Not long ago, any authentic Indonesian model railway set required dozens of tiny model passengers perched precariously on the roofs of carriages. Occasionally, some would fall off. They might even get knocked down by concrete balls hung above the tracks, or hosed off by staff at railway stations – these were just two of the tactics used to deter daredevil fare-dodgers. Thankfully, such stunts were eliminated in 2013 by the city’s governor Joko Widodo, before he went on to become president.
Some of Jakarta’s trains still transform into sardine tins during peak hours, but the commuter lines and stations are improving every year. As for the long-awaited high-speed railway linking Jakarta to Bandung, which should cut the four-hour journey to 45 minutes, the 142 km line was supposed to be running by 2019, but the date has been pushed back to 2021 because of interminable land acquisition problems.
Java has enjoyed a functional railway system since Dutch colonial times, making it easy for people to traverse the island without amassing tales of peril and disruption. Compared to the island’s roads, where fatal crashes are numerous (9,338 deaths were recorded in 2017), or the seas, where overcrowded ferries sink with a loss of life comparable to major air disasters, the railway lines of Java are safe and relatively comfortable. This is not always the case in some other Asian countries.
Thailand has one of the best railways systems in Southeast Asia, but it isn’t without its quirks. I recently travelled the 251 km from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet, where I planned to cross the border into neighbouring Cambodia. As the train moved off, I observed that all the staff were wearing surgical masks, and I amused myself by thinking of unlikely reasons for it. Perhaps they had raided the lost luggage of a surgeon.
Halfway into the four-hour journey, I saw the real reason for the masks. The train entered some arid terrain, and red dust began billowing in through the carriage windows – all of which were jammed open. Some passengers wrapped scarves or handkerchiefs around their faces for protection, while others lifted shirts up over their noses and mouths. When we eventually stepped off the train, we looked like we’d been engaged in desert warfare.
Over the border in Cambodia, the railway is being restored. In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge used cattle cars to transport brutalised and confused citizens to work camps in the countryside, and the rail system was later destroyed by war. Lines are being resurrected gradually, and it’s hoped that direct rail links from Phnom Penh to the capital cities of neighbouring countries will soon be established. However, there’s something tentative about the entire project, including the speed of the trains.
Cambodia has the slowest trains I’ve ever experienced. They seem to work on the principal of the generation starship – a spacecraft that requires several human generations to arrive at its destination. That is, if you board a train at Phnom Penh, your descendants will be the ones getting off at Sihanoukville 264 km up the southern line. Don’t bring a book to read on the journey. Bring a library. The train has ample luggage and cargo space. Some passengers take their vehicles along on the rear flatbed carriages. It costs $14 for a car and $5 for a motorbike.
Once, my train moved so slowly that it went backwards. Ten minutes outside of Phnom Penh, I sensed a tiny wobble in the fabric of space-time as the train executed an almost imperceptible change of direction and started reversing back to the station. Apparently, the airport shuttle was approaching us on the single track, meaning our train had to reverse to avoid a head-on crash that, owing to the low speeds, would be like two glaciers colliding.
Phnom Penh’s airport shuttle service, which opened in April 2018, gives a similar impression of inertia. There’s nothing sleek or modern about it. In fact, it seems archaic rather than new. The train (just the one) runs 24-hours a day, backward and forward between Phnom Penh International Airport and the city’s railway station. And I mean literally backward and forward.
Upon reaching the junction at Taing Korsang Khang Tboung Pagoda, after having crawled through entanglements of slum dwellings, the train reverses (again the wobble) and branches off into the thick of a neighbourhood. Then it proceeds to rumble down the middle of Street 105K – right alongside motorists and pedestrians – for another 8km to the airport. It’s as though the train has transformed into a tram.
This is not an elegant tram of the type seen in Melbourne or Munich. This is a bulky, steel diesel locomotive, forged in Eastern Europe. It’s massive. It’s unstoppable. It was built to haul freight. It rumbles heavily like the Titanic on wheels. Local residents, who opposed the laying of the line in the first place, complain of their houses shaking as the train passes, blasting its horn and spitting oil. At night, it illuminates the street with a glaring headlamp.
The shuttle service has long been awaiting the delivery of three less gargantuan diesel railcars from Mexico. Until then, the residents of Street 105K will continue to have their senses battered every hour or so, day and night.
Fare-wise, the Cambodian airport train is free until its new engines arrive, then it will cost US$2. That’s considerably cheaper than Jakarta’s airport train, which began operating in December 2017 and costs Rp70,000 ($4.60) for a ticket. Still, that’s peanuts compared to the price gouging at Australia’s Sydney airport, where a train ticket to the city costs about A$18 (US$12.65).
The Jakarta airport train, called Railink, requires purchasing a ticket at a machine that has on-screen instructions only in English and does not accept cash. Hence, Railink staff are present to guide bewildered travellers through the screen-tapping and payment processes. Inexplicably, you have to input your phone number too. If you’re taking the airport train by day, you’ll get a nice tour of Jakarta’s slums.
This brings us to another hazard you might want to add to your model train set. Passing trains make irresistible targets for children (and adults – I’ve seen them) hanging out by the tracks, where there are plenty of stones lying around. Most of them bounce harmlessly off the livery, but some crack windows. You might want to remember this when choosing a window seat next time you’re heading off to Bandung. All aboard!