2016 Java Steam & Sugar Tour: What’s Happened?

At the beginning of 2016, I did have a high hope that I would repeat the same success with the Java Steam & Sugar tour like in 2014 and 2015.

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Back then I had successfully organized a tour visit sugar mills and railway museums to see working steam locos in action. Some of them were regular working locos, a novelty in 21st century to see steam locos doing regular work instead of tourist service.

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Participants and organizer were happy because we could see many rare workings, and we didn’t just seeing them but also riding and even driving the loco too! So for 2016 season, I had a high hope that I would run similar and equally successful tour.

The year 2016 started out nicely. Indeed the request for railtour took place not in the middle of the year, but right from the beginning!

It was in January 2016 that my first railway tour in 2016 happened, when I took a couple of Malaysian railway enthusiasts traveling to see mount Bromo and seeing steam locomotives in Solo.

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The trip was a success one. We didn’t just seeing sunrise at mount Bromo, but also riding on intercity trains, staying in opulent (but affordable) hotel, and of course riding steam train at Tasikmadu sugar mill. In addition, we also rode the Batara Kresna Railbus which plying the unique street running in Surakarta.

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Amazingly, just a few months after that in April, I also receive another railtour. Well actually not exactly a railtour, but rather a French tractor enthusiast is seeking relic of old tractors whose were presumably located in many sugar mills in Java. The route is similar to the tour in January, unless that instead of visiting mount Bromo, we went to visit some sugar mills in eastern East Java.

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The tour ended with mixed result: although we visited all places that we planned (except Gending sugar mill where we were refused entry, and Gempolkrep as it was too far from our position) and the tour went on without incident, my client was disappointed that he failed to found any old tractors that he has been searching for.  The only consolation was finding old Deutz locomotive which turned out to be the oldest diesel loco remain in existence in Indonesia. And I also learn that diesel locomotives in Indonesia have been around even before Second World War….

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Based on those 2 tours, I was very confident that I would run a successful “Java Steam & Sugar Tour” for 2016 season. By April and May, some tour requests have already appeared on my e-mail. So another Java Steam & Sugar Tour seemed to be certain.  And it was set to run on August.

But…..unfortunately, about a few weeks prior to the tour’s commencement in July, I suddenly receive e-mail from one of participant that he canceled the tour. The cited reason was the depleted number of steam locomotive in operation (which is not entirely true when compared to the previous year’s operation). When I also asked re-confirmation from another participant, the e-mail went unanswered. Another tour participant, who actually joined the 2015 tour, had also booked the tour. Unfortunately, his booking too was cancelled at the final moment.

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I tried to arrange similar tour for September and October. But trying to advertise such a long tour in short amount of time proved to be futile effort. And in the end, I eventually ran no Java Steam & Sugar tour at all.

The closest thing that I got to running Java Steam & Sugar Tour was taking my Dutch friend, Joop Versluijs, on a tour to see narrow gauge trains in Kedawung sugar mill in August. It was the first time I see him since 2009, where back then my car was brand new and I was still living in Bandung. His trip at this time is due to his participation a steam tour organized by other tour company.

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Although I have known Joop for long, this is the first time I learn that he have a wealthy array of narrow gauge trains archive of Java back home in Holland, thanks to my growing interest of narrow gauge steam locos since 2013. Since he has done trainspotting in Indonesia since early 1980s (and even met his wife in Java too) he obviously have many archives that would have wowed railfans in Indonesia.Such as this video of steam field working at Sumberharjo sugar mill which was taken in 2008.

He have many photos and even video clips from many sugar mills that no longer operate their field lines, or even in remain in existence in present days. I think he also mention that Tulangan was once a popular trainspotting place for narrow gauge fans, especially when they still operate their field lines. Especially due to its close vicinity to the city of Surabaya.

Kedawung sugar mill itself holds special meaning as I spend many occasions visiting the area and watching its field working. It was much more that what I did in previous year. I even saw many workings on almost every corner of its vast plantation.

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Although some lines looks as if they were not used and covered by asphalt, in reality when the harvesting time came, they would cut down any trees that blocking the way and removing the asphalt to give way for the train to get through. Some lines which I saw abandoned in 2015 (some didn’t have railway lines) were in full operation in 2016! It seemed that the engineers had gone extra length to reinstall some railway tracks.

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For example is the street running section that plying main road between Winongan and Gayam. I last saw this track in full use in 2014. By 2015 it was largely abandoned. And by the end of that year it was lifted, so much that some local railfans exclaimed that Kedawung had closed its field lines.  His statement actually came out of his ignorance, due to his lack of knowledge of railway in beyond those of Indonesian State Railway.

To everyone surprise, by mid-year, the track in this section is relaid and even saw some limited service. In fact Kedawung’s field lines network were in full service in 2016. Some moribund trackage would see some service. It’s no problem if it’s isolated: mechanics would install temporary tracks to connect it to the existing line.

Its vast network means a trip on a field line can last for hours. Often loaded trains would return back at night.

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But the large size of acreage can pose another threat to the survivability of the field lines as some crooks would steal the rails for scrap metals. Sometime, to make up lost rails, the mechanics would install temporary track on a roadbed. Although it is passable by big 0-6-0 diesels, the trip will be very bumpy and sometime prone to derailment.

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Seeing the field workings of Kedawung is a good consolation for the absence of Java Steam & Sugar Tour. But unfortunately the mill has long given up its steam locos, making the scene rather dull. The last time they used the steam loco was back in 2001, on a chartered service.

Talking about steam service, the pattern of steam locomotive works in 2016 is not much different than what was seen in second half of 2015. Ambarawa railway museum still provide their chartered service to paying guests, many sugar mills who does regular steam service still doing their works, and chartered steam at sugar mills in Semboro and Olean are still up and running.

In 2016 too we learn that there are good news and bad news about what may come in the future of steam locomotive, or even sugar mills operation.

I’ll start with the bad one.

In early October 2016 I receive notification letter from my friend about planned closure of sugar mills in East and Central Java. This news came as a great shock as I was still reeling from my failure to run Java Steam & Sugar Tour for 2016. According to the letter shown by my friend, several sugar mills are going to be closed by next year. Some immediately, some will be done gradually in the next few years.

The likes of Kanigoro mill will surely be closed by next year, confirming rumors among the plantation company management circle which have been heard since 2015. In fact its crushing season lasted very short in 2016.

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Gondang Baru’s milling in 2016 had also been a short one. They lasted only around 3 months. But why do they want to cull this mill is a something of mystery.

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One mill where its closure has long been predicted is Tulangan sugar mill, mainly due to the depletion of available sugarcane field around the mill. Although PTPN X Company often tries to advertise the mill as “historic mill with old steam engines”, in reality this mill does nothing to preserve its railway. They happily scrap their steam locos in 1980s, lifting their field lines in 2006, and demolishing the old buildings around the mill and replacing them with new buildings. So if they really want to create “heritage tour” in Tulangan it would be a major hypocrisy and quite a blasphemy too.

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And another mill that surprisingly made it into the “hit list” is Merican sugar mill in Kediri. This is quite unexpected, considering that the mill is a modern and busy one. I have been to this mill in 2014 and saw how modern it is and how busy production line is. But considering that this mill have dumped its railway in 2008, I don’t think I would miss it anyway.

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Another upset has to be the closure of Purwodadi sugar mill in Madiun. This sugar mill has a distinction of being the last place in Indonesia to see the last regular steam locomotives working, doing so in 2016.

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I remember the last time I held “Java Steam & Sugar Tour” in 2015, upon arriving at this mill (especially on the level crossing section), my tour participants jumped in happiness and quickly taking photos of the steam working. Alas, now it’s gone…..

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But the biggest upset is the planned closure of all three sugar mills in Situbondo, including the famed Olean sugar mill. This planned closure is met with rejection, not just from narrow gauge or railway enthusiasts, but also from the local farmers in Situbondo as well as the local and provincial government. Because had this ill-conceived plan gone through, it will cripple Situbondo’s economy which largely reliant on the sugar mills.

Fortunately, as for Situbondo, that malignant plan will not go through easily, or even at all!

Now this is where the good news begins.

There are several factors why Java Steam & Sugar Tour is still worthy tour to go beyond 2016.

First, Olean Sugar mill is now slowly being converted into a “living museum”, which means that it will become more tourists friendly. Going into the mill will no longer require permit from headquarter in Surabaya. Instead, you can drop by at the mill’s office and pay the necessary fees. They will even convert the former manager’s mansion into a lodging place for visiting customers. Although if you think about hiring the steam loco, you may need to inform the mill management several days in advance, especially if it’s outside harvesting season.

Even the steam tour in Olean will be quite different, as it will involve visit to see local culture and customs, which made it appealing to non-railway enthusiast market. Still, anyone who wants to see it hauling sugarcane trains will still be accommodated. The non-tourist regular steam sugarcane hauling service may still exist in the future, although chance of catching up with it will not be as plenty as before 2014.

Oh, and now there is a passenger coach for Olean steam train. Something that didn’t exist before.

Another good news is the fact that Semboro sugar mill, which is well known for its chartered steam locomotive tour, even before PTPN XI even think of doing the same thing in Olean, is spared from “death penalty”, and will see more railway service in the future.

Including its famed fireless locos, whose are rare railways artifacts remain in existence, its rarity even enhanced by the fact that they still do regular working.

Beyond steam locomotive workings in sugar mills, there are more good news to be heard.

After years of maintenance hiatus, the rack steam working in Ambarawa railway museum is now back in service. It will be hauled by the regular B25 steam locos, in which both of them have recently undergone major overhaul. With the reopening of rack service to Bedono, now Ambarawa  railway museum have more steam locomotive service than what it used to be, complimented by some diesel locomotives. In the future it will include diesel locomotives museum in Tuntang.

Although so far 2 things in Ambarawa railway museum have yet to materialize:

  1. The reopening of railway line between mainline station in Kedungjati, and Tuntang station. Due to poor planning, financing, and the unclear aim of reopening, the project went into a halt.
  2. There was a talk of bringing the B2501 rack steam loco back to the museum, and reactivate it. So far nothing materialize.

Two steam locomotives have also been brought from Railway Museum in Jakarta to Surakarta, in preparation for steam locomotive tour. Although it is doubtful if they will ever be used for the Wonogiri branchline due to their large weight.

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Another steam locomotive that is under repair is the E1060, which was initially repaired in Ambarawa, but after being repatriated back to West Sumatera fell into disrepair. The last reported progress was posted sometime in mid-2016. Unfortunately, the repair somehow include the removal of rack gear equipment from the loco, which is a shame considering the loco is a rack engine, and the best scenery in West Sumatera can only be found in its rack section.

And lastly, after years of mishaps and mismanagement Cepu steam train tour is now back in business. The service includes the full length journey into the Gubug Payung, deep inside the teak forest around Cepu.  No curtailment of train journey like what was predicted earlier this year, especially after the bridge that passes above the highway frequently got knocked off by passing oversized trucks.

Cepu steam tour is perhaps the second most expensive steam tour in Indonesia, after Ambarawa. But considering the length and duration of the journey, which is twice of what you find in Ambarawa, this might be worth the money. And since new and more modern hotels began to pop up in this formerly remote area, a visit to Cepu will become much more fashionable than ever.

Overall railway tour to Indonesia, especially Java, beyond 2016 will be worth it!

If you like to join our 14-days 2017 Java Steam and Sugar Tour, please check out our website HERE.

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About bagus70

I'm an adventurous railfans who love to seek out the world of railway, beyond the border of my office.
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3 Responses to 2016 Java Steam & Sugar Tour: What’s Happened?

  1. Pingback: 2017: What Does The Future Hold for Us for Railway Tour? | Mas Bagus Adventure

  2. gerrard says:

    the 2-8-2 tank engine is so cool! i hope is still in working order

    • bagus70 says:

      It is currently in not in working order. They plan to repair it and bring it back to life, but the last time I heard the funding have been suspended

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