A tale of Indonesia I

‘The SSS on West Sumatra’

The first story about Indonesia, the former Dutch colony named: Nederlands Indië (Dutch Indies) and more precise the SSS network in and around Padang on the west coast of Sumatra. (SSS stands for Staatsspoorwegen meaning State Railway). In 1985 I visited the place and had a wonderful railway experience with rides on the locomotive. I’ll describe them with some historical aspects in between. I arrived at Padang on March 22nd and after finding a place to stay my first steps were leading towards the station and immediately being invited to take a ride to Kayu Tanam (53 kilometres) on an empty coal train Nº KA 2846 with locomotive BB.303.46 and back as train Nº KA 2847 on the same engine but this time with fully loaded hopper wagons.
What I know now I didn’t while riding and had no clue why the trains had to be split into convoys at this station and got another type of locomotive to haul them further.

In 1869 coal was discovered at the upper course of the river Ombilin near Sawahlunto and one started to think about a suitable transport system for the black gold to Padang and hence the harbour called: Emmahaven (Teluk Bayur) Emma was a Dutch queen regent from 1890-1898.
January first 1894 a railway line between the two was opened with some spectacular features especially the gorge along the Anai River and Ayer Mancur waterfall (16 km) landscape as technical as well. 629 meter difference in height, seven bridges and two tunnels 70 and 35 meters in length with 13 kilometres of 1067 mm rack railway of the Riggenbach system and special constructed locomotives by that time all steam.
The River Anai can be fierce especially after a deluge in the local language named: bandjir. On December 24th in 1892 1500 meters of track were washed away by untamed water. The construction of this line was partly done by Chinese coolies and forced labour, prisoners this time, the so called chain boys, connected by chain to each other to prohibit them run away.
Beside a southern and northern network on Sumatra with no rail connection in between the SSS once had the following lines. Padang – Pulauer (2.5 km with a 1.5 km extension only for goods to a wharf along the Padang River) Padang – Teluk Bayur (7.093 km). Padang – Lubukalung – Pandang Panjang – Bukttingi – Pajakombo (127.526 km) – Limbawang (the latter part closed in 1933). This line reached the peak at Kota Bahru; 1154 metres above sea level and the highest railway line in Southeast Asia. (Padang) Lubukalung – Priaman – Naras – Sungai Limau (74.543 km. Naras – Sungai Limau (7 km) already closed in 1916). Padang Panjang – Murakalaban – Muaro (177.428 km). This place was reached in 1924. Dutch railway engineers surveyed an alignment towards Pekanbaru and hence to the east coast on the Strait of Malacca but never implemented it. During W.O.II the Japanese army of occupation used some parts of it for one of their notorious railway lines build by forced labour mainly P.O.W.’s. Finally a branch line from Murakalaban to Sawahlunto and mines (3.078 km). Today only Teluk Bayur – Sawahlunto and the line to Priaman are still in use. In 1977/78 the PJKA build a 10 km branch from Bukit Putus (on the line towards Teluk Bayur) to the Portland Cement Factory.

At Kayu Tanam as well Batutabal trains are divided into manageable pieces for the rack sections and by the time I was there hauled by a special series of Diesel Electric locomotives BB.204 constructed by SLM from Winterthur, the Swiss do have a name for rack railway equipment.
Back in Padang I considered it was over asking to board a locomotive with luggage so the next day I took a bus to Padang Panjang. There I found myself in the cabin of BB 204.02 as train Nº 41462 (locomotive only) to Batutabal (21 km) with in between another rack section and returning with train Nº 41463 in one of the coaches send forward but hardly in use (BR 7014 – the locomotive: BB 204.06). Later the best part of the whole trip; in a heavy downpour through the gorge with train Nº 41467 and 41478 back both with the engine BB 204.02 (32 km). The yard of Kanju Tanam was submerged as far as above the railhead.
PJKA – Perusahaan Jawantan Kereta Api, the name of the Indonesian state railways by that time. Kereta means wagon and Api fire. Steam engines but out of service, old robust iron horses flanked the yard of Padang Panjang as a remembrance of better days. Machines of the series E10 type: 0-10-0T. From the first batch 1001-25 and build by SLM Winterthur and Esslingen in Germany during the years 1920-28, the numbers: 04 / 08 / 13 / 16 / 19 were patiently waiting for the man with the hammer. They once belonged to the Dutch SSS. From the second batch 1051-67 and build by Esslingen and Nippon Sharyo during the years 1964-67 I spotted the numbers: 51 / 53 / 54 / 55 / 56 / 57 / 59 / 62 / 63 and 64. Unfortunate my collection of slides is not were I am living now, no pictures of rusty steamers for the moment one day the will come home too long after the last piece of scrap disappeared into the oven. With a fair chance out of the melted metal a new locomotive was born, reincarnation something in railway land must keep the spirit alive.

Pasarrebo hight 979 meter on the line towards Kota Baru during the old days

The Anai river and Ayer Mancur waterfall

Where the Ombilin river begins at lake Singkarak


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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