2017 Java Steam & Sugar Tour: The Humble Return Part 4

Monday 11th September 2017 is the day where we will have the highlight of our 2017 Java Steam & Sugar tour: riding steam train on Semboro’s vast field lines network.

Or not so, according to Geoff.

While we were having breakfast, I expressed my excitement about today’s planned itinerary where we will ride steam loco hauled excursion train on Semboro sugar mill. Especially since the mill have 2nd largest field lines network in Indonesia, this would guarantee a more exciting journey than what I had in Olean back in 2015.

But Geoff reminds me not to be too excited about it first, as the chance of not having working steam loco does present. He said that back in last August, John Raby’s tour group left Semboro almost empty handed. Just like us, they had actually booked steam train excursion on the mill. But upon arrived, the mill management told them that none of the steam locos were available for excursion (including the rather young no.29). So they ended up doing excursion ride onboard small inspection railcar at Jatiroto.

Upon hearing that I lost my appetite to eat breakfast, and began to felt very nervous. So much that I began to suffer from gastritis, resulting from the stress. The feeling of excitement on me turned into anxiety. Although both Geoff and Joop said that they wouldn’t mind if we fail to had a steam train excursion, for me it would make tour’s financial management into a nightmare.

After breakfast, we return back to our room to have shower and preparing ourselves for the journey. Today, my brother rejoined us and he will assist me on running this tour. He will do the driving, while I do administration matter. This proved beneficial for me, because as a tour leader, dealing with administration with sugar mill can be a very tiring and even heartbreaking process. And if added with driving, like what I did in 2014, it would have been a very tiring work to do. Although back then, I thankfully encountered mostly friendly mill managements who were accustomed to impromptu foreigner visits.

The drive between Jember to Semboro was quite an easy one. Although it was Monday morning, the fact that Jember is just a small town means there were virtually no traffic jams. It was the second time I visited Semboro. The first one was back in early 2015 during off season, when I visited the mill just for curiosity after I dropped a group of fussy German tourists in Banyuwangi. And back then, I didn’t enter the mill or wandering around its field lines. So finding the way to Semboro is an easy one.

Upon arriving at the mill, we head into its administration office. I have to say that unlike most sugar mills that I’ve visited, which have shabby and dusty entrance, the frontage of Semboro sugar mill is very neat and tidy. It is a truly pleasant place to visit.

Upon parking our car, we went into the administration office.

I went into the administration room. While Geoff, Joop, and my brother Satrio sat in the guest room, I met with one of the administration staff, and submitting the permit letter as well as informing our intention to go on steam excursion trip, with nervous feeling. I was met by one management staff named Agus.

It was during this meeting that one major glitch is revealed: apparently none in Semboro has prior warning over our intention to have a steam excursion tour! Apparently my permit letter wasn’t forwarded to here! This truly increases the tension on me.

Then I asked to Agus, whether if it’s still possible to charter steam loco for that day. I’m anxiously waiting his answer……

Surprise! Surprise! Agus delivered one answer that truly easy my tension: Yes, the steam loco is available for charter today! Although the catch is, due to our “impromptu visit” (no it’s not! It’s the fault of the management office in Surabaya for failing to forward my letter to here!), the steam locomotive would only be ready by 3pm.  And also the only available steam loco will be the no.29. The rare mallet is not available due to maintenance. I replied to Agus, that’s perfectly fine.

After I settle the payment for the tour (which thankfully didn’t exceed my predicted amount) I left the office with a very relieved feeling. I then informed everyone that the steam locomotive tour will proceed as planned, although there will be some delay encountered. Geoff and Joop don’t mind about that. Now everyone is happy!

It’s still 10.30 in the morning, and we still have an ample of time to do before we start the steam train excursion. So we decided to spend time by exploring the mill.

Semboro sugar mill is a massive complex. Its sugarcane receiving station size is twice larger than what I see in Tasikmadu. One is for truck deliveries while other for railway delivery.

It’s quite a novelty, considering that in some other mills that operate their railway, one receiving station is used for both trucks and rails.

Near the station, we found one locomotive parked next to small food stall hut. Its driver is having some coffee between duties.

Once the driver finished his coffee, he resumed his works.

Semboro sugar mill is quite a modern sugar mill. Although it was built in 1921, very little trace of original factory building can be seen. It has largely been swallowed by modern structure.

The sign of modernity doesn’t just visible on the factory compound, even the railway wagons are equipped with one modern feature: roller bearing axle.

In other mills, the wagons are so primitive that they still have friction bearing. This give the sugarcane train distinctive creaking noise, especially when loaded. With the roller bearing axle, sugarcane train would be much less audible. And the only way to spot their presence is by listening to the sound of its locomotive. And due to the fact that all of the locomotives in Semboro are rather silent (the diesel locos sound are similar to tractor, while the steam locos only makes faint hisses), noticing train presence would be tricky.

Despite all of its modernization, Semboro sugar mill still operates some ancient relics which have become increasingly rare in the world: the Fireless locomotives.

Unlike conventional steam locomotives, Fireless locomotive works by mean of using steam pressure which is injected into its boiler.

The steam itself is also generated from byproduct of crushing process.

The reason why Semboro is still resorting to fireless locomotives for shunting works is due to the threat of fire that can be caused by spark emission from steam locomotives. Even to smaller degree diesel locomotives can still pose similar threat too.

And if you look into its cab, it has no firebox. The fireless locos in Semboro doesn’t even have whistle. Probably to conserve the steam pressure needed to move the wheels. So it’s only mean to warn people are by using the bell seen in the background.

Although the role of fireless locomotives have largely been superseded by battery locomotives in other parts of the world, the reason why Semboro sugar mill still retain this pair of 1920s built locomotives is due to its simplicity and reliability.

Of course there is a catch: the locomotives cannot wander to outside due to limited quantity its steam reserve.

Once both locomotives have been filled with steam pressure, they resume their shunting works.


It’s quite amazing to be able to see such rare locomotive to do regular works in 21st century.

You can see the video of their working in here:

These locomotives works in pull and push order. In this occasion, the no.3 pulling the loaded train from the yard, while no.2 assisting it by pushing the train.

For some reason, the train is delayed for long, so I took the chance by photographing its builder logo on its boiler.

My brother said he couldn’t stand the heat and noise. So he decides to return back into the car. I stay with Geoff and Joop, who watching the fireless. Even if none of them are moving, they’re willing to wait.

Although the noise from the factory is nearly unbearable, they seem to enjoy being there!

A few minutes later another loaded train came from the yard, and heading into the receiving station.

Since I too couldn’t stand the noise and the heat further, I decide to return back to my car and catching up with my brother.

But apparently the length of the diesel hauled loaded train is so long that it blocked my way back. So I decided to cross the train by passing through the driving cab of one of the loco there.

I took the photo of the locomotive’s builder plate. From it, you can see that the locomotive was built by Hokuriku in Japan, back in 1976. I believe it was actually delivered here as a part of Japanese economic assistance to Indonesia.

I went back to the car and found it locked. Apparently my brother is relaxing in the gazebo just in front of the office. It’s quite a pleasant place to relax and drinks while waiting for our steam locomotive to be ready.

While waiting, I decided to go to steam locomotive monument near the entrance. This loco is similar to what I saw near Jatiroto yesterday, albeit in better condition.

From the monument, I head into the locomotive shed to find out how does our locomotive preparation progress.

I asked the direction from one of the security officer there. She said that it’s on the back compound. But she reminds me that it’s quite a long walk, so she suggests that I need to take my car there. I replied that it’s alright for me. I get used to walk long anyway, so I decided to walk.

Along the way, I came across this molasses filling station, where tank trucks receiving their load here.

Up until 1988 harvesting season, this service was served by railway where it was connected on a cape gauge branchline that starting from Tanggul station on the mainline. The line itself is a dual gauge, a combination of 1067mm mainline gauge, and 700mm field lines gauge, which also cross a large bridge just to the north of the mill compound. The cape gauge is no longer in use, while the 700mm is still busy.

The haulage was done by a cape gauge Orenstein & Koppel built steam locomotive. Coincidentally the loco is now displayed just next to the loading point.

After the end of the service, the locomotive went into disuse, and for decades it was stored in derelict condition. But in 2016, it was rescued and partly renovated for display. They never made any attempt to fully renovate it, probably due to complexity of the task.

And it’s quite interesting that now they display the loco just next to the place where it would normally do some workings in the past.

I resume walking where upon arriving at the locomotive shed; I went inside and greeted by the sight of busy maintenance workers. It is in here too that I catch up again with Geoff and Joop who have finished watching the fireless locos.

The yellow locomotives are the big locos that are normally used to haul loaded trains in the field, while the small green locomotives are used to haul shorter train. And the small locomotives are also capable of going down into the field on temporary track to haul loaded wagons, and carrying them into the permanent track, essentially replacing the role of animals or tractors that are normally used on other sugar mills.

Right in the middle of the shed, I can see that our locomotive is being slowly steamed for the excursion.

A fireman stood in front of the firebox door, carefully monitoring the heating progress. While waiting for the steam pressure to go up, he complained on why didn’t I inform the mill management before coming? I replied that it is actually the fault of the central office in Surabaya for not forwarding my permit letter to here. He seems to accept my answer and resuming his work.

The loco that we will ride today is quite new, being built by Jung in West Germany in 1961. And it is also the twin sister of Jatiroto number J100 that we saw yesterday. It’s amazing how a pair of identical twins would have different fate these days.

Right next to our loco is this Orenstein & Koppel built mallet number 15.

Unlike the number 29, she is a very old locomotive. Built 1926, she was once the star excursion locomotive in Semboro. Her uniqueness lay in the fact that she is the last mallet locomotive to see operation in Indonesia, or even South East Asia! Although officially listed as “ready but under maintenance” the loco haven’t run its wheels since 2015. The mill management promised that the loco will be available for charter, once the maintenance works completed. They’ve been saying similar thing since 2 years ago anyway.

As we go deeper into the locomotive shed, we could see the remains of the glory days of steam locomotive era in Semboro, in a form of variety of derelict steam locomotives which saw last regular use in 1990s. We can see many steam locomotives from different builders like Orenstein & Koppel, DuCroo & Brauns, and also Maffei. Up until 2013 or 2014 there was one Borsig mallet loco, but it has since been disappeared. It has probably been scrapped.

This locomotive is one of a several DuCroo & Brauns locomotives that survive in Semboro.

If I’m not mistaken Semboro have 4 of them, but only 3 are seen. They’re the smaller variant of DB’s mallet, which only generates 60hp.

Other type mallets in storage are the OK variant, whose are essentially similar to no.15. The derelict OK locos are used for spare parts source to keep no.15 going.

The shed looks rather empty now because majority of steam locomotives (and possibly early diesels) have been scrapped.

The number 9 is a rarity in the mallet dominated shed. It is one of a few small OK 0-4-2T locos that survive today, albeit in a very poor condition.

Steam locomotives operation in sugar mill like Semboro have survived mass dieselization that began after First World War and intensified in 1950s and 1970s, but thanks to the fact that they use sugarcane bagasse that come for free, they can survive well beyond internet era of late 1990s. But as the price of diesel fuel becomes increasingly reasonable, combined with the economic crisis of 1997-1998 led to drastic cost cutting measure, and the old steam locomotives have to go into the history.

And that leaves these 2 locos (plus 2 Fireless ones) as the sole survivor of working steam locomotives in Semboro sugar mill.

Satisfied with the inspection, I decide to return back to the car. Along the way, I passed in front of this display which show Semboro’s fleet of trains and tractors.

Upon returning back to the car, I learned that our water supply began to be depleted. Apparently the scorching heat causing us to drink more than what our supply has.  So we decided to go out from the mill and search for some supermarkets around for resupply. Thankfully, there are some minimarkets such as Indomaret or Alfamart which is similar to Seven Elevan convenient shop. They sell wide variety of drinks, snacks, or even food ingredients.

Once we bought necessary provisions, we return back to the sugar mill and head straight to the locomotive shed. It’s still 1.30pm, and we still have an ample of time before our steam tour commence. So we decided to park in a shady place near the locomotive shed and taking a brief nap.

At around 2’o clock, I woke up and went into the locomotive shed to see how our steam locomotive have progressed. Upon arriving in the shed, I’m surprised to found that our locomotive is nowhere to be seen!

Apparently the locomotive is on the outside, now fully steamed, and basically ready to go.

I hastily return back to the car to call my brother to be ready, and also picking up the ice box which carry our drinks provision.

Our locomotive is now ready to go. All it need is just fresh supply of firewood and also turning its direction around.

While waiting for that, I met the shed master and his subordinate. Once again, I listened to the same advice of “please inform us in advance”, which I replied by mentioning the head office’s carelessness in forwarding my permit letter.

The vice shed master also reminds me that it is highly advisable to return back to the mill before 6pm. This is to avoid inbound loaded trains traffic which might hinder our return trip. He said that they will not provide VIP treatment to our train, where regular sugarcane trains would gave way to ours, because it is impossible to do. That is despite the presence of double tracks on field lines.

When they move locomotive backward, my brother suddenly feel an eerie supernatural feeling. He asked to the crew whether if the loco have “guardian ghost”. They replied that it actually is, for those who believe in Javanese supernatural stuffs.

I think it’s quite strange that a locomotive of such age can have supernatural being in it.

While waiting for the locomotive to be turned around, I took some time to photograph the detail of our loco.

They might have done good job in making this locomotive in working condition. But obviously more effort needs to be done to fully repair this locomotive, as they obviously don’t do proper painting work on the locomotive. Not to mention some leaking in the steam piping joints.

Soon our locomotive is on the way to get its fresh supply of firewood.

Once the loading completed, our locomotive is turned around in the nearby triangular track. Since there is no turntable in this mill, this procedure is necessary to prepare the steam locomotive.

As I walk to a spot where I would photograph the outbound steam locomotive, I came across a small bit of the remains of cape gauge branchline which used to connect this mill and Tanggul railway station.

Although the outer track on branchline is largely still intact, most of those in the mill compound seem to have been pulled up.

Moments later, the steam locomotive completed its turning and heading straight to field lines.

But there is one more task that needs to be done before we can start going out into the field: retrieving the passenger coach for our accommodation during the trip.

I initially thought that they will use a passenger coach that is parked next to steam locomotive. It turned out that they allocate another coach with better appearance for us. The problem is, the aforementioned coach is parked in the part of the shed yard which is inaccessible by our steam locomotive, due to low axle load clearance.

So they will use small green diesel loco to haul our train. But then another problem presents itself. When I asked the shed master where the locomotive is, I’m stunned when they pointed to one nearby which seem to undergo major overhaul! Several mechanics swarmed the loco, while some parts and engine bay panels scattered around the locomotive. It doesn’t look like it is going to finish anytime soon.

I look on my watch, and it’s already 2.45pm! It means that we only have about 15 minutes to go before we have to go out to commence the excursion, without risk of being hindered by regular sugarcane trains. Yet, upon looking at the locomotive’s condition, I began to wonder if we would make it in time?

Amazingly, against all obvious odds, they could fix the locomotive in 5 minutes! And not for long they began to use it to pull the coach out.

Once they park the coach into the position, the steam locomotive backed into the shed to be coupled into the coach.

I get onboard the coach, and quite amazed on how spacious the interior is.

Once they coupled the coach, the train began to set off.

Then a few hundred meters from the shed, the train stopped by to pick Joop and Geoff, as well as my brother who carries the ice box.

The train moves slowly out into the field. It is when our train passes the gate, a security guard hop onboard our train to accompany us. Despite of good level of safety in the area, it is a standard procedure that an excursion train will be guarded by at least one security officer. There is no train conductor here, so either the security officer or my brother would act like one throughout the journey.

When our train exiting the mill compound, I spot one big diesel locomotive following us.

The locomotive act as an escort, in the event of steam locomotive breakdown the diesel loco will push the steam train into the safety, and then hauling our train back into the mill.

In the past, there have been some incidents where the steam loco broke down, and the diesel escort loco plays its part by helping clearing the track and rescuing the train.

As we go further, we can see a junction where one double track line goes into the south.

They say that if we took the long excursion route, the train would head to that line all the way into Kencong, about 20 km to the south.

Although the area around the mill is normally reserved for sugarcane crop, these days the farmers are given freedom to plant any crops that they think beneficial for them, like rice or corn. The rice field truly provides beautiful scenery for our trip.

About one kilometer after we left the mill, Joop asked us to stop the train. He said that this spot is good to photograph and record passing train with the backdrop of the mill in the distance. So we obliged to his request and taking some run past photos in here.

Once we finished taking photos and recording, we resume our journey again. While we are traveling slowly, I could see the feet of one volcano in the distance (which I assume as the nearby mount Argopuro).

I’m wondering, had the sky was clear, we could probably take the photo of the train with the backdrop of the volcano.

The railway line is winding its way through the rice field and sugarcane plantation. Sometime it also crosses some village road. When we approached one village (which I later learn that it is named “Kebon Agung”), Joop asked us to stop the train.

Apparently there is another interesting spot in here, where we can take the photo of video of the train as it about to cross the street and enter the village.

When the photo session ended, we return back to our train. Unfortunately, as we’re about to depart, our locomotive suddenly stalled. Although it is still in proper running condition, it is obvious that she is not designed for frequent stop and go operation.

We waited for some time before the driver fixed the problem and we resume our journey again.

During this stage of the journey I asked Geoff and Joop whether if they like to take photo at the girder bridge. They replied yes. Although I haven’t been there before, I have studied the satellite map of the place before, so I know that there is one interesting spot ahead.

As soon as we get near the bridge, we disembark from the train and walk into the bridge.

Signaling the train to move is a bit tricky, because our spot is located away from the track. So I decided to use my phone to call my brother to dispatch the train.

Although looks similar to younger bridges on the mainline, this steel girder bridge is a very old one, being built sometime in early 1930s to accommodate Semboro field lines. At that time it was one of the most modern railway bridge designs in the world.

Despite the fact that the railway lines were built to low axle load clearance and purely for industrial purpose, the Dutch didn’t spare any expenses and built the best narrow gauge railway system that they can get at that time. No temporary cheap wooded bridge designs were ever used in here.

Once the train crosses the bridge, we return back the train to resume our journey.

While traveling, I asked the security officer about our final destination, Pondok Jeruk. He replied that the place is not very far, and we will reach the place in less than 5 minutes.

Less than 5 minutes? As far as I know, the place named Pondok Jeruk is still a very long distance away. When I looked on satellite map, the distance between the steel girder bridge and the village of Pondok Jeruk is roughly equal to the distance between the bridge and Kebon Agung village. And the recent trip took more than 15 minutes to complete. So it left me wondering whether if one of us miscalculates the distance.

As soon as out train left the village area, our train passes a flat crossing with another railway line, and our train stopped. It is in here the security officer informing us that we have reached Pondok Jeruk. Really? I thought the place is still several kilometers to go, and feature triangular track?

Apparently this place is indeed parts of Pondok Jeruk district, and yes this place have triangular track which allowing the train to turn around to mill direction. The locomotive detached from the coach and ready to commence turning process.

Probably due to fatigue, Joop saying some requests which I found difficult to comprehend. Basically he wants to get the best angle for his video recording, but the way he telling it somehow puzzled me.

I went to the western apex of the triangular track to see the locomotive approaching the corner.

I believe had we paid more, we would have been able to go to the real Pondok Jeruk, or even Jatiroto!  These days, most of the workings beyond this point are done by diesels. While steam locomotives are only used on chartered service like what we have today, with very few options.

The locomotive the switched track and reverse into the distance.

It seems that while we were busy documenting the steam locomotives movement, the diesel loco pulled the passenger coach into different place to give clear way to steam locomotive to pass through. It is also turned around so it will be placed on the back of the loco.

While we wait for the turn around to complete, a loaded train from the west crosses the diamond crossing just in front of the steam. I didn’t photograph the trains crossing, but I do record it on the video.

After several movements, the locomotive is now facing to the mill direction. The locomotive then re-coupled to the passenger coach and ready for return journey back to the mill.


The trip back to Semboro was generally uneventful, with the exception of small incident at Kebon Agung. At that time, Joop requested to do lineside photography. I was too tired to join, so I remain seated in the train. After one pass, apparently the train failed to stop! Geoff and Joop were nearly left behind, before I notice the error and asked the driver to stop the train. Both of them huffing and puffing upon returning back onboard the train.

The remainder of the trip went uneventful. It was almost 6pm when we approaching the mill compound. And like what have been informed before, some loaded trains began to arrive into the mill. There is even one very long train that comes from southerly direction.

Contrary to what was told by shed master, that loaded train would not give way to our train in the event of congestion, one of the loaded trains in front of actually moved to another track, allowing us clear path to enter the mill.

But as our excursion is about to came to conclusion, one major incident strike. The locomotive water tank derails!

This caused some drama among the train crew. They suddenly rushed to re-rail the wagon. After some effort, they eventually succeeded in doing that and we’re able to complete the last few meters of our journey.

Soon we disembark from the train and thanking the crew for their hard work in making our steam locomotive journey possible.

The trip has been a good one. I wouldn’t say perfect because the absence of tripod makes the video looks odd in some scene, but overall it provide you with the live action of our happy steam train excursion.

Overall, today have been a blessed one and we are really grateful of our successful steam train journey.



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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