The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, January 05, 2019


BTW: Retraining the nation

When did you last see a newspaper photo of young men sitting on the roof of an Indonesian train?

It used to be a standard image, an editor’s pick to illustrate an ill-disciplined transport system.

Here was visual proof that the bureaucracy couldn’t cope, as iconic as today’s snaps of rivers polluted with plastic showing indifference to the environment.

A few years ago an official with the Government’s rail network Kereta Api Indonesia told bemused reporters that all attempts to dissuade kids from climbing on carriages, from shouting to hosing, didn’t work.

Yet something eventually did, because the only men now seen on train roofs are crews refilling water tanks.

Other changes have shunted in, mainly without an air-horn blast.  Farewellers now have to kiss and cry outside; platforms are for passengers only.  There’s space to move and seats to relax.

Barriers have been built and soft entry points policed. Indonesia isn’t China where all tracks are fenced and trespassers pursued, but it’s now more difficult to jump the rattler.

Asongan, the itinerant sellers of everything a prepared traveler doesn’t need and who used to prowl the aisles looking for lonely handbags, have also been railroaded.

The seat allocated is the one you get. Confusion is rare. So is trash. No smoking. Much rolling stock is old and basic but it’s kept clean in and out.

Most surprising of all – the trains leave on time.

Veteran Australian journalist Frank Palmos, who lived in Jakarta in the early 1960s, tells of waiting hours for trains.  When one arrived as scheduled, Frank congratulated the driver.

‘Don’t say that,’ the official replied. ‘This is yesterday’s train.’

KAI no longer tolerates jam karet (rubber time); it’s being run more like a good airline. Maybe that needs rephrasing: a few airlines should study the train system for ideas on efficiency.

How did these wonders come to pass?  Presumably management determination and sustained administrative will.

Your correspondent is no covert operative for KAI paid to promote, but an ordinary sore-back user.  Several thousand kilometers in economy and executive class criss-crossing Java are his qualification to clap – and boo.

Slow check-ins create queues of anxious passengers as too few staff squint at ID cards and tickets.  There are too many baton-carrying guards looking for trouble where none exists.  These might help create a sense of security, but seem to be overkill – probably not the best word to use.

Maybe they’re needed when soccer hooligans think following the beautiful game is an excuse for ugly behavior.  However incidents are rare and linked to finals, not everyday travel.

By contrast, the stationmasters with their chic French Gendarmerie caps do look reassuring.

Journeys still take too long compared with overseas, though to be fair many delays are caused by infrastructure program track work. 

Annoyance at an unexpected stop is softened when the cause is seen – a new bridge and extra rails so the future iron horses can gallop past each other without one having to shrink into a siding. Workers appear busy; stacks of white concrete sleepers have little time to doze before being laid to rest.

Stations are being renovated and fresh ones built, but engineers have yet to fix the detraining problem; staff who forget to push up steps force the lithe to jump down a meter while the aged sit and slide.  Awkward.  Embarrassing.  Dangerous.

Next hassle:  How to get off the platform.  Pedestrian overpasses are rare – some terminals like Malang, have underground tunnels.  Pulling luggage up a steep ramp needs a pre-travel gym course. 

The alternative is to cross the rails.  Forty-ton locomotives hauling ten times their weight shouldn’t share the same space as parents pushing prams and praying the plastic wheels don’t get jammed in steel points.

Eventually all journeys end; the security of the station yields to chaos beyond.  Hustlers evicted by KAI haven’t dispersed – they’ve just regrouped outside the exits.

Taxi touts, illegal porters, peddlers, beggars, all looking to score a few rupiah from tired travelers. It’s time to check money belts, get a vice-like grip on the valise.

Memo KAI: Please send your managers to Pamong Praja, the local government public order squads who are supposed to keep sidewalks clear.  Tell them how you shook the guys off the train tops.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Jakarta Post 5 January 2019

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