Never the Trains Shall Meet

Indonesia Expat - - CONTENTS - BY DANIEL POPE

Not long ago, any au­then­tic In­done­sian model rail­way set re­quired dozens of tiny model pas­sen­gers perched pre­car­i­ously on the roofs of car­riages. Oc­ca­sion­ally, some would fall off. They might even get knocked down by con­crete balls hung above the tracks, or hosed off by staff at rail­way sta­tions – these were just two of the tac­tics used to de­ter dare­devil fare-dodgers. Thank­fully, such stunts were elim­i­nated in 2013 by the city’s gov­er­nor Joko Wi­dodo, be­fore he went on to be­come pres­i­dent. Some of Jakarta’s trains still trans­form into sar­dine tins dur­ing peak hours, but the com­muter lines and sta­tions are im­prov­ing ev­ery year. As for the long-awaited high­speed rail­way link­ing Jakarta to Ban­dung, which should cut the four-hour jour­ney to 45 min­utes, the 142 km line was sup­posed to be run­ning by 2019, but the date has been pushed back to 2021 be­cause of in­ter­minable land ac­qui­si­tion prob­lems. Java has en­joyed a func­tional rail­way sys­tem since Dutch colo­nial times, mak­ing it easy for peo­ple to tra­verse the is­land with­out amass­ing tales of peril and dis­rup­tion. Com­pared to the is­land’s roads, where fa­tal crashes are nu­mer­ous (9,338 deaths were recorded in 2017), or the seas, where over­crowded fer­ries sink with a loss of life com­pa­ra­ble to ma­jor air dis­as­ters, the rail­way lines of Java are safe and rel­a­tively com­fort­able. This is not al­ways the case in some other Asian coun­tries. Thai­land has one of the best rail­way sys­tems in South­east Asia, but it isn’t with­out its quirks. I re­cently trav­elled the 251 km from Bangkok to Aranyapra­thet, where I planned to cross the bor­der into neigh­bour­ing Cam­bo­dia. As the train moved off, I ob­served that all the staff were wear­ing sur­gi­cal masks, and I amused my­self by think­ing of un­likely rea­sons for it. Per­haps they had raided the lost lug­gage of a sur­geon. Halfway into the four-hour jour­ney, I saw the real rea­son for the masks. The train en­tered some arid ter­rain, and red dust be­gan bil­low­ing in through the car­riage win­dows – all of which were jammed open. Some pas­sen­gers wrapped scarves or hand­ker­chiefs around their faces for pro­tec­tion, while oth­ers lifted shirts up over their noses and mouths. When we even­tu­ally stepped off the train, we looked like we’d been en­gaged in desert war­fare. Over the bor­der in Cam­bo­dia, the rail­way is be­ing re­stored. In the 1970s, the Kh­mer Rouge used cat­tle cars to trans­port bru­talised and con­fused ci­ti­zens to work camps in the coun­try­side, and the rail sys­tem was later de­stroyed by war. Lines are be­ing res­ur­rected grad­u­ally, and it’s hoped that di­rect rail links from Ph­nom Penh to the cap­i­tal cities of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries will soon be es­tab­lished. How­ever, there’s some­thing ten­ta­tive about the en­tire project, in­clud­ing the speed of the trains. Cam­bo­dia has the slow­est trains I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced. They seem to work on the prin­ci­ple of the gen­er­a­tion star­ship – a space­craft that re­quires sev­eral hu­man gen­er­a­tions to ar­rive at its desti­na­tion. That is, if you board a train at Ph­nom Penh, your descen­dants will be the ones get­ting off at Si­hanoukville 264 km up the south­ern line. Don’t bring a book to read on the jour­ney. Bring a li­brary. The train has am­ple lug­gage and cargo space. Some pas­sen­gers take their ve­hi­cles along on the rear flatbed car­riages. It costs US$14 for a car and US$5 for a mo­tor­bike. Once, my train moved so slowly that it went back­wards. Ten min­utes out­side of Ph­nom Penh, I sensed a tiny wob­ble in the fab­ric of space-time as the train ex­e­cuted an al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble change of di­rec­tion and started re­vers­ing back to the sta­tion. Ap­par­ently, the air­port shut­tle was ap­proach­ing us on the sin­gle track, mean­ing our train had to re­verse to avoid a head-on crash that, ow­ing to the low speeds, would be like two glaciers col­lid­ing. Ph­nom Penh’s air­port shut­tle ser­vice, which opened in April 2018, gives a sim­i­lar im­pres­sion of in­er­tia. There’s noth­ing sleek or mod­ern about it. In fact, it seems ar­chaic rather than new. The train ( just the one) runs 24-hours a day, back­ward and for­ward be­tween Ph­nom Penh In­ter­na­tional Air­port and the city’s rail­way sta­tion. And I mean lit­er­ally back­ward and for­ward. Upon reach­ing the junc­tion at Taing Kor­sang Khang Tboung Pagoda, af­ter hav­ing crawled through en­tan­gle­ments of slum dwellings, the train re­verses (again the wob­ble) and branches off into the thick of a neigh­bour­hood. Then it pro­ceeds to rum­ble down the mid­dle of Street 105K – right along­side mo­torists and pedes­tri­ans – for an­other 8km to the air­port. It’s as though the train has trans­formed into a tram. This is not an el­e­gant tram of the type seen in Mel­bourne or Mu­nich. This is a bulky, steel diesel lo­co­mo­tive, forged in East­ern Europe. It’s mas­sive. It’s un­stop­pable. It was built to haul freight. It rum­bles heav­ily like the Ti­tanic on wheels. Lo­cal res­i­dents, who op­posed the lay­ing of the line in the first place, com­plain of their houses shak­ing as the train passes, blast­ing its horn and spit­ting oil. At night, it il­lu­mi­nates the street with a glar­ing head­lamp. The shut­tle ser­vice has long been await­ing the de­liv­ery of three less gar­gan­tuan diesel rail­cars from Mex­ico. Un­til then, the res­i­dents of Street 105K will con­tinue to have their senses bat­tered ev­ery hour or so, day and night. Fare-wise, the Cam­bo­dian air­port train is free un­til its new en­gines ar­rive, then it will cost US$2. That’s con­sid­er­ably cheaper than Jakarta’s air­port train, which be­gan op­er­at­ing in De­cem­ber 2017 and costs Rp70,000 (US$4.60) for a ticket.

Still, that’s peanuts com­pared to the price goug­ing at Aus­tralia’s Syd­ney air­port, where a train ticket to the city costs about A$18 (US$12.65). The Jakarta air­port train, called Railink, re­quires pur­chas­ing a ticket at a ma­chine that has on-screen in­struc­tions only in English and does not ac­cept cash. Hence, Railink staff are present to guide be­wil­dered trav­ellers through the screen-tap­ping and pay­ment pro­cesses. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, you have to in­put your phone num­ber too. If you’re tak­ing the air­port train by day, you’ll get a nice tour of Jakarta’s slums. This brings us to an­other haz­ard you might want to add to your model train set. Pass­ing trains make ir­re­sistible tar­gets for chil­dren (and adults – I’ve seen them) hang­ing out by the tracks, where there are plenty of stones ly­ing around. Most of them bounce harm­lessly off the liv­ery, but some crack win­dows. You might want to re­mem­ber this when choos­ing a win­dow seat next time you’re head­ing off to Ban­dung. All aboard!


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