Sun, 22 Oct 2000

Semarang's stations have own place in history

By Tjahjono Rahardjo

SEMARANG (JP): It was to be the greatest exposition ever held in the Netherlands East Indies, an unabashed celebration of colonial supremacy.

And the venue was Semarang.

As the colonial administrators drew up their plans for the exposition celebrating the centennial of Dutch independence, they hoped the Koloniale Tentoonstelling would draw many visitors and an influx of revenue to the city.

New hotels and pensions were opened; car rental companies were set up. The city was galvanized into activity for the grand event.

Unfortunately, by the time the exposition opened on Aug. 20, 1914, rumblings of war in Europe, triggered by the assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, cast a dark shadow on the event.

Due to the tense political situation the patron of the exposition, governor general W.F. Idenburg, was unable to attend the opening ceremony. And even though Japan, China, Australia, India, French Indochina and the United States were represented by their respective pavilions, all of the European countries were noticeably missing.

Of the expected million or so visitors, only about 670,000 visited the three-month-long exposition.

Among those who had been excited about the exposition were three railway companies, all privately owned, that served Semarang at that time.

The Nederlandsch-Indies Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS), the Samarang-Joana Stoomtram Maatschappij (SJS) and the Semarang- Cheribon Stoomtram Maatschappij (SCS) were expecting huge numbers of visitors to travel to Semarang on their trains. They vied with each other to be able to give the best service, including constructing new stations.

As early as 1913 the SJS already had a new iron structure built to replace the wooden station building on the same site at Jurnatan that had been in use since 1882. The old station initially served the four-kilometer-long city tramway the company operated to Semarang's Jomblang district, at the foot of the New Candi hills.

Here, in the 1920s, a new, modern housing development was built to the design of the famous architect and town planner Thomas Karsten. This tramway was later extended to the Bulu area and the harbor. The station also served the SJS line that connected Semarang with towns along the eastern coast of Central Java such as Kudus, Pati, Rembang and Juana.

Grand station

The NIS soon followed suit by building a new station but at a completely new location. This grand station, based on a NIS in- house design, came into use on June 1, 1914. The old station at Tambaksari, which was located near the harbor, was the starting point of the first railway in the Netherlands East Indies, the 25-kilometer Semarang to Tanggung line opened in 1867.

It was a small, two-storey building with identical wings on both sides. It was what the Dutch call a kopstation, a typical layout for end-of-the-line stations. Some examples of similar kopstations are the Jakarta Kota Station and the Den Haag Central Station, which are similar in layout but not in size. Unfortunately, to allow for the extension of the line to the new station at Tawang, which was located nearer to the city center, the old Tambaksari Station was pulled down.

The SCS contributed to the station-building spree with the construction of the Semarang West Station at located at Poncol, near the Prince of Orange Fort. This station was officially opened on Aug. 6, 1914, just in time for the Exposition. It was designed by Henri Maclaine-Pont who also designed the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) campus. Formerly, the SCS had a small nondescript station building at Pendrikan, southwest of Poncol.

Pendrikan was never really meant to serve passengers, thus its small size. Instead, SCS trains would continue their journeys along the city tramline and finally stop at the SJS station in Jurnatan.

Of the five railway stations -- Tambaksari, Jurnatan, Pendrikan, Tawang and Poncol -- only the latter two are still extant. Jurnatan stopped being used in 1974 and for a short time it became Semarang's bus station. It was eventually dismantled, with a plan, never realized, to reerect it at Ambarawa Locomotive Museum. Pendrikan is now a dense kampong.

Tawang now still serves as Semarang's main passenger station. All kinds of trains, mainly business and executive class passenger trains, including the pride of the Indonesian railways, the high-speed Argo trains, stop at the station. However, it is facing a constant battle against chronic flooding. Hopefully, the polder system currently being constructed by the municipality will solve the problem once and for all.

Poncol is mainly an economy class and cargo station. It is now a somewhat plain, dull looking edifice, mainly because its large clock and elegant porcelain tile ornaments have been removed. In addition, part of its formerly open platforms have been walled in, and seen from the outside the station has lost most of its light and airy quality. The recent addition of a canopy in front of the entrance has not been of much help either.

Semarang is today the bustling capital of Central Java, known more as a commercial center than a tourist stop. Instead, its near neighbor Yogyakarta has become famed for its tourist attractions.

And it seems highly unlikely that Semarang will have any new station building projects in the near, and even the not so near, future to resemble those of the 1900s. Thus, it would be wise to maintain those which do remain. After all, they are all well designed, soundly constructed edifices in their own right.

The writer works at the Center for Urban Studies, Soegijapranata Catholic University, Semarang.