I love trains. Take a metro system, and you’ll be whisked to other parts of a city much faster than if you drive a car. Hop aboard an intercity train. In many cases, you’ll get to your destination reasonably fast. Taking the train induces less stress (as opposed to flying where you need to arrive at the airport hours in advance for multiple security checks), allows us to enjoy the scenery (instead of focusing on the road ahead when driving), and most importantly, helps reduce traffic congestion as trains carry more passengers than any other means of land transportation – in other words, they’re very eco-friendly.
Modern trains and railways were first introduced in Britain in the early 19th century during the Industrial Revolution. They played a crucial role in the rapid economic growth of the nation as they were often faster and more efficient in carrying people and goods from one place to another than horse-drawn carriages and water transportation. This technology was soon adopted by other European powers who not only implemented it on home soil, but also in their colonies across the globe.
Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was called back then, was among the first places outside Europe to have railways. First laid in the second half of the 19th century, what began as a rail line connecting the port city of Semarang to the interior of Java – allowing cash crops to be easily transported from Dutch-owned plantations to the port where they would then be shipped overseas – expanded rapidly in the subsequent decades. By 1928, a railway network totaling 7,464 kilometers was already in place throughout Java, Madura, Sumatra, and Sulawesi (the Dutch never built railways on the other islands).
While Semarang witnessed the first ever trains rolled out in the Dutch East Indies, eventually it was Batavia – the center of administration and economic hub of the Dutch colony – that had the busiest rail traffic not only on Java, but also in the entire archipelago. In 1870, the Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS), a private company headquartered in Semarang, built a railway line connecting Batavia and Buitenzorg (now Bogor) to the south with its terminus at Batavia Noord station. In 1887, another company called the Bataviasche Oosterspoorweg Maatschappij (known as BOS), operated a 56-kilometer railroad that went from the newly-constructed Batavia Zuid station to the east. Both the Noord (North) and Zuid (South) stations were in fact separated by just a few hundred meters in an area that is now part of Jakarta’s Kota Tua (the old town district).
In the late 19th century, the Staatsspoorwegen (SS), a railway company owned by the Dutch East Indies government, acquired Batavia Zuid station from BOS, as well as Batavia Noord from NIS fifteen years later. These happened in a period of time when the Dutch colonial government was carrying out a major infrastructure project to build a new deepwater harbor to replace Sunda Kalapa, Batavia’s old port which was increasingly becoming less competitive than Singapore – at that time still a British colony. Back then, only smaller boats could dock at the former, while larger ships had to anchor at a distance from the coast. This made exporting goods costly, for items had to be loaded to the smaller boats first, which would then carry them to the ocean-bound large vessels. This forced many to bypass Sunda Kalapa altogether and go straight to Singapore whose harbor was able to handle big ships.
Following its completion, Tanjung Priok – the new port – saw an increase in trade and shipping activities. This prompted the development of supporting facilities nearby, including a new train station to replace an existing one connecting the port with the city center. Construction began in 1914, and eleven years later the new Tanjung Priok station commenced operations. A year afterward, Batavia Zuid was demolished to make way for a new station, christened Batavia Stad, which was opened in 1929. Since then, all rail journeys to the city ended at this station, deeming Batavia Noord obsolete which resulted in its eventual demolition.
Today, Jakarta Kota (formerly Batavia Stad) station remains as busy as ever, serving as a terminus for key routes to some of Jakarta’s satellite cities. However, the situation at Tanjung Priok station is completely the opposite.
Back in the days when ocean voyages were the fastest way for people from Europe to travel to Asia – helped by the opening of the Suez Canal – some who arrived in Tanjung Priok opted to stay at the station before continuing their journeys onward by train to different parts of Java, and vice versa. This was made possible due to the presence of lodgings within the station’s premises. Tanjung Priok was also where the Dutch East Indies had its first ever electrified rail tracks, which are now used for all commuter trains serving the Greater Jakarta area.
Unfortunately, as air travel became faster and more affordable over the years, and the highway network expanded on the island, Tanjung Priok station gradually lost its appeal. In 1999, KAI (the state-owned railway company) even decided to end all passenger services from the station. 10 years later, Tanjung Priok was finally reopened, although the commuter line connecting this station and Jakarta Kota was only reactivated in 2015.
I have been to Jakarta Kota station several times in the past. But I had never set foot in Tanjung Priok station (or anywhere in that part of Jakarta) since I moved to the city 14 years ago… until one morning in early May this year.
Over a massive dim sum breakfast at a place in West Jakarta, I was pondering where to head next since the weather was perfect to go out and explore the city.
“What about going to Tanjung Priok after this?” I asked James while gauging his reaction toward my unusually spontaneous idea.
His reply was short and convincing. “Sure!”
At around 9:30, we arrived at Jakarta Kota with a steady stream of people coming in and out of the station. After locating the right platform, we waited for a few minutes before boarding the train that would take us to Tanjung Priok. The so-called ‘Pink Line’ train departed on time and soon enough it began running relatively smoothly on the 15-kilometer route along the northern part of Jakarta. It stopped only at a few stations before passing by the city’s gleaming new 82,000-seater football (soccer) stadium before ending its journey at our destination less than half an hour later.
Although I had seen images of Tanjung Priok station online before, it was even more impressive in person. Its lofty ceiling gave this place a sense of grandeur, vastness, and airiness I never experienced in other train stations in Indonesia. Its metal structure as well as tilework were imported from Europe and remain in relatively good condition to this day. While the station itself definitely looked well-maintained, only one of its tracks was open for passenger trains. In an article I read later that day at home I also learned that the basement of the station has now been permanently inundated by seawater intrusion, a sobering reminder of the fact that Jakarta is sinking (while the sea level is rising).
We walked outside the station to marvel at the whitewashed structure on a clear and sunny day. However, I have to admit I was a bit more cautious when wandering around the building because of Tanjung Priok’s rather sad reputation as one of Jakarta’s ‘rough’ areas. I believe the reality might be more nuanced than what the media portrays. But that day I decided to just focus on the station and not attract unwanted attention.
This impromptu trip turned out to be a success: the weather was perfect, the train journeys pleasant, and we finally got to see what is arguably one of Jakarta’s most beautiful heritage buildings. It was a fine, albeit spontaneous, ride to the past.