandoaling, there were 32 steam engines in daily service. By 2017, there were 10. By the time the last steam engines slogged out of the pit with a load of coal some time last year there were only three.
“It’s a mining railway, there’s nothing very special about it,” Seiler says. “But it’s very intense and they work the locomotives very hard, pushing them to the limits of adhesion and power.”
The trains leave the mine every 30 minutes and slog up the side of the old mine. There is no pause to the harsh ragged exhaust beat as they claw their way out of the earth.
The pit itself is a Martian landscape of pitted red earth. There is wind and the distant sound of the excavators scooping coal and always, coming to you on the cold air, the sound of a steam engine working hard or the panting of airbrakes or a lonely train hooter.
Despite the haze and dust, it is still desert light. “You can always get good pictures,” Seiler says. The rest of the group — another German, a Kiwi, a Hollander, three Brits and a taciturn Japanese enthusiast on his 31st visit to the mine — are perched somewhere on the rim of the pit, waiting for the show.
Seiler speaks fondly of his “crazy” clients. “Why would you make a holiday in a coal mine when everyone else is going to the beach or cities or temples and pagodas?”
But these are people who are interested in railways and who are dedicated to getting good pictures of steam locomotives.
In that sense what he offers is little different to wildlife tourists on the back of a game vehicle cooing excitedly over a kill. Both kinds of photography require both skill and no small amount of luck.
Tonight, though, he has bought some luck. The engine crew have been paid to “make sparks” — throw fuel on the fire and open the throttle wide and watch the fire erupt out of the chimney like the exhalation of a dragon.
While we wait he talks about steam engines.
“It’s just a machine. You just put some coal and water in it and it works,” he says. “But they have their own character. Each one sounds a little bit different. When you drive it, some are very tame, some want to be unleashed ...”
The sound of a train hooter cuts through the night.
“Hah,” says Seiler. “It comes.”
He trots off into the darkness. His footsteps awake the slumbering dogs who begin to bark shrilly. With a heavy step, the steam engine begins its slog out of the mine, the rumble of steel wheels under its breath.
Here it comes, gathering speed, breathing smoke and fire and embers with every revolution of its wheels, headlight probing the night darkness. The dogs are furious. The ground vibrates beneath my feet as the engine rolls around the curve and bursts out of the darkness, a river of fire pouring from its chimney.
A muffled shout from the cab as the engine tramps past, a glimpse of figures lit by the orange glow of a the fire, and then the engine and its filthy string of coal hoppers are gone into the night.
For the next 10 minutes there is nothing but the sound of the train working to the summit, its rhythm rising and falling with very bend in the track.
The engine’s beat fades away as it crests the hill and the dogs stop barking.
Then nothing but a whimper and the sound of gravel, loosened by the passing train, clattering down the side of the pit.
• For more on Bernd Seiler’s rail tour trips go to www.farrail.com
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.