Mon, 21 Aug 2000

The wistful ride that started in Semarang

By Tjahjono Rahardjo

SEMARANG (JP): It certainly was not as luxurious as the Venice Simplon Orient Express, nor could it match even a fraction of the speed of the TGV or the Shinkansen. Even by Indonesian standards it was not an impressive train. It was just a slow, third-class train with an antiquated passenger coach that had seen better days and a couple of modified freight cars fitted with benches to accommodate passengers.

A 1957 BB 200 class General Motors diesel locomotive pulled the whole affair. It was no wonder then that when the daily Pekalongan to Surakarta Pandanaran passenger train stopped running a couple of months ago, nobody really seemed to notice.

Yet despite its obscurity, the Pandanaran claims a certain distinction. The Pandanaran was the last passenger train to travel along Indonesia's historically most important railway line. The Semarang to Surakarta and Yogyakarta (the vorstenlanden, or land of the princes) line was the first ever to be built in the then Netherlands Indies.

On June 17, 1864, then governor general Baron Sloet van de Beele officiated a ground-breaking ceremony to start the construction of tracks running 25 km from Semarang to Tanggung. Shortly after its completion on Aug. 10, 1867, King Chulalongkorn of Siam, who was planning to start a railway system in his own country, visited Semarang to have a look at the short line.

Having faced various technical and financial problems, the whole 205 km line was completed in 1873. This included a line for military purposes, the Kedungjati-Tuntang-Ambarawa line, which at the time was called Willem I. This line was later extended to Yogyakarta through Magelang, passing the Merbabu and Merapi volcanoes and the Borobudur temple.

A section of this line, between Jambu, Bedono and Gemawang, is a rack line, the only one in Java. Part of this line, between Ambarawa and Bedono (with plans to extend it to Tuntang), is used occasionally by the vintage Mountain Express to carry tourists.

Meanwhile, Ambarawa station is now a popular locomotive museum. This railway system, built by a private company, the Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS), was to improve communications between the port of Semarang and the agricultural heartland of Central Java. That is why the NIS station was originally located at Tambaksari, near the harbor, while the "new" Tawang Station only started to be used in 1914. It is rather ironic that this historical line was unprofitable, since its main raison d'etre was originally for its economic viability.

The rich and famous

But the NIS trains did not transport agricultural products only. The rich and famous of the day also traveled on these trains. Pakubuwana X of Surakarta (r.1893-1939) for instance, who ruled in sumptuous (albeit impotent) splendor, was a frequent traveler along the NIS line. When he was to be married to Ratu Mas (the Golden Princess), daughter of Sultan Hamengkubuwono VII of Yogyakarta, he rode to Yogyakarta on his private coach decorated with the three colors of the Dutch flag. And when he died in 1939 his last journey to the royal mausoleum at Imogiri was made on a glazed rail-hearse.

The Dutch had tried to dissuade Pakubuwana X from making official tours beyond his tiny realm, as they were afraid that these visits might stir up commoners who still thought of him as the "King of Java". But the wily ruler simply told them that his excursions were "incognito", although this did not prevent him from having an entourage of up to 100 retainers, much to the dismay of the Dutch. Pakubuwana X's private railway carriage, for which incense is burned and flowers are strewn, is now kept at the Surakarta keraton.

Besides the NIS line, which was a real railway, Semarang also saw the construction of the first steam tramway, a light railway unsuitable for heavy and fast traffic, in the East Indies.

Another private company, the Samarang-Joana Stoomtram Matschappij (SJS), built this tramway to connect Semarang with the teakwood forests and oil fields at Cepu.

The SJS terminus in Semarang was the Station Centraal in Jurnatan. Other companies soon followed suit and new tramway lines sprung up in Java and Madura, in Sumatra (Aceh, North Sumatra, West Sumatra and South Sumatra) and even in South Sulawesi, which unfortunately proved to be unprofitable and was closed after a few years.

Among these new tramway lines was the Semarang-Cheribon Stoomtram Matschappij (SCS), connecting Semarang with Cirebon. This was often called the "sugar line" as it served the numerous sugar factories along the north coast of Central Java. The end of the line in Semarang was the Poncol Station. Meanwhile, a city tramway system began its service in 1883, connecting Semarang's Bulu and Jomblang districts via Station Centraal.

Initially, the three privately operated railway lines were completely independent from each other. The three stations were only connected after the NIS moved its station to Tawang. Later, the SCS line was upgraded and became part of the Semarang-Batavia (Jakarta) main line in cooperation with the state railway company, the Staatsspoorwegen (SS). The SCS line is the only surviving (former) tramway in Java today. Other tramways have been closed down because they were unable to compete with other, newer modes of transportation.

The railways had an influence on Semarang's media. A Dutch- language newspaper published in Semarang was the Semarangsch Handel en Advertentieblad. As its name indicates, its content was mainly advertisements. Later, however, when it became a full- fledged daily newspaper, it was renamed De Locomotief. This name was deliberately chosen because it represented progress and innovation. Indeed, De Locomotief developed into one of the most liberal and influential newspapers in the Netherlands Indies.

Heritage sites

As the birthplace of the Indonesian railway system, Semarang has many railway-related heritage sites. Besides the four stations mentioned earlier: Tambaksari, Tawang, Jurnatan (Centraal) and Poncol, there are various railway offices. The most important one is, of course, the former head office of the NIS, which the people of Semarang have lovingly given the nickname of the "Thousand Doors Building".

Then there is the zustermaatschappijen (sister companies) building, the joint offices of the SJS-SCS-Serajoedal Stoomtram Maatschappij. The latter is the operator of the 126 km line from Maos to Wonosobo that passes through the fertile Serayu River valley.

The sister company building was designed by Thomas Karsten, a Dutch architect and town planner who played an important role in the development of Semarang. Among his many designs are the Johar Market, the New Candi settlement and the popular housing complex at Mlaten. All of these projects reflect Karsten's deep appreciation of Indonesian culture as well as his socialist and anticolonialist leanings.

Unfortunately, many of these witnesses of Semarang's past importance as a port city and a center of trade and commerce, such as the Tambaksari and the Jurnatan stations, have disappeared.

In the 1970s Jurnatan station was turned into a bus station, which, from an architectural point of view, was much more attractive than the present nondescript Terboyo bus station located at the eastern edge of the city. Moreover, it was located near the city center, just like intercity and international bus terminals in most cities in the world.

Only in Indonesia, it seems, are bus terminals constantly being pushed out into the periphery. After serving only a couple of years as Semarang's main bus terminal, this airy glass and cast-iron structure that looks a bit like a smaller version of the Gare d'Orsay (now the Musee d'Orsay, which houses an impressive collection of French impressionist paintings) was dismantled. Now in its place is, as you might have guessed, a banal glass office and shopping complex.

The NIS headquarters, one of Semarang's most important landmarks, still exists, but in a very bad state. Besides being closely connected to the history of Indonesia's railways, it was an important scene in Semarang's fierce five-day battle from Oct. 14 to Oct. 19, 1945. This historical and beautiful building is now deserted, its plight uncertain.

Previously, there were plans to turn it into a luxury hotel while maintaining its original appearance, but with the economic crisis (and the fact that the money for this project was supposed to come from people close to the Soeharto family), this plan was abandoned.

The Tawang Station is somewhat more fortunate. The station is still in use and the building is well-maintained. However, it faces serious storms and high-tide flooding. There have been proposals to move its activities to Poncol, but luckily this has been canceled, at least for the time being.

The former SCS station at Poncol is also still in use, though its facade has been slightly altered with the addition of an insensitive canopy that caused some public furor. This station building was designed by Henri Maclaine-Pont, who is better known for his design of the Technische Hogeschool (now the ITB/Bandung Technological Institute) in Bandung, the church at Pohsarang, Kediri and the former SCS head office in Tegal. The luckiest railway edifice is the former zustermaatschappijen office. PT Kereta Api Indonesia, the Indonesian railway company, now occupies it. It is well-maintained and in perfect condition, with no significant changes made to spoil its beauty.

These railway-related legacies are very valuable assets for Semarang. These structures could easily give Semarang the identity that it is now lacking and be a factor to attract visitors to the city.

In many developing countries there are people and groups who share an interest in railway heritage. Given its important position in Indonesia's railway history it would not be too difficult to persuade them to come to Semarang, especially if links are created with other railway heritage artifacts, such as the Ambarawa Locomotive Museum, the Jambu-Gemawang rack line and the large number of still operable steam locomotives found in sugar mills around Semarang and the teak forests of Cepu.

More importantly, however, these conserved legacies will remind us of the cost needed to build the railroads of Indonesia, not just in terms of money, but also human suffering. It will make us remember how the thundering trains of the turn of 20th century Java, ushering a new age of modernity and progress but at the same time increasing colonial dominance, had, for better or worse, irreversibly changed its landscape, not just physically but also economically, culturally and socially. The writer is a researcher at the Center for Urban Studies Soegijapranata Catholic University in Semarang.