The International Steam Pages

Lake Singkarak Tourist Train, 2012

This is part of our report on our visit to West Sumatra in late 2012.  You can read about the rest of it from the links below.

When I planned the visit, I anticipated being based in Bukit Tinggi and travelling to Sawahlunto as a day trip from Padang Panjang. All that changed when I heard that E1060 would most likely be steamed and indeed the plan would have been unworkable as the Sunday tourist train no longer runs on the rack section. Despite the original times still being prominently displayed ay Sawahlunto station, we found this undated scrappy piece of paper on the window of the signal cabin and the door of the tourist office which gives what I believe to be the correct timings as of December 2012.

On the Friday, I have to say that the signs were not propitious even for a train that runs just once a week. On the way to the tunnel (we are 155km from Padang by rail and just 50km as the crow flies), the rubbish was ankle deep and near the station there was competition for the space occupied by the railway.

Come Sunday, we said goodbye to our homestay hosts and headed for the station, hoping for the best but aware as always that a plan B was needed - as it was we were going to have to look for a bus to get us from Batu Tabal to Bukit Tinggi. Of course en route we got ambushed, there was a 10km run occupying both roads to Sawahlunto and in the end we had to beg the police to let us through. We got to the station just before the train arrived from Solok and the various warungs etc knew what was was good for them as they had cleared a path for it.

There are just two serviceable locomotives on the upper section now both based at Solok (BB 204 93 05 / 06), rack diesels - a rare breed and notoriously unreliable. The first batch (from ca 1983) had hardly seen their guarantee out before they were declared a total write off after barely 10 years of operation. The technical people blamed the fact that they couldn't cope with the worn rack rails, but I suspect there was also an issue with the rheostatic braking in the hot humid tropical conditions. The second batch seem to have been marginally better in that most kept going until the service over the rack finished in 2003. Frankly, SLM should have stuck with steam locomotives and they might still be in business (as it happens their steam division effectively still exists) and it would have been a far better economic proposition to overhaul the existing steam rack locomotives which were less than 20 years old and should have lasted 3 times that. Of course, by the time it was apparent that a mistake had been made, the steam had all been scrapped except for E1016 (in Taman Mini) and E1060 (initially preserved in Padang, sent to Ambarawa and put in running order and later returned to Sawahlunto).


I try to avoid AC coaches on trains in the tropics as the windows are invariably so dirty that you can't see out so I bought ekonomi class tickets. However, when I saw what was on offer I quickly upgraded:

There was just one problem, the departure time came and went and there was an ominous silence from the front of the train. Eventually, I wandered down and fund that 06 had been declared a failure and that 05 was on its way. We were denied an apparent double header as no doubt the extra weight would have been too much for 05 and 06 was dumped in the other platform road. And yes, the coaches really are that colour...

We had no paying passengers in our coach so we opened as many doors as possible including that at the very back. This is the main mosque in Sawahlunto, built on the site of the original power house for the town.

 It was a great way to see the countryside, firstly both ends of the tunnel, the summit is just short of the south portal, so you cannot look through it from the ends.

I laughed when I heard that a group of gricers was to charter E1060 for a train to Muarakalaban in 2010. The line is not only totally bushed in but also so steep downhill that stopping a respectably sized train for a runpast would be an impossible ask. I should know because I rode a F10 2-12-2T here in 1978 and even with the crew onside, I not only failed to get a picture when I jumped off and tried to run ahead but I had to leap on the back of the final coal wagon to avoid getting left behind. The crew were very glad to see me walking up at Muarakalaban as they had my bags on the loco.

Most of the line is in poor condition with a mandatory speed limit of 40kph, but it does allow for a total immersion experience:

At Solok, it was clear that this train was attracting more than the 15-20 passengers which the original service was reported to carry. I was on my way to the front of the train.

For the next hour and a bit, it didn't matter if I was looking out through dirty glass. This is the bridge where the Sungei Ombilin leaves Lake Singkarak. Many thanks are due to my hosts for the ride.

(There are some pictures by Derek Huntriss from 1977 showing the F10s which worked this line elsewhere on this website.)

It was a shame that the rack section onwards was not included, not least because I have never ridden it. Never mind, here's a picture, as they say, which I took earlier. Much earlier in fact, it was in 1977!

We left the train at Batu Tabal and almost immediately caught a midi bus up to Bukit Tinggi; it was raining in Padang Panjang, of course. Bukit Tinggi is another town unspoiled by progress and with the help of some friendly locals we soon found the more than adequate Hotel Kartini (with equally welcome hot water and western toilet) off J. Ahmad Jani below the clock tower. And I found the Bintang supply without needing help.

Suitably refreshed we quickly did the tourist round as seen on the index page. Yuehong felt my organisation on the trip had up to its usual standard, I have to confess that we had had a great time and not been defeated by the Indonesian buggeration factor. Actually writing that while still in Bukit Tinggi is a bit risky as we still have to get back to Medan and on to Penang before Yuehong's Malaysian entry visa expires.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson