Getting back on the rails
Attention railbuffs on platforms everywhere: Stand by for an important announcement from Grand Gricer Rob Dickinson:
‘China, Java and maybe the Balkans are the last places in the world where the independent traveller can experience real working steam in sufficient quantity to make a special expedition worthwhile.’
Duncan Graham reports on the weird world of the loco lovers who’ll go just about anywhere for a blast of nostalgia, a whiff of woodsmoke and the majestic sight of the monsters which fired the industrial revolution.
Curiously the place to search for records on Java’s old steam locos is neither Indonesia nor Holland, though both have information. The treasures are in Britain where gricers get up a good head of steam.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a gricer as ‘a railway enthusiast, especially one who assiduously seeks out and photographs unusual trains; loosely, a train-spotter’.
An urban dictionary adds: ‘Someone who braves rainy and windy station platforms to catch a glimpse of unusual trains’. Some readers might consider this behavior eccentric. Some readers might be right.
While normal folks see two parallel lines of steel boring in their symmetry, the foundry-hardened gricer detects romance in rail. Gricers are also known as anoraks in Britain (after the hooded windcheaters worn by shivering watchers) – or if they are really posh, ferroequinologists. (Iron horse – get it?)
Retired Java tour guide Rob Dickinson, who probably fits all definitions, runs a gricers’ website from Gloucestershire where he tells all: ‘The only real steam trains left are in Indonesia which has the greatest concentration of working stationary steam engines in the world today’.
He calls them ‘sugar steam’ because they worked the cane farms and mills, and has picture galleries of these splendid triumphs of engineering. A few are puffing like dragons, others disappearing under tangles of green vines, some retired behind chain fences so small boys won’t clamber aboard and realise their fireman fantasies.
Dickinson hasn’t confined his interest to lowland contours – he’s also climbed every peak in Java and used to run tours for gricers from Europe, the US and Japan. He’s also something of a purist who wants to see machines in settings that are ‘natural and real’.
He has little time for dilettantes who want to snap and go – and even less for tourists who toss money around.
Now he writes: ‘Most steam enthusiasts do not have sufficient patience or understanding of the value of real steam … which is rather sad.
‘On the other hand it does keep the numbers of visitors to Java down and as a result, you can visit Java as an independent traveller and expect to receive a warm welcome and no demands for money save the official entry fee charged for access to most of the mill areas which are not in the public domain.’
He and his colleagues, who include Indonesian railfans, have assembled a list of 54 known locations in Central and East Java where several hundred oldtimers rest.
Some sites are graveyards. Engines were imported early last century from 17 manufacturers – mostly in Germany, but a couple from the US (Pennsylvania) and one each from the UK, the Netherlands, France and Belgium.
The oldest known loco in Java was built in 1899 and the last in 1938. One engine came from Britain in 1971 but has since done a Brexit and returned to its homeland, presumably after finding Java full of European machines.
Most stand where their boilers were finally allowed to go cold\; a few have been preserved.
There’s a 1911 Henschel at Taman Mini in Jakarta and another is supposed to be on a tourist railway in Jambi. The rail depot at Cepu between East and Central Java is reported to have the largest concentration of active preserved steam locos in the nation
Few are chuffing through the cane fields – though Dutch steam machinery is still operating in some old sugar mills.
Getting accurate information has been difficult. Many locos have been cannibalised. One outside a mill near Malang carries a Henschel nameplate, though Dickinson says it’s actually an Orenstein & Koppel from Germany. Gricers beware; you could get railroaded.
End of the line
As repairs of the nation’s infrastructure get underway issues of land ownership and access often become roadblocks. Literally.
In the village of Jatinom near the East Java city of Malang a road-widening project is underway to help speed traffic from the Abdul Rachman Saleh airport. This entails bulldozing scores of businesses squatting on the road reserve.
Bamboo-framed warung (roadside cafes), fruit vendors and even stoutly-built shops have been carted or crushed. Apart from natural barriers like rivers, only one major obstacle remains – an ancient 25 tonne loco and its two smaller consorts.
They are owned by local businessman Eko Yudi Irawan who likes to collect – well, just about everything. His café has old radios, telephones, carved timber gateways, wayang Potehi (wooden puppets) a bicycle with a petrol engine that drives a cog on the front tyre, a farmer’s plough – and locomotives.
He had ten. Most have been sold to hotels and entertainment parks, a couple have gone overseas - one to the Netherlands and the other to Norway.
Just as Cuba became a living museum of American fin-tailed gas-guzzlers when borders were closed between the two nations in the 1960s, so old Dutch machinery is still working and drawing admirers from afar.
“Most of the equipment comes from sugar mills,” said Irawan. “Locally they are only worth scrap metal prices, but I like to buy intact and resell. I think I’m the only person doing this in Java.
“Plenty of places have old ships and cars, even aeroplanes. As a child I grew up close to the rail line and watched the trains every day. I want history preserved. I find it sad that so many Indonesians are not interested.”
Unfortunately vandals have hacked off the name plates on the old steam engine, but train-trader Irawan said he’d been told that it had been built in Holland, worked for a century and then shipped to Java in 1915. Till recently it hauled cane to the mill at Kebon Agung, south of Malang
The beast’s provenance sounds exaggerated. Dutch cultural historian Ben de Vries identified the loco as a “crippled C26 (Henschel- Germany) from the area of Kediri, probably Kediri Stoomtram Maatschappij (Kediri Steamtrain Company KSM) around 1900 on the Kediri-Pare-Jombang line.”
Henschel, based in Kassel didn’t start making locos till 1848. The East Java KSM line only opened in the late 19th century, so Irawan’s engine is ancient – though not excessively so.
Last year de Vries produced a report on old locos in Java after a team of European rail experts went to Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Solo, Tegal, Bandung, Semarang and Cepu, gathering information on rolling stock.
They also visited Ambarawa in Central Java, which has a railway museum, though not East Java.
The historians worked on a project called Shared Cultural Heritage. They were invited by the Heritage Conservation and Architecture Design division of the Indonesian railway company Kereta Api Indonesia.
Irawan’s other two engines standing in the way of progress are smaller, lighter and diesel-powered. Both were made by the German company SCHÖMA Christoph Schöttler in the 1970s.
They’re probably too juvenile to attract foreign buyers so will likely feature in recreation parks. Gricers are into wood and water power, not smelly fossil fuels.
Irawan said he’ll clear the land by the end of the year but will have to hire a crane from Surabaya to do the job at a cost of around Rp 25 million (US$2,000).
If a European restorer wants the loco the price will be around Rp 1.5 billion (US$112,000) plus freight. If not it will rust in peace in some distant paddy..
(First published in J-Plus - The Jakarta Post 23 July 2016