2017: What Does The Future Hold for Us in Railway Tour?


2016 have gone and now we are moving into the new year of 2017. Of course many people in Western society thinks 2016 was cursed as many public figures (namely from entertainment world) passed away in that year. It was the year that few seemed to enjoy.

For me it was also a major disappointment as I fail to run my Java Steam & Sugar Tour, despite of some railway tours held earlier that year.  So this year everyone is expecting to be brighter and much better than the previous one. In light of some progress and news that came in 2016, many wondered what will happen in this year.

2016: A Brief Review & Planned Mills Closure Controversy

2016 was actually not much different with what was happened in 2015. Steam locomotives still run as usual, some mills still operate their field lines. Some steam operation still going on as usual. For further details, you can check to this link.

But the biggest upset of 2016 has to be the news regarding of the planned mills closure, which causes uproar and disappointment among railfans and steam locomotive communities around the world who normally made pilgrimage to Java to see them.


According to the news, many historic mills in East and Central Java will be closed in phases from 2017 onward (for the detail you can refer to the link above). Some of them are among favorite destination for steam enthusiasts, such as Olean sugar mill.

But will the closure ever took place at all?

Clarification from PTPN XI

The PTPN XI plantation company, which owned majority of the mills in the “hit list” of closure plan, gave some clarification during a visit which I made in December 2016.


They said that that many of the mills will remain in operation for 2017. Including Purwodadi sugar mills, which is known as the last place to see regular conventional steam working in Indonesia. But they did not elaborate whether if this mill will retain its steam working, or abandoned them (like what was done by sugar mill in Northern Central Java like Sragi, Pangka, and Sumberharjo in the aftermath of news about planned closure in late 2014).

As they stated (which I also posted in my previous blog posting) those mills will run as usual, pending the financial result. If they posted profit, they will resume working for the following year. While those who fail to do so will likely to be closed.

However, one mill will surely close. That is Kanigoro sugar mill in Madiun. Since 2014, I’ve heard rumor about its planned closure due to the urban expansion of the town of Madiun. After some period of uncertainties, it is now confirmed that 2016 become its last crushing season. Although the fate of its locomotive collections will remain to be seen.


Olean sugar mill, which Rob Dickinson suggested to be candidate for World Heritage site, will remain in operation, including its fleet of steam locomotives and field lines. Both the mill and plantation company managers began to fully understand its historical value and now made several efforts to ensure its survival.


They have renovate Olean sugar mill into tourist friendly space. Entering mill premises no longer require lengthy process, which in the past require written letter from company headquarter. The former manager’s mansion will be converted into exotic traditional sea food restaurant. And the front yard will be converted into theme park like what is done at Tasikmadu sugar mill, including building railway tracks into the front yard.  In addition they will also build a kindergarten in mill premise. All of these measures are done to ensure Olean sugar mill’s survivability.

I also discussing the future of the steam locomotives (of the same gauge of Olean) that may went out of use in the future, and the prospect of having them relocated to Olean or Semboro. The PTPN XI says that they’re welcome to such idea, as long as someone can help with the funding.


There is one interesting topic that I learn from some of the managers in PTPN XI. They said that they’re keen to reopen De Maas sugar mill in Besuki in the future. But instead of using it to process sugarcane, it will probably be used to process coffee beans. There is a rumor said that in the mountain area near Besuki there is a coffee and cacao plantation where their products have distinct taste, thanks to its unique mineral content on its soil. Including in the plan is to build narrow gauge railway lines that connect the plantation with De Maas. It is remain to be seen whether if the project will ever materialize. Or even if they do make De Maas into coffee processing plant, there are some doubts on whether if they would built the narrow gauge lines, considering that De Maas have removed its railway lines since 1999. Not to mention the difficult terrain.

Despite all of the pleasing news of PTPN XI, no similar things came from other plantation companies whom some of their historic sugar mills is in the hit list. I care nothing about Merican sugar mills, as they care nothing about historic preservation and happily dumped their railway system. Gondang Baru is the sole sugar mill in PTPN IX which will also be closed.And sign of impending closure seem imminent, as the mill had a very short crushing season in 2016. Its tourist steam loco (the former Rendeng no.8) is now dumped. The future of its museum seem to be endangered.

When I suggesting about relocating of some historic sugar mills in PTPN IX into Olean and Semboro, the PTPN XI management apologize that such thing is beyond their control. Despite the fact that PTPN XI currently control PTPN IX mills operation, their role is purely to assist the sugar mills to be back to good operating condition. Nothing more.

Steam Loco Repatriation Controversy


Photo by: Bert v.d. Kruk

Worried by the recent plan of mill closure, which could see some rare steam locomotives in storage ended up in scrap yard some railway enthusiasts in Europe badly wants to purchase them and repatriate them. The problem is under the current law, the purchase or bringing historic artifacts out of Indonesia is forbidden. While on the other hand, no efforts were done to preserve them. And each year some were/are scrapped without any prevention effort from the mill company or local historical society.

This is where the controversy started.

From what I hear from PTPN XI there has been some lobbies in 2016 from European preservation group about the purchase of some locomotives. Apparently this lobby was met with resistance. So much that some mills barred foreigners from visiting their locomotive shed like what have been done by Cepu logging railway, notably in Tasikmadu.


So what is the way out from this problem?

Actually there is. One suggestion is to work together with any sugar mill management or creating preservation movement with local groups. That is what was advised by both PTPN XI and also one British railway enthusiast who live in South East Asia. So far such join venture has yet to materialize.

Progress in State Railway and Others

The State Railway steam preservation efforts seem to show some progress too. This is quite unusual considering the curtailment of their Heritage Division, especially since the departure of Mrs. Ella Ubaidi from Indonesian State Railway, as well as the stepping down of Mr. Ignasius Jonan from Minister of Transport (himself is a former chief of Indonesian State Railway who turned the company around from loser into a profit making company).


Aside of reopening of Ambarawa rack railway line, they also bring 2 steam locomotives from Transport Museum in Jakarta to Surakarta for reactivation. And in addition the E10 rack steam engine in West Sumatera have also undergone repair, although its rack gear is said to be removed…. Ironically, in January 2017 there is news that the funding for reactivation of D14 and D52 in Surakarta seem to have been withheld.

Cepu teak forest railway has also see resurgence of activity. It is said that the line to Gubug Payung has since been reactivated. This is quite good news, considering that this tourist railway network had fell into hard times since the collapse of the railway overpass in 2011. During their downturn period, the company has been involved in legal troubles with disgruntled tourists which led to prohibition of accessing loco shed. And at one point the company worked together with an incompetent tour agent who ended up feuding with the plantation company who own the railway system. But all of those are now history, and the recent positive development is good news.

While mechanic with the expertise in steam locomotive operation in Indonesia is like endangered species, it is worth to know that the operator (especially those who run steam tours) kept recruiting new personnel to do the job. Younger generation of steam loco engineers are being recruited by both State Railway and PTPN XI to run their tourist steam locomotives.

Although unfortunately similar measure is not done by the likes of PTPN IX (with the exception of Tasikmadu sugar mill) and PTPN X, as they left their fleet of steam locos rotting in the shed.

Mainline Trains

Prior to 2013 I was pretty much the mainline train, state railway, type of train enthusiasts. And my preference of motive power was (and sometime is) diesel, preferably of General Electric or Krupp marquees.

Things began to change when Indonesian State Railway began to install trellis on the locomotive’s windscreen in early 2013. Such move made the locomotives looks like something that came from backward country, which is too disgusting to photograph for me.

I often had to work hard how to either avoid photographing trellised locos, or finding those whose are free of them. It was quite a challenge to find one that is free of trellis, a stark contrast to the period before 2013 where trainspotting event were always a pleasure.

It was during this period that I turned my attention to narrow gauge sugarcane railway, which truly opened my eyes and widened my perception of railway in Indonesia. And the rest is, I can say is history.

Thankfully throughout that difficult period, trellis installation never fully implemented. At any given moment we would encounter one trellis free loco. And since 2014, the trellis would be replaced by polycarbonate bullet proof glasses. By 2016, the population of trellised locos only amounted 40% of total number of locomotives in Indonesia. It seems in the next couple of years the trellis would extinct completely and I can return to the good old days of mainline trainspotting.


However, the trainspotting scenes have change a lot since 2013. We felt that more often than not, trainspotting is not as fun as it used to be. Thanks to the restriction imposed for railway photographers. The rule was initially introduced to curb unruly minor railfans who have a habit of taking photos in danger zones such as the middle of the track or trespassing into locomotive depot. But some managers misinterpret it as total banning of photography. So much that sometime people who took photo with DSLR camera would be reprimanded, even if he or she is a train passenger who took photo from the safe distance in the platform!

Security on railway premises has also been tightened. Back in the old days, we could just go into the locomotive shed or small station and took photograph as much as we like, as long as what we do don’t break safety rules. But these days, that’s not enough. I recently see “no photography” sign in some locomotive depots. Even more worrying, small stations are now patrolled by security guards! Sometime they will turn away photographers.


So in order to achieve maximum satisfactory in trainspotting we tend to evade major railway station, and we do trainspotting on the mainline. Sometime we would tune in into the radio (if someone brought one) to find out train’s actual location plus its locomotive number.

In the past couple of years, government have made some effort to reopen closed lines, and even building new ones. Such as reopening of Kedungjati-Tuntang line (which would reconnect Ambarawa railway museum with mainline), and also the construction of railway line in Sulawesi. It is the part of government’s ambitious nationwide infrastructure project. Such measure does bring some hope to railfans that there might new trainspotting places in a previously unheard of places.


Although there has been some progress, complete with track laying, the whole thing turned out to be false dawn as the progress grind to a halt in 2016. The cited reason is lack of funding. But in my opinion it is due to mismanagement of the project, especially related to the financial feasibility of it. Apparently the transport ministry believing in the idea that railway must not make profit. That is despite the fact the projects are funded with loan money, and failure to repay the debt could (and does) lead to project suspension.

Train ride has now becoming a very much sanitized experience, when compared what we had in the past. Yes, now railway stations and coaches are cleaner, all trains are air conditioned, and security has improved. But on the other hand, it can be a bit unpleasant journey too due to brighter interior light (this can cause discomfort for overnight journey) and tighter seat in newer economic coaches.


Train ticketing has also become an issue too. Since 2016, State Railway began to ditch the old blue ticket in favor of “boarding pass”, a thermal printed small piece of paper. While in the past you can have your ticket printed as far away as 3 months prior to the departure, now you can only print your boarding pass in a space of between 12 hours until 10 minutes before departure.  If you have ample of time, this shouldn’t be an issue. But if you don’t you will not be able to print your boarding pass in time and join the trip. And if the station is fully packed (as in the case of major public holiday), chance of missing your train due to long queue to print the boarding pass does exist.


During transition period, things were much even more ridiculous as we must posses both of them in order to be eligible to board the train!

As a travel agent myself, who regularly sell airline tickets, Indonesian State Railway ticketing system is the most impractical and odd one. While airline ticket, and even boarding pass, can be printed at home or office, State Railway seem to live in their own narrow world.

To worsen the matter Indonesian State Railway manager seemed to be filled by group thinking people who turn deaf ear to positive inputs, and getting offended or incensed easily by criticism. The days of improvement under Mr. Ignasius Jonan have obviously diminished.

In the end I’m happy that I found mainline trainspotting returning back to its former glory, despite the fact that Indonesian State Railway’s effort and progress to improve obviously have gone astray.


Despite of the declining number of real steam workings and field lines mileage, there are still plenty to offer for railway enthusiasts in here.

Although elderly generation of railway enthusiasts lamented the disappearance of “real steam working”, steam locomotive attractions will never die in Java and Indonesia. There will always be something new to see and enjoy.

It is good to know that plantation company finally realize the historical value of steam locomotives or engines, and also classic architecture of the mills. Although they have made serious effort, in the end we must realize that they are not as big as Indonesian State Railway and most of their preservation effort does not receive the same kind of support from  central government in Jakarta, like what Indonesian State Railway privileged to have.

They have very limited funding to do all of those preservation efforts, so donation is actually needed. The best way to donate is by hiring their steam locos, for excursion running. In this way the profit generated can be used not just to maintain steam locos, but also bringing others back to live.


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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