Taking a Train Trip Down Memory Lane in Indonesia

By webadmin on 08:10 pm Feb 03, 2010
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Sylviana Hamdani

As one of the oldest railway companies in Asia, PT Kereta Api Indonesia —which literally translates to Indonesian Railway Company — boasts of a rich and diverse history.

Ever since the Dutch colonial government laid the first railway track between the city of Semarang and the small town of Tanggung, Grobogan in Central Java on June 17, 1864, railway transportation has been instrumental to the development of urban as well as rural areas.

“The railway system opened up isolated areas and improved the economy of many regions, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra,” Ignasius Jonan, PT KAI’s president director, told a group of journalists on Jan. 16.

“It is also an undeniable fact that for over a century, the railway system has played a monumental role in the development of our nation,” he added.

Over the years, however, trains have fallen out of favor as the riding public has shifted its attention to faster and more comfortable modes of transportation, like cars and airplanes. As a result, many old train stations now stand forgotten and abandoned.

Which is why PT KAI is trying to preserve anything associated with the mode of transport that helped move the nation forward.

PT KAI’s president director established a heritage conservation division within the company on April 1, 2009. Its mission? To restore old train stations, revitalize historical buildings, conserve old steam locomotives and develop heritage railway trails in Java and Sumatra.

“We can never move forward until we have a clear understanding and respect for our historical and cultural heritage,” Ignasius said.

Come July this year, tourists will be able to experience a journey steeped in history by taking the train from Jakarta to Bandung. On Jan. 16, journalists were given a taste of what the trip will be like. Ella Ubaidi, a leading activist in the conservation of Jakarta’s Old Town, is heading the project.

“This [heritage] trip is part of our effort to conserve the extensive historical background of the Indonesian Railway Company,” Ella said. “You’ll also see that we operate an incredible infrastructure network for the railway system.

“We are still finalizing plans and programs for the heritage railway trips. Right now, we are still concentrating on renovating old train stations and historical old buildings that belong to PT KAI,” she added.

I was among the 50 journalists and clients of PT KAI who braved the rain to gather at Jakarta’s Gambir station for a preview of the heritage trip. We were glad to be taking the train, as it is considered safe even in bad weather.

At precisely 9 a.m., our group boarded an Argo Gede train. Out tour guide, Linda, explained the historical landmarks we passed along the way.

The track from Jakarta to Bandung, which runs a distance of 151 kilometers, winds through scenic mountainous areas, with twists and turns that offer views of misty hills, lush green valleys and verdant rice paddies.

“Bandung was still underdeveloped at the time,” Linda said. “Its fertile lands were exploited under the Cultuurstelsel [Dutch colonial plantation policy].”

In the past, Bandung mainly produced coffee and tea. Before the railroad was built, these products were either carried manually or by buffalo-drawn carriages to the banks of the Citarum River, in the south of the city, where they were then transported by boat to Batavia and other regions in Java.

The railway track was built by Dutch private company Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Naatschappij (NIS) in 1884 to help reduce transportation time and costs.

With a 16-degree per mile ascent, the track required massive steam engines with at least 1,000 horsepower. Mallet-type steam locomotive models, such as the BB-10, CC-10, CC-50 and DD-50/51, were brought in for this purpose.

“Local people used to refer to them as si gombal [a street hawker carrying merchandise] because the trains usually climbed slowly up the mountain, with the wagons bursting with fresh produce,” Linda said. “People used to picnic by the railway when the train was scheduled to pass.”

Today, the Parahyangan and Argo Gede trains are powered by diesel locomotives with double-axle engines.

Our train passed over 400 big and small bridges en route to Bandung, including the massive Cikubang and the Cisomang railway bridges.

Stretching 300 meters across the Cikubang River, the Cikubang bridge is the longest span on Java Island. Its massive construction is supported by four steel columns weighing 122 tons each. The Cisomang bridge, at 72 meters high, is currently the highest railway bridge in Indonesia.

One of the highlights of the journey was when we went through the Sasaksaat tunnel, which runs 950 meters across Cipicung village, near Bandung. As the train chugged into the heart of Cidepong hill, it was swallowed by total darkness, with thin fumes from the diesel engines wafting in the air.

“The tunnel was built by thousands of men under the colonial forced labor system from 1902 to 1903. Most of them died because of the heavy workload,” Linda said.

Each year, on Aug. 17, villagers sacrifice a ram in front of the tunnel in the belief that this will appease the spirits.

After three hours, the train arrived at Station Hall in Bandung.

The station consists of two areas. The southern area, which opens on Jalan Kebon Kawung, was built in 1884. Today the building is a little grimy and showing its age, and the facade is obscured by small shops and food vendors blocking the entrance.

In contrast, the northern area of the station, which was built only 10 years ago, is clean and orderly, with lush pine trees lining the parking area.

From Station Hall, we were taken to the main office of PT KAI, on Jalan Perintis Kemerdekaan. The grand Art Deco building is impressive, with a shiny black locomotive, nicknamed Tedi, standing proudly by the front gates.

Manufactured in 1926 by Werkspoor, a Dutch train factory, the TD-1002 locomotive ran 15 kilometers per hour between the cities of Rengasdengklok, Karawang, Cikampek and Cilamaya, carrying crops and merchandise until 1970.

After lunch, we visited Wisma Dayang Sumbi, a property owned by PT KAI, which it uses as a guesthouse for clients.

Originally built in 1927 by Dutch officer Ernst Gerard Oscard Kelling, the old house has been modified to suit its now modern function. An ambitious conservation project is currently under way to restore the building to its original form.

“Over the years, new constructions, such as bathrooms, more rooms and windows, have been added to the original building,” said Saptawan Yunandri, the architect in charge of the restoration project. “This has disrupted the original construction. We have to tear down these new additions in order to restore the old building to its previous condition.”

The restoration project is expected to be completed in May 2010.

“We are planning to use the restored building as a public meeting place, with several meeting rooms, a lounge, cafe and gallery in which directors of PT KAI or any third party can meet up for discussions,” Saptawan said.

Late in the afternoon, we made our way to PT KAI’s warehouse complex in Cikudapateuh. The extensive 45-hectare area consists of 24 railway warehouses that were literally left to ruin after work stopped at the complex.

Ella, PT KAI’s conservation project head, said plans were under way to restore the complex. “In April 2010, we will tender the master plan for this complex,” she said. “We can perhaps convert this area into an expansive railway museum, with old locomotives running around, to take visitors from one location to another within the complex.”

Sugeng Saleh, a representative of Societe Nationale des Chemins de fer Francais (French National Railways), who came along for the heritage ride to Bandung, lauded the effort.

“It’s about time that we pay more respect to our heritage. In France, they have always been concerned with preservation of historical old buildings and heritage sites,” he said. “We should also be going in that direction. It’s better late than never.”