Chris recommends inter-city trains for tourists, and maybe locals too.
In Java and some parts of Sumatra, train lines continue to operate commuter services between numerous large and not so large cities of Indonesia. However, passenger numbers can be low and schedules infrequent. Yet trains remain, in my opinion, a reasonable option for most tourists, and locals too. They are more convenient, as comfortable and as safe as other means of transport.
Airports in Indonesia are almost all a long distance from the centre of town, or are about to be (e.g. the new airports in Lombok and Medan, the proposed new airport in Bali). It is the same for most inter-city bus terminals also. This results in the trip to/from the departure/arrival airport taking almost as long as the flight itself, particularly if there is bad traffic or flooding on the way – an almost daily occurrence during the wet season in Jakarta.
However, train stations are almost always conveniently located in the centre of town. In the case of travelling one way from Jakarta to Surabaya, the cost of taxis to and from the airports (along with airport tax) can amount to as much as a rail ticket itself.
Executive-class carriages have ample legroom and footrests, with a meal service plus extra cushions and blankets available upon request for a small fee. Some people have complained that the air-conditioning is too cold (like in most Jakartan shopping malls), but in my experience I haven’t found this to be true.
Train stations often have a special waiting room for business and executive-class passengers, which can be variable in quality but usually have air conditioning, a TV and comfortable chairs. They are certainly much nicer than that city’s airport departure lounges.
This is a concern for many people. They may quote statistics like there being a train accident every six days barlinkesuma.multiply.com or point to the latest rail accident. However, as the same article says, many are collisions at un-gated railway crossings where the driver of the car, bus or motorbike did not check if there was a train coming before proceeding.
However, the safety of rail services is still relatively good compared to other means of transportation.
Exact figures are difficult to obtain, but The Jakarta Post reported Indonesia’s road toll – i.e. the number of people killed in road accidents annually - is approximately 17 000, with 90% caused by driver negligence . Other statistics I have heard is that 45 people die every month in Bali alone thejakartapost.com. Yet, people show no inclination to stop using their cars due to unsafe roads or other dangerous drivers.
As many readers of IM will be aware, Indonesian aircraft were banned from the EU in 2007 due to a spate of accidents. While there were no fatalities in 2008, investigations into the causes of the 2007 Garuda Indonesia crash found that the Yogyakarta airport (like those in Solo and Semarang) were operating unlicensed due to the failure to improve safety measures like run-off areas abc.net.au.
Ferries have sunk not only due to high seas, but also overcrowding, overloading of cargo and/or poor maintenance, resulting in hundreds of deaths at a time.
So, by comparison train travel isn’t as dangerous as its reputation may suggest.
INFORMATION AND BOOKING
Perhaps, a lack of information on schedules and fares has also been a hindrance. In the past, you would have to actually go to a station to get information like so:
Schedule and fare information for Jember, East Java.
However, this has also improved over time. You can get schedule and fare information at: http://www.infoka.kereta-api.com/jadwal_dan_tarif/
Note that this does not include economy class services, and to get current fares you must choose the cities from the dropdown menu, not from the list of trains at the bottom of the page.
While even Garuda and Merpati have recently introduced online booking into their webpages, PT. KAI is yet to offer this service. However, you can now book your ticket up to 30 days ahead (up from seven previously), and they now offer a booking by phone option. You dial 13 897 on your mobile, then head to your nearest Bank Mandiri ATM to pay. You can then exchange the receipt for a ticket at your convenience. It is a “premium” mobile service, and costs about Rp4000/minute.
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So I would urge you to consider taking the train on your next Indonesian domestic holiday. I can recommend from personal experience the following:
Twice daily from Surabaya to Banyuwangi. Overnight train is great for weekend trips to/from Bali, also suitable for trips to Mt Bromo (get off at Probolinggo) and Ijen Plateau (get off at Jember or Banyuwangi).
Argo Bromo Anggrek
Twice daily services between Jakarta's Gambir and Surabaya's Pasar Turi stations, including the only day-time service; the others are all overnight. The A/C is a bit cold, but a cap and a thin sweater should be enough. Includes some low quality TV, no worse than Garuda's domestic in-flight entertainment. There are free snacks, but check first - passengers were deceived into thinking the first meal was free, but turned out to cost Rp30 000.
The numerous trains from Jakarta to Bandung
Quite scenic three hour trip. Avoids traffic snarls at either end of the new toll road. Also useful for travelling from Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport to Bandung or vice versa - the Damri airport bus has a terminal at Gambir. Tickets on Damri cost Rp20 000 per person one way.
Twice daily from Medan to Pematang Siantar, 75% of the way to Lake Toba. A more pleasant journey than the often crowded, smelly and erratically-driven buses and minibuses (called “travel”) that ply the Trans Sumatran Hwy. It’s not difficult to get a ride from the station or the nearby main street to Parapat.
But that’s just my opinion. What do you think? What have your experiences of train travel been like? Would you recommend it, and why or why not? How do trains compare with buses and air travel?