Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Taking a Train Trip Down Memory Lane in Indonesia

As one of the oldest railway companies in Asia, PT Kereta Api Indonesia —which literally translates to Indonesian Railway Company — boasts of a rich and diverse history.

Ever since the Dutch colonial government laid the first railway track between the city of Semarang and the small town of Tanggung, Grobogan in Central Java on June 17, 1864, railway transportation has been instrumental to the development of urban as well as rural areas.

“The railway system opened up isolated areas and improved the economy of many regions, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra,” Ignasius Jonan, PT KAI’s president director, told a group of journalists on Jan. 16.

Over the years, however, trains have fallen out of favor as the riding public has shifted its attention to faster and more comfortable modes of transportation, like cars and airplanes. As a result, many old train stations now stand forgotten and abandoned.

Which is why PT KAI is trying to preserve anything associated with the mode of transport that helped move the nation forward.

PT KAI’s president director established a heritage conservation division within the company on April 1, 2009. Its mission? To restore old train stations, revitalize historical buildings, conserve old steam locomotives and develop heritage railway trails in Java and Sumatra.

Come July this year, tourists will be able to experience a journey steeped in history by taking the train from Jakarta to Bandung. On Jan. 16, journalists were given a taste of what the trip will be like. Ella Ubaidi, a leading activist in the conservation of Jakarta’s Old Town, is heading the project.

“This [heritage] trip is part of our effort to conserve the extensive historical background of the Indonesian Railway Company,” Ella said. “You’ll also see that we operate an incredible infrastructure network for the railway system.

“We are still finalizing plans and programs for the heritage railway trips. Right now, we are still concentrating on renovating old train stations and historical old buildings that belong to PT KAI,” she added.

I was among the 50 journalists and clients of PT KAI who braved the rain to gather at Jakarta’s Gambir station for a preview of the heritage trip. We were glad to be taking the train, as it is considered safe even in bad weather.

At precisely 9 a.m., our group boarded an Argo Gede train. Out tour guide, Linda, explained the historical landmarks we passed along the way.

The track from Jakarta to Bandung, which runs a distance of 151 kilometers, winds through scenic mountainous areas, with twists and turns that offer views of misty hills, lush green valleys and verdant rice paddies.

“Bandung was still underdeveloped at the time,” Linda said. “Its fertile lands were exploited under the Cultuurstelsel [Dutch colonial plantation policy].”

In the past, Bandung mainly produced coffee and tea. Before the railroad was built, these products were either carried manually or by buffalo-drawn carriages to the banks of the Citarum River, in the south of the city, where they were then transported by boat to Batavia and other regions in Java.

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