Last year we have seen a dramatic change in railway tour scenery. When compared to 2014, 2015 have completely different scenery. Somehow there seemed to be less attraction than what it used to be, yet tourists seemed to be more pampered than what they were. Gone were the days when the attractions are, in the words of Rob Dickinson, authentic. But also gone were the days where tourists had to stay in cheap and dodgy accommodations, now they stay in “budget hotel” which may not be expensive but not an “el cheapo” either.
It can be said that 2015 started with deflating puff for steam locomotive lovers. Many “authentic” steam locomotive attractions in sugar mills which were favorite destinations no longer pulled out their best or anything at all!
At the conclusion of 2014 harvesting season, many famous sugar mills such as Pangka, Sragi, Sumberharjo, and Tasikmadu reporting major losses on their yearly financial report. As a result, saving measures were done to ensure their survival. And the easiest target was the steam locomotives operation.
Many die hard steam locomotive enthusiasts who arrive in Java were shocked to find that many sugar mills stopped their regular steam locomotive activities, and some would charge visitors to have them running. For budget travelers (admittedly many of those authentic-seeker railfans are actually count into this category) this is just too much. Many described 2015 season as “disastrous”.
Not all mill who ceased their regular steam operation suffering major financial loss in 2014. Kanigoro sugar mill in Madiun did also stopped their steam locomotive operation in mid-2015. And despite of its good financial performance, there is a plan to close the mill down at the end 2017 as Madiun city expansion gradually swallowed up its former sugarcane field.
All were not totally lost in 2015, for these people, at least in some places there are some real steam locomotives in operation. Such as in Purwodadi sugar mill where real steam loco goes back and forth between road yard and the mill. And also in Pagottan and Semboro sugar mills where they ran fireless steam locos.
Chartered steam locomotives at Ambarawa railway museum, city of Surakarta, and Semboro sugar mill still proves to be popular attraction among newcomers, affluent railway enthusiast, or non-railway enthusiast tourists. Olean sugar mill, which traditionally known in the past 10 years as one of 2 sugar mills who sent their steam locos for field working (the other was Sumberharjo) have followed Semboro in reverting their steam locomotive operation into chartered basis (much to the dismay of purist railway enthusiasts, but still acceptable by ordinary tourists).
The Cepu logging railway, which have been reverted to chartered operation since 2002, is still a popular attraction although there are some doubts about its continuation due internal infighting inside Forestry Company management. In addition, frequent damage on one of its bridge (the bridge that crosses over the Cepu-Blora highway has been rammed by oversized container trucks for several times) means that their service had to be cut back on several occasions. There are even some doubts whether if the train still runs to the scenic Gubug Payung in the teak forest, despite the news that the aforementioned bridge have been repaired. When me and my foreign tourist clients made impromptu visit to its locomotive shed, we were greeted by hostile crew who uses whatever methods to prevent us from seeing the locos! Rumor has it that it was due to litigation with the European tourists in the past, which makes them rather xenophobic.
SUGAR MILL FIELD LINES
Field lines operation is unique as it allows railway enthusiasts to see those diminutive trains traveling in nature and countryside, passing places that would normally be inaccessible by their wider counterpart.
When 2015 harvesting season started, many narrow gauge railway enthusiasts were surprised to find many sugar mills which their field lines are endangered still operating their field lines after all. Such as Kedawung sugar mill in Pasuruan, Gending in Probolinggo, Asembagus, and famously known Krebet Baru in Malang.
But still, sign of impending closures in some of them were imminent. Some of the mills above have had their field lines network curtailed. Parts of their field lines which were in operation in 2014 were closed or even lifted in 2015! For Krebet Baru sugar mill, 2015 season was the last season where they operated their field lines, and their railway too!
Unfortunately, Sumberharjo sugar mill in Pemalang closed down its field lines for 2015 harvesting season. With the closure of Sumberharjo field lines, it means active narrow gauge fields lines are no longer exist in Central Java.
So by 2015, there were 7 sugar mills that operated field lines with one of them confirmed that it will close down by this year (2016) while another 2 are strongly rumored that it might close them down in 2016 too.
Reopening of field lines may sounds like a good news, but the prospect of having them materialized is probably next to nothing. Like what have happened to Pangka sugar mill in Slawi, Central Java. This sugar mill, which is known for its fleet of red steam locomotives, have long mulled reopening parts of their field lines for tourist train. Although regular field working ceased in 1980s, they did actually operated parts of their field lines on chartered basis all the way until around 2008/2009. But since discontinuation of steam locomotive service, and even the prospect of inactivation of the mill itself, it’s highly unlikely that it would take place after all.
However, I do have a high hope on Tasikmadu sugar mill in Solo, Central Java. This mill has the largest fleet of steam locomotives in Central Java (although some of them were inherited from other mills), including the celebrated Tasikmadu VI. Yet, it no longer have its field lines in operation, being closed sometime in 1999. Admittedly, chance of having its field lines reactivated for tourism purpose is actually just as remote as what you see in Pangka. But at least, this plan have financial and political support from local regent in Karanganyar (the place where the mill is located).
Photo by Rob Dickinson. Published with consent from copyright holder.
In Yogyakarta, 2 of its famous sugar mills have planned to reactivate its field lines, for tourism purpose too. While Gondang Baru haven’t gone beyond planning, Madukismo mill have actually made some physical progress to reactivate its field lines all the way to Kasongan. But unfortunately, there are no additional news about its progress as in March 2016.
EFFORT ON PRESERVATION
On brighter side, by 2015 there are some sign that there are serious effort in preservation.
Ambarawa railway museum have almost completed its renovation progress. All of its locomotives are finally placed on the newly rebuilt railway yard, where they are displayed on rail under roof. This move protect these old (some of them are centenarian) locomotives from rain or elements that would have rusted these historic locos.
Although disliked by some railway photographer as making the photography difficult, it would make the locos more visible to general audience as they do not have to climb up or walking through grasses or open spaces just to see the exhibits.
Now the museum management even began to construct buildings and associated facilities for diesel locomotives museum in Tuntang. Although the building process have been completed, this museum have yet to see any diesel loco exhibits delivered.
Some sugar mills management also followed the suite. Agrowisata Sondokoro in Tasikmadu sugar mill began to improve their attractions by bringing additional steam locomotives back to live. Even more, now passengers don’t have to be exposed by smokes as they are now sitting inside enclosed carriages, previously used for VIP only.
Although despised by senior railway enthusiast for stopping their regular steam work, Olean sugar mill is now serious in turning their premises into a living museum. Some efforts have been done to make the mill visitor friendly, such as polishing their steam locomotive and cleaning up their mill complex. The upside of this mill when compared to Tasikmadu is the presence of field lines, which make the journey more varied, while the downside is the mill location which is rather isolated.
One vital aspect in railway tour is definitely the accommodation. Many senior or hardcore railway enthusiasts don’t mind to stay in shabby accommodation in the past, as long as it is near to the attractions. But some other would make fuss about the quality of the accommodation, especially newcomers.
In the early years of my railway tour adventures, I often had to put up with such inadequate accommodations, mainly due to lack of fund, and lack of knowledge. I remember that back in the old days we stayed in a shady hotel with squat toilet, without aircon. Sometime we had to share the same accommodation with prostitutes!
But thanks to the tour guide websites such as TripAdvisor, now we know where to stay, which hotel has the best value for money, and even what other people think about the accommodation.
Gradually we began to move into more adequate accommodations. Sometime we would get accommodations with 5-star service with budget fare too! And if that’s not enough, sometime they are located very near to railway station or railway line. And thanks to the cooperative hotel management, since I work in Tour Company, I can get half price discount in some fine hotels too.
And these days, the accommodations aspect has become quite near to perfection. Now there are some great new hotels that are located not just near, but essentially adjacent to railway track! So much that you can even do trainspotting by just sitting on your bed!
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2016
2016 will definitely be a different year. For purist railway enthusiast, this year would probably leave them high and dry. But for newer generation it might give them some hope.
Some new attractions will surely pop up in the future. Although Tasikmadu VI steam loco was sidelined in mid-2015, in 2016 it will be revived for circular train. At least that’s what the mill management said during my recent visit in early 2016. Olean sugar mill will be developed into something like Semboro sugar mill where tourist will ride coach and traveling across Olean’s sugar mill vast property. And some old diesel locomotives have been sent to Ambarawa railway museum in preparation of diesel locomotive exhibition at Tuntang.
Some old attractions might still remain as popular as ever, such as Sepur Kluthuk Jaladara in Solo, Ambarawa steam train, or Semboro tourist train. Many people hoped that the steam locos shunting at Purwodadi sugar mill would remain. And so far the mill management hasn’t made any comments regarding of the future of its operation.
On accommodation aspect, it seemed that there will be more variations. Some towns which were notoriously known for the lack of variety began to have new hotels built in the place. Madiun, for example used to have only 1 hotel with questionable quality in the past. Now there are additional 2 hotels whose are part of reputable hotel chains, one of them is a budget hotel.
Some cities also began to have reputable hotels which overlook railway track, such as Jakarta, Bandung, Yogya, and Solo. Such hotel is truly a heaven for railfans. It doesn’t just provide railfans with comfortable amenities, but also ability to do trainspotting from the comfort of your bed!
Despite of changing in scenery railway tourism will always thrive in Indonesia. Elderly generations who despise the loss of authentic steam locomotive actions may no longer put Indonesia or Java into their destination. But there will always be newer and younger generations of railway enthusiasts who will still include Indonesia into their railway tour destinations as this country still provide unique railway scenery and actions not seen in other countries.
Would you like to visit Java this year, and wants to have a railway tour with us? Don’t hesitate to contact me! 🙂