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As the sustained, piercing whistle blows, a green train rumbles into the station. From atop the platform, 63-year-old Liu squints and fumbles with his cell phone, mumbling, “Yup, right on time.”
Liu differs from others who rush to the train before it stops. He is almost the last to approach the door, carrying some 50 kilograms of vegetables in two baskets. Liu finally makes big sudden strides and boards the train with the help of an attendant.
The train begins moving just as Liu sits down, and he leaves his baskets packed in the aisle.
The train that Liu and other vegetable growers take is the only of its kind in the city of Wuhan, the provincial seat of Hubei. A couple of years ago, passengers paid 1.5 yuan for a ticket; but today it is free. Everyday, they transport freshly harvested vegetables from the field to the downtown market. The train then sends them home at sunset along with empty baskets and thicker wallets.
Though relatively small, the train is well staffed by a crew of nine, including the driver, conductor, attendants, inspector, and engineer. Every day, it shuttles between suburban Wuhan and downtown, passing 21 stops during its three-hour journey. The line originally served railway employees’ daily commute, but over time more and more vegetable growers joined them.
I boarded at 7:08 a.m., eager to witness the trip first-hand.
As soon as she stepped on the train, a 70-year-old woman skillfully tied up flowering Chinese cabbages with straw. “I’m just too old for this,” she sighed. “Each of the baskets weighs about 25 kilos.”
While inspecting the aisle, Conductor Zhong Shourong occasionally moved baskets to make space for people to pass. “Please don’t block the aisle,” she urged. In the six years since Zhong took this job, she has become acquainted with many of the regular passengers. “I feel like there are fewer vegetable growers than before,” she remarked.
“It could be due to the decrease of arable land because of urbanization,” explained Liu. “Along with my wife, I farm 670 square meters of land. My two sons are working in the city. My wife has been shouldering vegetables all her life, and she can’t really continue such heavy loads because she has a deformed vertebrate.”
According to Liu, dozens of households in his village grow vegetables. The cost of transport with farm vehicles would completely consume their profit margin. This is why the passengers prefer the “green” train. Everyday they can take home up to 100 yuan.
“Young people today don’t want to grow vegetables,” Liu added, “and we’re too old for this. Someday no one will farm because of the fields lost to urbanization and railway construction. Nevertheless, we’ll be fine with our pension.”
As the green train chugs leisurely between rural and urban Wuhan, it seems to travel back and forth through time, witnessing both the vanishing and appearing, old and new, begging the question: “Who will continue growing vegetables when all the farmers retire?”