9 August 2008

Ambarawa Railway: Potential World Heritage Site

(Excerpt from: Potential railway world heritage sites in Asia and the Pacific, Robert Lee, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur )

Although an archipelago, Indonesia has an extensive railway system on two of its islands, Java and Sumatra. Until the 1980s there was also a small system on the island of Madura, just off the coast of Java near Surabaya. At their peak, there were 6,458 kilometres of railway in the Netherlands Indies. Both Java and Sumatra have mountainous topography difficult for railway construction. In Java, these mountains are mostly volcanos, the saddles between which have needed to be climbed for railways to connect the flatter and generally more productive parts of the island. Railway services in Java have always been intensive, and remain so, which is scarcely surprising given its current population of more than 130 million. Railways were introduced early into Java, the first line - a 26 kilometre section between Kemijen and Tanggung of what would become the main line from Semarang to Solo and Yogyakarta - being opened on 17 June 1864. This standard-gauge line was built and operated by a private company, the Nederlands Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij or NIS. Ultimately Java's railways were built by a motley collection of twelve private companies and the Government, whose system - the largest - was called the Staats Spoorweg or SS. Although the first NIS line was built to standard gauge, the rest of Java's railways were built to a gauge of 3' 6".

This remained the situation until 1942, when the Japanese occupation authorities unified the railways under a central administration based in Bandung called the Rikuyu Kyoku (Imperial Railways). The Japanese penchant for centralisation extended to gauge: the former NIS line was relaid to 3' 6" gauge and its standard gauge equipment shipped to Manchuria. Except for the period of the Indonesian Revolution between 1945 and 1949, when rival Dutch and Republican railway administrations existed, Java has had a unified railway system, called since 1990 the Perusahaan Umum Kereta Api (Public Railway Company).

Nearly all of Java's railways pass through areas of great scenic beauty, and some cross mountain ravines, often terraces with rice fields, using high steel bridges. The very busy main line between Jakarta and Bandung includes a number of such bridges, all traversed by dozens of passenger trains each day. However, spectacular as this line is, it is difficult to make any claims that it is unique. Such a claim can be made, however, for the nine kilometres of railway between Ambarawa and Bedono, the last surviving fragment of the former SS route between Semarang and Yogyakarta. This too is a transmontane railway. Whereas the NIS standard-gauge line between these two cities took a longer route well to the east to avoid the mass of the two volcanos in the centre of the island, Merapi and Merbabu, the SS line went over the saddle between them and the Dieng Plateau, climbing by rack to an elevation of 711 metres at Bedono.

The history of the line and the motives for its construction are unusual. Ambarawa is strategically located, commanding the pass from the north coast to the central plains, where the remnants of the feudal kingdoms of central Java remain. It was at Ambarawa that the Dutch under Governor General Janssens surrendered to the British under Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1811. The place was and remains an important military centre. Thus the first railway was built to Ambarawa for military reasons. The standard-gauge branch from the NIS main line at Kedungjati was opened on 21 May 1873. An enormous station, relative to the size of the town, formed the terminus. This brick, stucco and iron building still stands and still serves as a railway station, although now patronised largely by tourists rather than the troops of a colonial army. The town was then named Willem I in honour of the Dutch king at the time. This was unusual for the Dutch, who usually retained local names (the other main exceptions in Java were Batavia and Buitenzorg), and reflected the importance and Europeanness with which they regarded the place.

Subsequently, in the first few years of the twentieth century, the government built a line over the mountain saddle to Magelang , headquarters of its colonial army, and from there on to Yogyakarta. This was a 3' 6" gauge line, built to light standards, much of it beside the road, and with a ruling grade of 1 in 12. Thus, for some decades Ambarawa was a break-of-gauge station. A series of five 0-4-2rack locomotives was ordered from Émil Kessler of Esslingen in Germany to work the rack section of the line. They have done so ever since. The railway, conceived in military terms, was never particularly commercially significant, and the mountain section from Ambarawa to Magelang was closed in 1976. However, the rack line was retained as far as Bedono, together with two of the locomotives and a small collection of four-wheel timber coaches, all dating from the first decade of the twentieth century. These are now used to operate a tourist service on the line. Thus the extraordinary station at Ambarawa and the rack line have remained in continuous use since their inception. Moreover, the vast grounds of the station have been put to use as a railway museum, where 21 steam locomotives are now displayed. [1]

Because of its military history and associations with colonialism, the railway has an important yet ambivalent place in Indonesian history and in national consciousness. This is expressed poignantly in a recent novel by Y.B. Mangunwijaya, a Western-educated Indonesian novelist who fought on the side of the Republic during the Revolution of 1945-9. The novel is set largely in and around Magelang. There the railway intruded into the old and spiritually charged landscape of central Java.The narrator, a Javanese officer fighting on the side of the Dutch in the colonial army against the new Indonesian Republic, is facing defeat and contemplates his future and the wisdom of his choice. The proximity of the Buddhist temple of Borobudur and the railway - symbols of the Javanese past and the Dutch-dominated present; of spiritual and material values; of the dichotomy which has touched every Asian society and most Asian hearts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - leads the narrator into a reverie:

“A few meters away from where I sat the railway track crossed the road and curved gracefully in a wide arc across the embankment which towered above the rice paddies. It looked like a giant python seeking its burrow in the Elo River. As it sliced across the rice fields, heedless of the intricately ordered fields that had been built through generations of patient toil, the steel python became a menacing intruder from the world of rationality, an ominous portent that had come to disturb the natural beauty of the surroundings. Yes, this is a beautiful country, I thought. There was no doubt about that. Yet it's a disturbing place, too, because no one can ever really know the contents of its heart, even through the force of an aggressor. Aggressor? Atop fertile farmland had been built an embankment of so many thousand cubic meters whose sole purpose was to support the gravel, ironwood sleepers, and steel rails that make possible the swift journey of another world and a different attitude toward life. Why, I wondered, had the term aggressor come to mind?” [2]

There is a rich irony about the closure of most of this railway in the 1970s. It occurred not because of this railway's aggressively imperial role in a nation's spiritual heartland, but because it did not succeed well enough on its own terms and no longer paid dividends. The fragment that remains is true to Mangunwijaya's description. There are no large bridges, but the sweeping embankments contrast effectively with the tortuous route of the road it parallels. Above all, this is a very intimate railway, slicing through sawah (rice fields) on its lower reaches, brushing past banana and jungle trees as it climbs the volcanos. Its continued operation indicates that it valued, probably more for its aesthetic than historical qualities, by the provincial and railway authorities of Central Java. This it richly deserves.

[1] There is no adequate history of the railways of the Netherlands Indies and the Indonesian Republic. I have relied on personal observation and two published sources, both of which are more concerned with locomotives than anything else. They are Perusahaan Umum Kereta Api, Wilayah Usaha Jawa, Data Lokomotip-lokomotip tua Koleksi Museum Kereta Api, Ambarawa - Jawa Tengah Indonesia, Semarang, PERUMKA, 1996, and A.E. Durrant, PJKA Power Parade, London, Continental Railay Circle, 1972. This paucity of sources has meant that I am unable even to give a an accurate date of opening of the Ambarawa-Bedono section. A date around 1902-3 is most probable, but clearly archival research, either in the Netherlands or Indonesia, is essential to document the site adequately.

[2] Y.B. Mangunwijaya, The Weaverbirds (translated by Thomas M. Hunter), Jakarta, Lontar, 1991, pp. 151-2.

Tjahjono Rahardjo's notes: The Cape gauge (1067 mm) line from Ambarawa to Yogyakarta via Secang and Magelang was not SS but, like the Stephenson gauge (1435 mm) Kedungjati – Ambarawa line, was also NIS.


Potential railway world heritage sites in Asia and the Pacific, Robert Lee, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur: http://www.york.ac.uk/inst/irs/irshome/papers/robert2.htm


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