Thu, 11 Dec 2003

The pain and strain of taking Indonesia's rundown trains

A string of train accidents over the past three weeks, which coincided with the post Idul Fitri holidays, has given rise to concern among the public about safety on our railways. The Jakarta Post's Nana Rukmana takes a closer look at the causes of the accidents, and at how PT KAI is trying to cope with the many problems it faces.

Going by train ... tut ... tut ... tut .... Who wants to join us? To Bandung, Surabaya ..........

All of us know that these words are part of a popular song that is often sung by school children across the nation. The song describes the joy of children when riding on a train.

But recently, the song seems to be rather out of place. A string of accidents occurred on Java's north coast line during the post Idul Fitri holidays, when thousands of people crowded aboard whatever means of transportation was available, including trains, to get home for the holidays.

The first accident happened on Nov. 28, when the economy-class Gaya Baru Malam train derailed at Cisanggarung bridge, which links Central and West Java. The next day, two tank cars from a tanker train carrying diesel overturned some 200 meters east of Tegal railway station.

This was followed by another accident the following day, a Sunday, when the Kertajaya economy-class train derailed in Margadana subdistrict, Tegal, Central Java.

It was the first time in Indonesian history that train accidents occurred on three consecutive days on the same line. Worse, two further derailments occurred last week and on Monday at Senen train station in Jakarta and in Garut regency in West Java respectively. No fatalities were reported in any of the incidents.

But, they led to widespread disruption of rail traffic on the north coast line.

The joyful experience, as described by the song, has vanished and been replaced by one of apprehension.

The public quickly blamed PT Kereta Api Indonesia (PT KAI), the sole train operator in the country, for the accidents. They said that the company had to be held responsible.

But, the company is apparently unwilling to take the blame. They said that they had worked very hard to make sure that travelers would have safe and convenient journeys over the Idul Fitri holidays.

Suhartono, a spokesman for PT KAI's Operations Region III in Cirebon, said that in order to serve the public well his division had rejected all requests from its 1,400 employees to take leave during the holidays. The employees were not allowed to take leave from Nov. 18 to Dec. 7 for the Idul Fitri holidays. The same prohibition will apply from Dec. 20 to Jan. 5 for the Christmas and New Year celebrations.

The ban on leave during the annual holidays is applied every year.

The 1,400 employees work in 34 train stations in Central and West Java, stretching from Tanjung Rasa train station in the West Java town of Karawang to the Central Java town of Brebes, said Suhartono.

On normal days, each station manages to see 84 trains pass through. The frequency of trains increases during the annual holidays.

"Some 100 trains pass through the station in the holidays," said Bidjak, the head of Cirebon station.

He admitted that he was always dogged by anxiety during the holidays because there was a greater change of accidents. His fears were borne out over the recent holidays.

But, Suhartono quickly asserted that the accidents were not caused by human error, rather by obsolete equipment and rolling stock.

"The employees of the company try very hard to remain alert, but the accidents still keep occurring. The accidents stem from the old tracks, the train information system and the age of the rolling stock.

"Maybe human error indirectly contributed to the accidents. But, our preliminary investigations reveal that the accidents were caused by damaged brakes, wheel problems and old tracks," said Suhartono.

He said that, for example, the cars of the Kertajaya train and the tanker train were produced more than 20 years ago, while those of the Gaya Baru Malam train were almost 40 years old.

The poor quality of railway equipment was admitted by the president director of the company, Oemar Berto.

Given the problems faced, the government and PT KAI will immediately discuss an action plan to improve the situation.

The plan includes how to replace old rolling stock, track and cars.

J.A. Barata, a spokesman for the Land Transportation Directorate General at the Ministry of Communications, said that the government would, for example, immediately replace some 500 kilometers of old track.

The government has just built a new double track railroad between Cikampek and Cirebon, which was recently inaugurated by President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

But, that is not enough. The government has to pay attention to the poor salaries paid to PT KAI employees in order to ensure professionalism in their work.

An employee of the company, who has been working with it for seven years, for example, is only paid Rp 900,000 per month (US$105.9).

"The salary and the risks that they have to face in the workplace are from commensurate," said Bidjak.

He said that improving the welfare of employees would help them become more professional, which would in the end reduce the number of train accidents in the country.