Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Indonesia's Great Train Story

Long before Jakarta’s streets were jammed with cars, the train had its glory days serving commuters into and out of the capital and across Java. There are around 600 historic railway stations in Java and Sumatra, all built by the colonial Dutch East India Company (VOC) administration in the 19th century. Most of them are not well preserved.

In a recent lecture titled “The Great Train Story,” delivered as part of the Indonesian Heritage Society’s Fall 2011 lecture series, railway restoration expert Ella Ubaidi outlined her vision for reviving Indonesia’s colonial-era stations.

Ella is the executive vice president of the Center for the Preservation of Historic Artifacts (UPPBB), a unit formed in April 2009 under the new management of state railway operator Kereta Api Indonesia.

Over the past two years, UPPBB has revitalized 20 train stations across the country, including the Senen and Jatinegara stations in Central and East Jakarta, and has started work on the Lawang Sewu station in Semarang and the iconic Tugu station in Yogyakarta. Aside from renovating the buildings, old steam engines and wooden carriages have also received a makeover.

Ella said the restoration efforts were intended to boost the image of KAI. For many years, the state railway operator has suffered from a poor reputation due to lax maintenance of railway stations and lines.

“I never used to take the train to commute,” Ella said. “The stations were always dirty, even buying a ticket seemed like a lot of hassle.”

Ella hopes better train stations will boost economic development. She gives the example of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, which still operates as a train station, but has also been renovated to include up-market restaurants and boutiques, while preserving the historic building itself.

Ella said that because KAI has never added any stations to the existing rail network left by the Dutch, all of the stations were considered heritage buildings and were protected by law, even though some have already been abandoned due to their state of disrepair. By law, the buildings cannot be destroyed, but they can be restored.

Ella said the conservation approach for each station was different, depending on the condition of the building. During her studies of historic preservation at the University of Southern California, Ella learned that there are two ways to preserve historic buildings. The first is to preserve the building by documenting its features, such as by taking photographs and videos, and the second is by expansion.

The Louvre Museum in Paris is one example of preserving by expanding.

“It’s very adaptive because we expand according to our needs, but we still get to see the building,” Ella said.

The important thing in preservation, she added, is to see heritage buildings not only as cultural resources, but also as a part of our daily lives. In Semarang, the Lawang Sewu (Thousand Doors) station is one such iconic structure undergoing restoration. Once the central office for the first Dutch railway company, the aging building is undergoing a makeover to become a handicrafts center, shopping arcade and museum.

Picture of Lawang Sewu retored station
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