Sat, 04 Aug 2001

Streetcars: Riding the rails in Batavia

By Ida Indawati Khouw

Young Jakartans might be surprised to know that the capital city once boasted a streetcar service, but it will do you no good now trying to find the tracks. The 83rd article in our Batavia series tries to uncover the history of Jakarta's streetcars.

JAKARTA (JP): Traffic jams have become synonymous with the country's capital as the city administration seems to be incapable of getting beyond the discussion stage for a mass rapid transportation system for Jakarta's 10 million inhabitants.

By contrast, in the past Jakartans were lucky enough to be able to enjoy comfortable transportation by streetcar.

Senior residents still remember the good old days when they traveled around Batavia (as Jakarta was known in the Dutch days) on the streetcars.

"I never missed the chance to travel around Batavia when I had a dagkart (one-day ticket), which was usually given to me by visiting relatives. I usually took a tram and just rode along until it reached the terminus," said Louis Hilman, a 74-year-old native of Meester-Cornelis (now the Jatinegara area in East Jakarta).

"The streetcars were an environmentally friendly means of transportation. It's a pity that the city administration couldn't manage the system well so that it was forced to close down," said Firman Lubis, 58, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia who loves to collect data on Batavia.

Only those who were alive before the 1960s had the privilege of riding on Jakarta's streetcars as the service closed down in 1962.

First streetcar

Streetcars were first introduced to Batavia in 1869. The original streetcars were horse-drawn and served the downtown Kota area and Weltevreden (Gambir) link to Amsterdamsche Poort (then located on Jl. Tongkol in downtown Kota but now demolished), Molenvliet (Jl. Gajah Mada and Jl. Hayam Wuruk) and Harmonie, according to the book Trams en Tramlijnen, de Elektrische Stadstrams op Java (Streetcars and Streetcar Lines, the Electric Streetcars of Java) by H.J.A. Duparc.

"In the tropical land, though, the use of horses to pull trams is far from suitable .... In the course of one particular year 54 horses died and the company began to look for a more reliable form of energy. In those days, steam was the only answer," Duparc said.

Thus, starting in 1881 the horse-drawn streetcars were phased out and steam-driven ones were introduced.

An interesting type of wagon was the so-called pikolan wagon. These simple floors-on-wheels were used for the transportation of freight and livestock -- such as fish and goats -- and the traders who owned them.

The pikolan wagon was so much in demand that the number of these special wagons soon had to be increased.

"Another local aspect of the streetcars was the use of peanut oil as a lubricant," wrote Duparc.

One who once experienced riding on a steam-powered streetcar was John Schlechter, a Dutchman who once lived on Kerkstraat (Jl. Jatinegara Timur, East Jakarta).

"The steam locomotive with the pikolan wagon and passenger cars passed our house every 15 minutes, coming from Pasar Ikan (in Kota), and passing through Molenvliet, Harmonie, Rijswijk (Jl. Veteran), Waterlooplein (the Lapangan Banteng area), Senen, Kramat and Matraman," said the 78-year-old who now resides in the East Java town of Prigen.

According to Sclechter, the lengthy trip could be covered in less than an hour if nothing untoward happened to the locomotive, while the ticket price was seven cents.

The disadvantages of steam power are also highlighted by Duparc, such as when the steam pressure fell too much or the tram stalled somewhere in the middle of the line due to a sudden downpour. The disgruntled passengers would have to remain in the car while waiting for assistance.

Duparc noted that once, on March 6, 1906, though, the opposite happened and an oversupply of steam pumped at the Kramat workshop (in Central Jakarta) caused the engine to explode.

The new electric-streetcar service was introduced on Apr. 10, 1899, and the city of Batavia could feel proud as it was hot on the heels of the motherland, Holland. There, the first electric streetcar line began operating on the Harlem-Zandvoort line only in July 1899.

Following the switch to electric power, the streetcar network began to be further developed. The layout of the main line, however, continued to resemble an inverted question mark.

A 1941's map of the city's streetcar network showed that it was made up of five lines with the longest one being Line 1 serving the Pasar Ikan to Kampung Melayu route. Meanwhile, Line 2 served the Harmonie to Menteng route, Line 3 the Jembatan Lima to Kramat route, Line 4 the Pasar Ikan to Tanah Abang route, and Line 5 the Tanah Abang to Jembatan Merah route.

A complete journey from terminus to terminus would take almost an hour, and on the 13 sets of streetcar services, the streetcars operated at 10-minute intervals, Duparc said.

Louis said that before the Japanese era, most passengers were well-disciplined and that the streetcars were properly maintained. "It was fine for even middle- and higher-class people to ride the streetcars. Indeed, such people would take the first class car."

Three classes

At that time the streetcars had three classes. Those who purchased a 10-cent ticket could go first class (mostly Europeans), while second class cost about seven cents. Those in third class only had to pay four cents.

"But actually, there was no major distinction between the three classes, only that the higher classes had more seats and were equipped with ceiling fans (for first and second classes)," Louis said.

Regarding the streetcar classes, senior journalist Mochtar Lubis, 79, described how racism was experienced by indigenous Indonesians.

"I really loved traveling by streetcar as besides being cheap it was also practical ... I often took the first class car, just to make the Dutch around me uneasy. They would stare at me and I would stare back at them. They couldn't do anything because I'd paid for a first class ticket," he said in the introduction to his book Hikayat Jakarta (Tale of Jakarta).

Actually, the "racial" policy dated back to 1887 when the Dutch introduced special carriages called "second class inlanders (natives)".

Louis said the streetcars were slow, especially those that stopped at every streetcar halt. "I think there were tram stops every 300 meters to 400 meters along Kramat, Salemba, Matraman and Meester Cornelis. That's why it took about half an hour from my house to Senen."

While the arrival of a streetcar was signaled by the sounding of a bell, "the unique aspect was that the streetcar drivers were forbidden from sounding the bell when passing residential areas during the siesta hours between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.," Louis recalled.

Another anecdote concerning the streetcars was shared by Schlecter, "There was a toekang sodok, a man who walked the rails poking with a stick for stones or other things that could endangered the streetcars.

"My (late) father used to say 'if you grow lazy, you'll become a toekang sodok', which was a low paying job," he said.

Nevertheless, the streetcars were loved by the public. During the annual Pasar Gambir festival at Koningsplein (Monas square), special services were added and the frequency was also increased.

But cases of fare-dodging were common. Louis remembered that a gang of his school friends sometimes cheated the streetcar conductors.

"Anytime a conductor approached, my friends would get off at the next stop and continue their journey on another streetcar," he said.

To solve the problem of fare evaders, the streetcar company then built wooden ticket kiosks at some busy stops.

During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the streetcar system was reduced to a ruinous condition. Schlechter, who came back from the Netherlands in 1951, witnessed that there were too many people on the wagons and hanging onto the stars, while pickpockets were everywhere.

The service deteriorated even further because sometimes sidewalk vendors, for instance in the Senen market area, sold their wares close to the rails, said Firman Lubis.

"Jakarta's streets were also crowded with pedicabs, oplet (small buses) and other small transportation vehicles," said Lubis, who at that time resided in the Guntur area of Central Jakarta.

In mid-1951, the mayor of Jakarta, Sjamsuridjal, made it known that the time had come for the streetcars to be replaced by buses.

"After 91 years of service, the streetcars had to make way for buses. By 1960, only one streetcar line remained connecting Kramat and Djatinegara. The service lasted until 1962, when Salemba and Matraman were enlarged for the 1962 Asian Games, marking the death knell for the last streetcar service in the city," Duparc noted.