A tale of Indonesia II

‘Rail in northern Sumatra’

The isle Sumatra; approximately 1790 kilometres long and 435 wide at the widest point. 473,481 km2; a huge landmass with three separated railway networks without mutual connection. The previous tale described the network on the West Coast around Padang, this one at Medan and surroundings. Again some rides and ridicules though the latter is a personal experience, the joy of being there but not always in tune with the local culture.
Two complete different companies once serviced in the North. First the AT – Atjeh-tram (tramway of Aceh) also named; ASS – Atjeh-staatsstoomtram (state steam tramway of Aceh) a 750 mm 511 kilometres long network during the heydays and evolved out of a military necessity at the end of the nineteenth century. The name tramway is somewhat conceiving but based on Dutch laws defining (some) local rail lines as tramways, in fact this was a railway though on a smaller gauge especially in respect of some infrastructural features unknown to tramways or ordinary streetcars. It didn’t survive the next century, during the mid seventies a bloody separatists conflict and dragging on into this century set up the closure of this by the Dutch build enterprise. In November 2006 a headline in a newspaper gave hope (false?). Abandoned Dutch railway in Indonesia my rise again thanks to tsunami.
At Besitang the AT was connected with another Dutch enterprise the DSM – Deli Spoorweg-Maatschappij (Railroad Company of Deli – the name of the Sultanate they were running through) In 1921 a ten kilometre long mixed gauge track (1067 and 750 mm) gave both companies the possibility to reach the harbour of Pangkalangsu. From Medan to Kota Radja (now Banda Aceh) with a change of trains it must have been a wonderful trip.
The DSM originated from the tobacco industry and was born in 1883. Dutch planters settled and begun a thriving industry. The wish of having a railway foremost concerned the transport of products to the harbour of Belawan. In 1937 the network measured 533 kilometres with numerous narrow gauge feeder lines out of the tobacco plantations (later also rubber and palm olives) to the nearest connection. This company with not only a main office in Medan but also in Amsterdam would stay autonomous till February first 1958, almost ten years after Indonesia on December 27th 1949 became independent and most Dutch properties changed from owner.
My getting acquainted with the reminiscences was much later in time; April 6th 1985 with a ride on train Nº 95A from Pemantang Siantar to Medan (129 km) in coach CW 9436 hauled by locomotive BB 303.06. The next day I am shifting over the Medan yard on BB 303.07 and later on that day in the harbour of Belawan with BB 302.05. April 8th is for an extra ordinary ride towards Besitang (102 km) vice versa with mix train Nº 1921 and 1922 both with locomotive BB 306.03. At the end of this tale a special report. The ninth I went to Tebing Tinggi (81 km) in coach CW 9110 and hauled by BB 302.05 seen from the inside at Belawan before. The depot by that time was still under steam, a full day I enjoyed the things on and around the turntable in preparation engine Nº 48 for her next duty. A 2-6-4T wood burner and made by Werkspoor in 1920 as works number 456. Furthermore I spotted the engines 51 (Werkspoor 464 under revision) 52 and 55 (Werkspoor 468). The last ride occurred on April 11th by a train to Pemantang Siantar (49 km) in coach CDPW 9243 this time hauled by BB 303.57. The final words of a fruitful Sumatran railway expedition.

When heaven stops crying the tropics resume. Hundred kilometres up and down in exactly eleven hours for just a handful coins (by the time two guilders, less than a euro or dollar) but do not expect any luxury for this amount. On the line further north in the direction of Banda Aceh there’s a daily mixed train with one covered goods as a make-shift passenger compartment. A folding chair near the doors – not closed – for a thorough inspection of what goes by especially the bewildered look of the locals; where in heavens name the ‘orang asing’ is heading for?
The stranger wouldn’t explain; silence during the time Besitang will be reached and the engine is shifting in order to compose the train for the way back to Medan.
As usual the drivers invite me on board. From the locomotive the views are overwhelming; men, women and their offspring, a blessing. Chickens and goats, with palm leaves covered huts where it hides for wind and weather. Constantly one waves, smiles or pointing a finger at you but do not mistake the gesture. The apparently so friendly greeting is nothing else than pure curiosity, it’s not you they are interested in only that what you representing, the wealth of another continent and dream that stays behind in poverty.
To describe what you see is simple, a picture is easily painted and the rest is a meagre existence. A random spot but the landscape won’t loose her colour and still a miraculous dream, the boundary between two worlds like a see of silent children the only security for some one days being to old to be productive and with no social system organized by the government. Making children is an investment for the future and thus there they are in abundundance.
With amazement a child looks at the train and dances in the wake full of dust slowly fall down in emptiness. He smiles and doesn’t know better. At home there’s water and when he feels hungry there’s rice, a thrifty portion indeed but not without any comfort. Mothers lap as a shelter for his grieves, feeling sad about unspoken things, a soft hand caressing his hair. A child with wings of a butterfly in search for sweets, a bit tarnished with the taste of simplicity, ordinary poverty, no one notices. Should we come across suddenly he becomes a bit shy and fluttering away on a muddy road in sight of Indonesia from village to village were people counting the days with no intention others than being happy with a given moment.

The picture above was taken by J. Zermaten and is a test ride in 1954 with for oil burning adopted locomotive.

The three rail system between Besitang and the coast.

A view how the 600 mm feeder lines looked like, note the rail cart on the right side.

The Medan station and heart of the matter in her heydays.

The Dutch text on this postcard was written on July 17th 1906 and reads: When you come to the Indies you’ll see a lot of railway lines…


About Robert von Hirschhorn

Author / Performer or in Dutch: schrijver / dichter
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