Getting around Indonesia offers a number of transport choices, depending on the destination. Excluding driving yourself or hiring a car with driver, there’s train, bus, boat or plane.
A plane may be quicker, depending on delays, but a passenger’s attention is fixed on the departure and arrival. Other transport modes offer a journey, an impression of changing scenery outside and interaction with fellow passengers on board and/or inside.
So on a Friday a few weeks ago, DPQ and I went to Semarang by train, on the Argo Sindoro express (video) which leaves Gambir station at 4pm for Semarang’s Tawang station, and returned on the Sunday on the Argo Muria, which also leaves at 4pm.
It had been some years since I’d caught a train from Gambir and having told my taxi driver to not bother to enter, he then dropped me off a few hundred metres up the road at a locked entrance gate. Ho hum, I thought, as I wandered back. Upon entering the station, I wasn’t prepared for the plethora of franchise coffee and cake shops. Although little more than tarted up warungs, at least they’d paid rental and there was order among the crowds of waiting passengers.
The national railway company, Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI), has also tidied up its act. Railway services [were] often plagued by dirty toilets, ticket scalpers, late arrivals, crowded coaches and vendors on the trains.
Ticket scalpers have been sidelined with e-ticketing via the KAI website, or at Indomaret and Alfamart convenience stores, and only as many as many tickets as there are seats are sold. A further deterrent to ticket scalpers is the matching of the name on tickets with that on ID cards, checked at the entrance to the platforms.
So DPQ and I settled into our aircraft type seats at the front of the train and we left on time and for two hours were able to gaze out of the window at the ribbon development that is Greater Jakarta.
After that, it was night time and we found our eyes drawn to the TV on the wall in front of us. A film, Salt starring Angeline Jolie, which I suspect was a pirated copy, was the first watchable treat, if only for its lengthy chase sequences. The noise of our train rattling along the rails meant that we couldn’t hear any of the dialogue, even from the speakers which were in the luggage racks above and behind our heads.
Among the adverts shown on KATV – yes, KAI has its own in-house in-train TV ‘station’ – was one for a restaurant in Depok, whose station the Argo Sindoro doesn’t pass through, let alone stop at. Another enlightened us with a diagram of KAI’s express train network; this was strangely superimposed on a map of the world!
The next film was entitled ‘Stranger Than Fiction‘; because I didn’t recognise any of the actors, I don’t think it was this one. However, we did hear some of the dialogue, as did most of the passengers, because it got loud.
“Fck you. Gimme the fcking money, a hundred thousand fcking dollars or I’ll fcking kill you!”
There were gunshots too, which to our amusement startled the sleeping passengers.
At some point I sampled KAI cuisine, mie goreng (fried noodles) with a fried egg. This was on a par with airline food, plastic. However it did give us a chance to admire the stewardess/ carriage attendant/ waitress who was neatly turned out in a grey and maroon uniform which are the same colours as the uniform worn in many elementary schools in Indonesia. Ours sported a large glittery brooch on her ‘school’ tie.
Other train staff were also neatly turned out. The ticket inspector’s uniform featured lots of gold braid and a peaked cap. The policeman, however, looked quite drab, but we agreed that he had quite a cushy job.
And so we arrived in Semarang – an hour later than scheduled and were very tired. Our lateness was understandable because delays were caused by continued work on the double track from Jakarta to Surabaya. However, the Deputy Minister of Transportation, Bambang Susantono, did say in April this year that the “Jakarta-Semarang section would be finished and operated before the Muslim`s post-fasting holidays this year.”
The holidays were in early August.
Semerang has a great significance in the development of Indonesia’s railway network. In 1862 the government approved the building of the first railway line in Java, between Semarang and Vorstenlanden, the ‘Kingdom region’ of Yogyakarta and Surakarta and a productive yet virtually inaccessible farming area. The ground breaking of the railway right-of-way began in Semarang on Friday 17th June 1864 and a continuous railway line was in place between Jakarta and Surabaya in 1894.
The journey between the two points took three days, with the actual travel time being 32½ hours, because trains did not run at night, and the presence of different gauges required passengers and goods to be transferred at both Yogyakarta and Surakarta.
A couple of years ago, Dan wrote about travelling across Java by train. I well remember those recent times, thankfully mostly passed.
If you want to know more about the history of Indonesia’s trains, and are in Jakarta, then pop along to Erasmus Huis which is holding an exhibition until 20th October.