8 October 2009

Tracking Railway History in Indonesia - The Jakarta Globe



Members of the IRPS bringing the WH202 locomotive out of its depot. (Photo courtesy of IRPS)

Growing up during the 1950s in Surabaya, Lutfhi Tjahyadi, who is 41, said he had a classic Monopoly board game with a wonderful picture of a green-and-yellow model CC200 diesel locomotive on the cover.

And as a teenager, during a rail journey from Surabaya to Jakarta, he was shocked to see the exact same train go thundering past. His heart beat faster, he said, as he craned his neck out the window to get a better look. “Emotionally, I feel like I have a tie with the train,” he said.

As an adult, Lufthi took a job in Cirebon, West Java, and discovered there were three neglected CC200s in a depot near the city’s train station.

Whenever he could, he would stop by the depot and run his hand reverently over the rusty parts and peeling paintwork of the glorious locomotives of the past. America’s General Electric Company had sold the state railway operator 27 of the hulking CC200 locomotives in 1953.

But by the end of the 20th century, 24 of the CC200 locomotives had been scrapped because they were no longer running at full power.

In 2002, a group of train buffs, initially calling itself Friends of the CC200, received approval from state railway operator PT Kereta Api to restore one of the three locomotives in Cirebon.

At that time, it changed its name to the Indonesian Railway Preservation Society. The group — which is now headquartered in Kota with branch offices in Bandung, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Surabaya and Malang — repaired the CC200 using components from other locomotives and restored the original green-and-yellow color scheme.

“Although only to a limited extent, [the CC200 locomotive] is now operable again,” said Aditya Dwi Laksana, who serves as chairman of the IRPS.

The locomotive is only used to pull broken trains short distances from the Cirebon station or to run errands, he said.

The main purpose of the society, which Lutfhi joined in 2004, is to preserve the history of the country’s trains and railroads. Railroads were introduced early into Java — the first line from Semarang through Solo to Yogyakarta opened in 1864 — and they remain for many the best way of exploring the country, as they thread their way through scenery that changes dramatically, from lowland rice fields to verdant mountains and coast.

The US-based Society of International Railway Travelers in fact offers a rail tour by chartered train through Java, which takes in steam-worked sugar cane railways, as well as the section of track between Ambarawa and Bedono in Central Java — the last surviving fragment of the early route between Semarang and Yogyakarta.

But while there is international interest in the history of Java’s railway network, many local train passengers are less than excited.

Mateta Rijalulhaq, public relations manager of PT Kereta Api, said the state railway operator had negotiated a partnership with the IRPS for the purpose of developing a better appreciation of rail history among the public.

“Their capabilities are much better than our own employees, from the knowledge and passion perspective,” Mateta said, referring to the 200 registered members of the IRPS, whose ages range from 16 to 74.

“And they’re doing this without any orientation toward profit.”

Mateta said the IRPS had helped the railway operator improve “rail culture,” which had become increasingly mired down in vandalism and other disrespectful behavior.

“People don’t buy tickets, they throw rocks at our trains, and there are many more problems on the railway,” he said.

This year the IRPS held the Indonesian Railways Roadshow, which involved setting up photo exhibitions and reading corners with a variety of literature on the railway system, and screening a number of documentaries at train stations in six cities.

Aside from the old and weathered CC200, the railway society has restored two other trains: a diesel-fueled BB200 locomotive, which was found in Semarang, and a WH202, an electric-powered train built in 1925.

Aditya said, “It’s a shame historical trains like these are no longer operable.”

“These locomotives have greater value than just old chunks of iron,” Lufthi said. “They should be preserved for the next generations, so that they can do more than just imagine — so that they can actually see, observe and touch.”

Nur Rahman, 26, fell in love with trains when he lived in a house by tracks and he jumped at the chance to join the IRPS.

“I was looking for a community that might cater to my passion for trains,” he said.

He said belonging to the IRPS had enhanced his knowledge of trains.

“Before, I only studied general things, like how a train starts moving, travels and things like that,” said Nur, who works in a pension fund financial institution.

“But now I learn about the different types of trains — their sizes, their fuel and their assets.”

He said that the IRPS has also given him the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of rail history in a more concrete way.

“I really can’t express my feelings in words,” he said. “[But] it gives me deep satisfaction.”

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