I first saw pictures of Jalainur in 'Steam Railway' magazine about 1998 and instantly added it to my list of places in the world
that I was determined to reach before I died!  The so-called 'Big Pit' was a vast open cast coal mine in the far north-west of
China close to the border with Russia.  The scale of the mining operation was breathtaking - as was the number of steam
locomotives that could be seen at any one time.  The railway went from the top of the pit to the bottom in a series of
zig-zags and with a number of other galleries for the removal of overburden it was often possible to see five or six
locomotives one above the other.  The nature of the operation, together with a number of deep mines in the area, called for
a large fleet of fifty or more SY class locomotives.   Over the years the nature of the operation changed with coal no longer
taken all the way out of the pit but rather to a mechanical off-loader about half way up which then raised the coal to the
washery by conveyor belt.  The rails in the pit were moved almost daily to meet operational requirements, with track laying
trains featuring steam driven cranes being a frequent sight.  Explosives were also used to bring down coal seams and trains
with explosives vans were also to be seen entering the pit.  Trains hauling away overburden left the pit behind tender first
locomotives and the waste material was taken to vast dumps surrounding the pit.  It was an amazing operation that was
simply breathtaking in its scale and certainly ranked as one of the great wonders of the steam world.
On arrival at Jalainur it took me a little time to find out how to reach the pit.  I misread the map that I had been given of the
area and found myself somewhat lost in the middle of a snowstorm!  However I was able to hail a passing taxi and having
shown the driver some pictures of the pit he set off and eventually deposited me by the washery.  With the weather steadily
improving I was able to cross the lines and make my way towards the open cast mine.  Despite having seen pictures of the
operation it was still a shock to see this vast operation and to gaze down on the locomotives at work below.  In the picture
above it is possible to see six locomotives at work including one on a passenger working to the bottom of the pit but I have
seen shots with fifteen or more distinct plumes of steam.
Access to the pit was not easy and
being without transport meant a
great deal of 'leg work' but
eventually I found my way to the
west side of the pit and was able to
enjoy the spectacle.  At least seven
SY's can be seen in this shot - three
in the foreground and four more
hauling spoil trains up and out of
the pit.  This was what made the
whole long journey worthwhile -
little did I realise how little time
this operation had left
My first day was largely spent in orientating myself and
finding ways to reach the pit.  It was apparent that one
could not just walk in through the main gate and start
taking photographs although the vast nature of the
operation meant that it was possible to see much of what
was happening from the rim of the open-cast mine.  
However interesting it was to take pictures from the west
side of the pit and try to get shots of the locomotives
'stacked like toys on a shelf' (see right) this was not going
to satisfy me for the week that I had allowed myself at
Jalainur.  Therefore I looked for other ways to enter the
pit (admittedly without official permission) and quickly
realised that many of the workers had their own walking
routes into the pit.  On the following morning I joined
them and before long found myself inside the rim and in
the heart of the action.
At an open-cast mine there is a
continuous requirement to remove
the overburden and other spoil in
order to access the coal seams.  
This meant that in addition to the
coal trains there were numerous
other workings associated with the
running of the whole operation.  
The overburden was constantly
removed by huge excavators which
were serviced by spoil trains.  
These could be easily identified as
they almost always operated with
the locomotive smokebox facing
towards the wagons.  Once loaded
these trains then left the pit by
means of a series of zig-zags which
required the locomotives to
variously pull and propel the
wagons towards the top of the pit.  

In this way the pit is gradually
migrating itself eastwards - the
spoil eventually being used to fill in
the resulting hole.
Coal train, on the other hand, were
almost always operated by
locomotives with the smokebox
facing forward and thus were far
more photographic.  These trains
used to also leave the pit but now a
large conveyor has been built about
half-way down the pit and coal is
offloaded here and taken
underground to the washery.  For
this reason an empty wagon was
always to be found behind the
tender.  Add to this trains carrying
track panels, explosives and short
passenger trains taking workers
down into the pit and a total of
30+ engines might have been be at
work at any one time.
Approximately half way down the
pit was the large coal loading
plant where coal was discharged
from wagons and taken by
conveyor belt up to the washery.  
SY0957 backs its train of loaded
wagons towards the offloading
SY0957 (right) has offloaded its
coal and brings the train of empty
wagons past SY1193 (left) which is
waiting its turn to offload.  On a
busy day there was an almost
continuous stream of trains
arriving from the lower levels and
waiting to load the coal onto the
SY1681 shunts its wagons into the
coal loader whilst SY1193 waits on
the other road ready to bring
forward its train of empty wagons
Having reversed their trains of
loaded wagons into the coal
loading plant, SY1681 and SY0957
wait patiently for the unloading
process to be completed
The reliability of the plant used to
off load the coal and transport it
to the washery was questionable
to say the least.  The coal was side
tipped from wagons onto the
gratings over the conveyor belt
with the orange tractors moving
backwards and forwards forcing
the coal downwards.  On a
number of days the plant broke
down and lines of loaded trains
began to form as it was impossible
to offload their coal.  On at least
one day trains were heading right
out of the mine in order to keep
production moving.
Like many similar industrial
operations, a passenger service
was run to enable workers to
reach the mine and return home
again at the end of the shift.  At
Jalainur this included one train
that descended to the very bottom
of the open cast pit, thus saving
workers a long and arduous climb
up and down.  SY1193 approaches
Dongfanghong with a single coach
morning train from Nanzhan
Even in mid-March temperatures
were below freezing and for much
of my time I was blessed with clear
blue skies.  The biggest problem
was a northerly wind which sweeps
through the pit and often caused
exhaust to blow in front of the
approaching locomotive.  No such
problems however with SY1284 as
it heads down into the pit with a
explosives van separated from the
locomotive by three empty
wagons.  The day would be
punctuated by regular explosions
as the coal seams were blasted
prior to the coal being loaded onto
the trains.
Reaching the lower levels of the pit
was extremely physically
demanding and not without some
small risk but the resultant shots
more than made up for aching
limbs at the end of a long day.  
SY0957 starts the long climb
upwards from the bottom of the
pit with a seven wagon loaded coal
train.  Traces of winter still linger
on in the shadows.
Another shot which gives a clear
idea of the scale of the operation
at Jalainur.  The train on the right
is returning to the coal seam
having visited the coal loading
plant whilst the unidentified SY on
the left is waiting to set back and
then begin the zig-zag climb up the
levels to discharge its load of
freshly dug coal.  In the far
distance can be seen a third
locomotive working a spoil train.
By early April the temperatures
during the day could rise above
freezing leaving rivers of melt water
flowing around the site but at night
these froze again making walking
tricky in places.  SY's1240 and 1681
stand side by side with loaded coal
trains awaiting their turn to offload
From a purely photographic
perspective I tended to focus on
the coal trains as the smokebox
first workings tend to give better
shots but it was impossible to
ignore the constant activity with
the spoil trains.  Here SY1303 sits
patiently as the excavator removes
overburden and places it into
wagons prior to being taken to the
huge dumps surrounding the pit
A clear illustration of the two types
of working in the pit as SY0867 sits
at the head of a train of loaded
coal wagons as an unidentified SY
takes a string of wagons loaded
with spoil in the opposite direction
During my visit in April 2008 there
was considerable activity in the Big
Pit with coal trains every 20
minutes or so- as soon as one train
was loaded by the mechanical
digger it was replaced by the next
and so on.  When the coal
offloader failed (see above) then
trains rapidly began to back-up as
can be seen in this shot of SY1401
standing ahead of a second fully
loaded coal train awaiting the
opportunity to climb the banks to
Another aspect of the workings at
Jalainur were the tracklaying
trains. The nature of the mining
operation meant that new track
had to be laid along galleries for
the spoil trains to clear overburden
and at the coal face lines needed
to be moved as coal was
extracted.  Any map of the pit was
more or less out of date before the
drawing had been finished.  The
cranes themselves were also steam
powered adding to the overall
atmosphere at Jalainur.  
Another shot which is intended to
show the scale of the operation at
Jalainur with the coal offloading
plant dwarfed by its surroundings.  
It was only when preparing this
shot that I realised that in fact
there are THREE locomotives in
this shot - not intentional but a fact
of life at this incredibly busy steam
Photographing near to the coal
offloading plant was always
slightly risky as there was a chance
of being spotted by the security
guards.  However the slight risk
was more than outweighed by the
chance to get shots like this
showing SY1193 slowly reversing
its train into the plant with
another  SY and a steam crane
raising plumes of steam into the
morning sky.  This is one of my
favourite pictures at Jalainur.
Bearing in mind the unofficial nature of my visit to the Big
Pit, I wasn't sure what sort of welcome I would receive from
the many hundreds of workers in the open-cast operations.

Indeed I wasn't even sure whether they were required to
report the presence of foreigners to the security guards.  In
the event there was absolutely no need to worry.  I was
made welcome wherever I went and was soon a regular
visitor to the many control points and maintenance huts
inside the pit.  

There was always a welcome opportunity to warm up next
to the fire and endless cups of green tea to be drunk.

Therefore this small panel of pictures is dedicated to the
men of Jalainur who each played their own small part in the
successful operation of this vast enterprise.  I sincerely hope
that the closure of the rail system at the Big Pit has not
resulted in unemployment and hardship and yet knowing
the situation in such areas I cannot be too hopeful.
In addition to the open-cast operation there was also a network of lines serving several deep mines.  Two of these are situated
to the north of the washery and three to the south.  Locomotives operating trains on these lines were generally separate
from those in the open cast pit and were serviced at Daqiao which is about half a mile west of the main washery at
Dongfanghong.   As might be expected with a system of this size, in such a relatively remote location, the railway also had its
own workshops for the overhaul and repair of the SY fleet

In the early morning locomotives gathered at Daqiao prior to heading off to their various duties on the deep mine system.  
Since most locomotives faced west it made photography difficult due to the angle of the light - a situation which improved as
the day wore on.  There was also a steep gradient between the washery and Daqiao which provided an interesting location
although with the limited number of trains it required some faith to stand around waiting whilst listening to the non-stop
activity taking place in the adjacent open-cast pit.
SY1126 and SY1450 stand side by
side at Daqiao depot in the early
morning light
SY class engines fitted with smoke
deflectors were fairly rare and
SY1416 was one of only four that I
saw in my Chinese travels.  The
locomotive also sported a
decorated smokebox door which
made it even more interesting.
SY1448 stands outside of the
workshops at Daqiao
A panoramic view as SY1600 shunting an enormous train of wagons at the washery at Dongfanghong
SY1416 had acquired a decorated
'cat's whisker' front number plate
by the following day and is seen
here on a train of pit props
climbing the gradient between
Dongfanghong and Daqiao
SY1618 and SY150 in the yard at
Daqiao taking a brief rest in the
afternoon sunshine
SY1618 and SY1416 coupled
together and running light engine
between Daqiao and the washery
Back in the Big Pit and another
chance to catch one train passing
another - in this case SY1210 pulls
alongside SY1689 as it waits to
back down to the coal offloading
The week that I spent at Jalainur was the longest time I spent at any one location in China.  The amount of activity and the
sheer range of photographic opportunities meant that each day brought different views and different opportunities.  It was
indeed the photographic paradise that I had hoped for.  At the time it appeared that the pit would continue to be in operation
for many years to come.  It therefore came as a great surprise to find that less than 18 months later steam was gone from
the Big Pit and almost completely gone from the deep mine system as well.   By December 2009 the railway system in the
open cast mine was finished with steam replaced by trucks and only five SY's were left for shunting and the deep mine system.  
The last report I have seen from Jalainur was in March 2012 when just SY1618 was in steam.
SY0957 running light between
Daqiao and the washery
SY1448 and SY1450 were two
more of the deep mine system
locomotives, seen here standing in
the yard at Dongfanghong
Deep down in the bottom of the
pit SY 1193 sets forward with a
loaded coal train and begins the
convoluted climb up to the coal
offloading plant
A portrait shot of SY1284 as it
works a spoil train tender first out
of the pit
SY3005 on a spoil train.  In a few
moments it will come to a stand
and then propel the train up the
track on the extreme left of the
shot and eventually to the spoil
tips near Nanzhan.  SY3005 was
the only 3xxx series SY at Jalainur
A final shot from Jalainur (in total I
took some 400 pictures during the
week I was there) with SY1257 and
SY1193 standing side by side in
front of the coal offloading plant
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