Railing against it

 I’m one of those people who has always liked trains – my old Hornby set is in storage awaiting my retirement. I like travelling on non-suburban trains. I travelled from Cranbourne into Melbourne, to go to university, for several years on and off, and it was a good trip, because it was a country service. Now it has become a suburban commuter service (and, sadly, the scene of a fatal de-railment, yesterday).

So, one of the attractions of delivering a workshop in Cirebon, on Java’s north coast, was the 3-hour train trip. Tickets in executive class cost ~AU$11, and could be booked online. Martinie helped with the booking, and paid for them at a nearby convenience store.

I rocked up to Gambir station, near the National Monument (Monas) and was directed to window number 5. Unfortunately, no-one was behind it – it being Friday lunchtime, the ticket distributor was obviously a bloke, who had headed off for prayers. I was re-directed to window 11, and then climbed the stairs to the platform, ticket in hand.

The only other time I had been to Gambir was more than 10 years ago, when Lyndsey and I were going by train to Yogyakarta. On that occasion, it was like trying to get out of the MCG on Grand final day. We had hung on to our stuff very tightly as we were jostled about. This time was much more civilised. The Cirebon “Expres” arrived late, and my seat took a bit of finding. There were no obvious signs, and I had to ask a few fellow passengers. Some of them were as clueless as I was. I had the relative luxury of two seats, because Helen was too unwell to make the trip. She had intended to check out the batik shops.


Train windows give a unique perspective on the world. In places like Jakarta, where the desperately poor have been driven out from under the tollways, the space between the tracks and the fences provide accommodation. It is not quite Mae Klong market, in Thailand, but it is pretty bad. Some people lived in lean-tos, made of whatever they could find, others in shacks and, in some places, the train rumbled past withing 3m of the front porch of established houses!

Once we cleared the city, the countryside was really nice, and would have been even better several months earlier, before most of the rice had been harvested. There were still plenty of padis that were yet to be cut, but most consisted of dry stubble that evidenced a few half-hearted attempts to burn them.


A young woman, followed by two young men, came through the carriages selling meals, on plates, and drinks. They returned towards the end of the journey to “settle up”. My fellow passengers were all very quiet, with most snatching a few “zeds”. The train itself was passable, but was not cleaned efficiently, and there was little evidence of maintenance. The toilets were reasonably clean, but squat toilets. The seats were comfortable enough and reclined if needed. The windows all need a good clean, or replacement. However, the three hours passed relatively quickly, and I spent most of the time surveying the scenery. The “Expres”, which had actually stopped three times, pulled into Cirebon station, which looked like it was a nice old Dutch construction, with an underpass added.

I didn’t get to see much of Cirebon, because it was very much a lightening visit. However, it seems to be quiiite a large town, and boasts the mandatory KFC and McD’s, as well as a new mall or two. I was told that Starbucks is not far away from opening, putting Cirebon very high up in Helen’s indicators ofg development in Indonesia. My hosts took me to dinner up in the hills, and the restaurant had an amazing view back to the coast. Apparently, we were only half-way up, and those sort of restaurants would have been common. This one was on a number of levels, and served good, cheap Indonesian food, so that patrons can order a variety of dishes for a customised banquet, at a reasonable price.

I returned to Jakarta the next evening, so there wasn’t any scenery to look at. We all walked across the tracks to the platform, waiting for a 100-ton diesel to rumble through. However, the train left on time, and arrived on time (and included three stops, in Jakarta). Amongst my fellow travellers were several groups of women who, presumably, had made a day trip from Jakarta to shop for batik. It was relatively painless to get a taxi, but we had to detour several times on the way home. The first was because a vehicle had exploded in flames near the Hotel Indonesia roundabout (and I hope the occupant(s) had escaped) and the second was because of the interminable roadworks in Jl. Antasari. I was home within an hour, which, for a Friday evening travelling through Kemang, was pretty good.

We will certainly do the trip again, and, hopefully, spend enough time to have more of a look around.

Straight Shooter
By Andrew Clarke, Matthew Lloyd
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