Sumatra's Last Industrial Narrow Gauge

The actual meaning of Off The Beaten Tracks was this trip more like, as we explored some really remote and ‘unexplored’ sites some way off the grid. 

Some Backgrounds Into Sumatran Topography
Unlike Java, Sumatra’s topography is mostly made up of low flat floodplains, which make it an ideal place to grow palm oil, since palm oil trees need an amazing amount of water in order for it to produce palm oil fruits. But just like Java, where they are mostly known to produce raw sugar, Sumatra is known for producing semi processed palm oil. Built by the Dutch expatriates, they also installed narrow gauge railways in order to carry their palm oil fruits. However, many of these narrow gauge palm oil industrial railway lines have gone out of fashion since the mid to late 90’s when a lot of the (mostly State Owned) palm oil plants scrapped their steam locos and ripped out their narrow gauge industrial railway lines.

Since I believe I have “conquered” Java’s narrow gauge sugar cane railway lines, it was time for me to move on and explore other places. And me being a gricer, accompanied by an Australian rail enthusiast, Scott Jesser, we both explored Sumatra’s last industrial narrow gauge railway lines. There weren’t much to explore, and some of these are located at far away and remote places. On one palm oil plant, it even involved using a tug boat to cross a huge river just to get to a palm oil plant. “Any luck?”, you might have asked. Well, just scroll down and read further on. Before I start, I will put the article on the order of the plants that I visited, which means right somewhere South East of the North Sumatra province all the way to somewhere just 3 hours South of Medan.

Just before we start, as usual, I have screen printed maps from Google Earth to show the locations of the mills. I have pin point them, and label the pins with each corresponding mills. Note that they are way off Medan, and some are even way off the nearest administration town. Also, steams in North Sumatra have long gone, mostly in the mid to late 90's. So we already knew that we could only expect diesels with the regular palm oil trains.

A map of North Sumatra along with the corresponding palm oil mill locations. The BSP Kisaran Rubber and Palm Oil Mill along with Socindo Aek Loba Palm Oil Mill is located at Asahan Region, whilst PTPN IV Kebun Ajamu along with Socfindo Negeri Lama Palm Oil Mill are both located at Labuhan Batu Region.

A slightly enlarged map showing the whereabouts of the PTPN IV Kebun Ajamu and Negeri Lama Palm Oil Mills, where both are located in Labuhan Batu Region.
PTPN IV Kebun Ajamu, Negeri Lama, Labuhan Batu Region
A two and a half hours of drive from the main administration town of the region, RantauPrapat, it was no doubt that KebunAjamu is located at a far away and remote place. It was so remote, that there was hardly any kind of public transports that went there. The best way for me was obviously to rent a car from Medan. And by the looks of it, it seems as if it never received any visitors previously, let alone any Westerners. So it seemed like me and Scott were the first ones to set foot in Kebun Ajamu.

We first started with Kebun Ajamu, as we found this strange looking what seems like a German diesel. No builders plates were found, hence we couldn't identify what this German loco was. I initially thought it was a British built Ruston & Hornsby, but I was corrected that it might be a German loco.

The riped palm oil fruits are brought to the side of the rails on bicycles and are all scattered on the side of the rails along the field lines before being loaded onto the baskets. No.16 Schoema 4wDM seen on the photo is arriving with the empty baskets at the field line.

On our way hunting for a field train, we cought up with one of the workers busy loading the palm oil fruits into the basket. Whereas in Java, where water buffaloes and cattles are being deployed to drag the empty cane wagons deep into the cane estates, here in North Sumatra, the palm oil baskets are left in the field line. Workers on bicycles bring the palm oil fruits into the side of the rails where they are then loaded onto the baskets using hand forks/sticks, as seen on the photo.
Considering I had troubles with my camera’s memory card, I decided to repeat the earlier day on the next day, hence we ended up spending two consecutive days there. Having to sort out permits from the PTPN IV Headquarters in Medan around 2 months prior to visit, entrance was no problem. We only saw diesels in the yard and no steam. Judging from Ray’s list stating that there were steams that delivered there, we can only assumed that all steams have been scrapped some long time ago, possibly at the end of 90’s. The diesels also were in a very sorry condition. They are all left to rust in an open air condition without any roofs over them whatsoever, being exposed to rainwater, oxygen dan carbon dioxide, and sunlight, so it was nowonder the diesels seemed like moving scrap metals, and not to mention a lot of missing parts, such as engine and bonnet lids/covers, and so on. Field line still exists however, with lines and branches going towards plantation sites 1, 2, and 3. They used to have lines going to sites 4 and 5, but they’ve all not been used and have since converted to road trucks.

On the second (repeated) day, Scott waited at the rail exit gate to see if he can get something else, whilst I decided to chase after the no.16 (what seems to me) Schoema 4wDM loco, on foot!! I had to hop on and off the loco as it was moving in motion. And so it went right deep into the palm oil estate as seen here on the photo, awaiting for the next batch of palm oil fruits to be brought and loaded onto the baskets. I didn't follow it back to mill as it was getting hot and we had to go to our next destination, Socfindo Palm Oil Mill at Negeri Lama.
As for the mainline connection, well, the State Railway only ended in North of the small town of Rantau Prapat, so no state railways are there. I can only imagine back in the Dutch period, the only means of carrying the semi processed palm oil was by boats from the nearby river located at the back of the mill.

PT. Socfindo Negeri Lama, Labuhan Batu Region
Having spent the morning on the second day repeating of what I lost on the previous day, we still had the afternoon time off. Since I have acquired permits from the Socfindo Headquarters in Medan, I thought that visiting their mill in Negeri Lama would do no harm.

At first I had doubts whether if there was even a palm oil plantation, let alone narrow gauge railways, as we had to cross a huge river via a tugboat. The man who runs the tugboat said the last tugboat of the day was during sunset, which was at 6 pm local time. I told my driver to get off the car and asked the man who operates the tugboat whether if there was even a narrow gauge railway network. And much to my surprise and disbelieve, there was one and we made our way across the bridge on the tugboat.

Straight through the dirt road and the main gate, we saw some rails. So we did come across something!! A quick turnaround to the mill’s main gate, I showed them the permit I arranged, and after some discussions, we were granted an entry. It seems as if the mill manager was surprised to see Scott, as I’m sure they never received any Western visitors before. The mill manager showed us around, and he also showed us the loco fleet that they have. They don’t have much fleet, and it seems as if they were all delivered during the same period. They only have 5 Schoema’s, all were built in the early 90’s, where three were out and about on the estate lines, one was doing the yard pilot, and the other one was used a spare standby loco.

Some quick shots around the yard, and off we went to explore the estate lines. We followed the flange marks made on the soil by the rails, and they turned towards the South West. And when we got there, much to our lucks, two sets of trains arrived, with the skips fully filled with palm oils. So we had some shots of the two rallying full trains before we returned back to the mill. We then decided to explore the North estate line when another train of fulls arrived by our car. This train however, it featured a mid 90’s built Schoema, originally built for European peat plantations.

Two rallying trains with skips fully filled with palm oil fruits from the South West estate. Both no.1 and no.2 locos are Schoema 4wDM.

On the North estate line, we cought up with another train bringing skips of palm oil fruits. Notice the difference in the loco, where no.5 is still a 4wDM Schoema, however, it was originally built for European peat plantation railways.
We chased of the train of fulls back to the mills, took shots of the yard work (which was outside the mill perimeter wall) including the ones on the weighbridge, and it was back to the huge river and to Rantau Prapat as it began to get dark. Mind you, I also didn’t want to miss the last boat across the river. Having checked out of the cheap hotel that I booked in Rantau Prapat, it was time to move on to our next checkpoint, Kisaran.

A more zoomed map of North Sumatra showing the locations of Socfindo Aek Loba Palm Oil Mill and BSP Rubber Mill, where both are located in Asahan Region. We stayed over at a hotel in the small town of Kisaran, where shamelessly, on our last morning at the hotel, the toilet got clogged up and everything inside spilled out.
PT. Socfindo Aek Loba, Kisaran Region
Another early start to the day as soon as we hit the town of Kisaran. As we went to Aek Loba, we spotted a plinthed loco at Pulu Raja Palm Oil Mill, so there was no way that we would miss that.

As we proceed our way to Aek Loba Palm Oil Mill, we couldn't afford to pass a plinthed loco we happened to saw on the roadside. It is Pulu Raja's O&K 0-6-0T, plinthed just on the front garden. Of course, no permits was needed as you can take a photo of it just between the gaps on the front fence.
Onto the mill turnoff and a quick check around to see if there are any locos out and about, before I presented the permit I arranged at the security gate. A short nervous discussion on what we wanted and I told the manager that there was an Australian man who would like to build palm oil railways in Sumatra and that he needed a real example, where afterwards after a short consideration we were granted an entry. The loco shed and the wagon repairs are just by the gate and the mill perimeter wall, and the walls were short also, so seeing the shed from outside was obviously no problem. As Scott was escorted by one the manager’s man, the manager spoke to me and asked me where I’ve been living. Seeing himself as a man from Semarang, the capital of Central Java Province, he saw me as a distant ‘Javanese’ brother. After a quick look at the shed, of to the last estate line.

There was only one estate line left in use (where in previously they claim they had 3 lines), but however, their last estate line was the longest line, and it level crosses the State Railway line, and it also passes over a bridge, before ends up at the loading yard where all the trucks filled with palm oil would tip the palm oil fruits to the empty baskets. Along our way, we also caught up with two local trains passing over the diamond level crossing, so this was also a bonus. And I think this must have been the last diamond level crossing in Indonesia where the tracks from both gauges are still in use. 

We first went straight for the transhipment point where the palm oil fruits would be brought by trucks from the estate only to be loaded off to the baskets. We waited quite a while before a no.2 4wDM Schoema appeared with empty baskets as seen on the photo.

After the baskets had been loaded, no.2 sets off back to the mill, as we gave it a chase and cought up with it on a section of the line as it goes through a palm oil plantation estate.

The last diamond flat level crossing still in use in the whole of Indonesia today, as Aek Loba's 700 mm system meets with the cape gauge (1067 mm) system of Indonesian State Railway. Here, no.2 4wDM Schoema had to wait some meters off the mainline as a State Railway train is approaching. As the daylight neared to the end, the weather became overcast and soon it got drizzly, so I decided to call it a day. Hence, this shot was one of the last actions of the day.
PT. Bakrie Sumatra Plantations Tbk. (PT. BSP) Rubber Plant, Kisaran Region
Despite trying my best to sort out permits for months, much to my annoyance, in the end, we were denied entry due to them having some audits (which I think was a complete bullshit). And even having to try an entrance by telling my driver to speak to the security guard, we were still denied entry. So all we can do was just watch from the fence and chase the rubber estate trains.

Rather than being bored, I thought it would be a good idea to get behind the mill and onto the main State Railways. From Google Earth, I knew that there was a mainline branch somewhere, so I tracked along the mainline rails. Scott followed behind me, where he eventually gave up hiking. I continued hiking, where I found a small station. I discovered the branchline, and wondered if it was still in use. I waited, until I heard a sound of a diesel roaring out, where to my surprise, it was a cape gauge Schoema owned by PT. BSP. The Schoema worked as a pilot, where it would shunt the semi processed rubber tank wagons from the mainline to the filling point inside the mill, and vice versa. The tank would then be delivered and/or collected by the State Railway diesel loco, which is the BB303 diesels built by Henschel, the mainstream diesels of North Sumatra.

A no.16 cape gauge Schoema roared out from the inside yard and onto the branchline, where it awaits the State Railway train to deliver the empty latex tankers. This is also one of the last plantation industries that still maintain their mainline connection.
The sun was directly above us and we could felt the heat, but there was no time to stop as we followed the rubber estate train. A train came out from the back gate, where we followed it to 5 collection points.

The rubber juice is collected from the tree by piercing the sharp end of a straw to the tree, where the juice would then come out and collected onto the small buckets. The juice in the small buckets would be collected by workers who travelled on bicycles and they are subsequently poured onto the tanks in the collection point. In the collection point, the runny liquid rubber is then pumped onto the tanks brought by rails (and some are now brought by trucks), meanwhile, rubber that have been left for a week that have turned into a solidified semi liquid rubber is also collected in a separate skip wagon shaped tank.

An illustration of how rubber juice is being collected. A straw with one of its end being sharp is pinched onto the rubber tree, where the juice would then flow out and carried on a small hose, before being poured out and contained on a small bucket. Once the juice is collected, a worker on bicycle would go round the rubber estate collecting each of the buckets already filled with rubber juice, and at the same time replacing the filled buckets with the empty ones. Photo is taken by Scott Jesser during our visit to Kisaran.
As for the train itself, when it came out from the mill, it delivers one tube tank and one diamond shaped tank to each of the collection points, starting from the nearest to the furthest. After each tank has been filled with rubber, the train would then collect the tanks to be taken back to the mill to be processed.

In one of the rubber juice collection points, where after the juice is brought to the collection points on bicycles, it would then be poured onto the tanks on the collection points, ready to be pumped onto the raw unprocessed latex tankers arriving on rails. This is an example of a train arriving at a rubber collection point on rails, but more and more other collection points today have converted to road trucks.

Bringing the raw latex juice home, as the no.15 Schoema 4wDM diesel brings both liquid rubber latex (tubular shaped tankers) and semi solid rubber latex (skip shaped tankers) back to the mill ready to be processed, as it passes by one of the nearby village.

Deep inside the rubber estate, as Scott enjoys a ride on a cabin while sharing the seat with the loco driver. Since the cabin could only fit 2 people, I rode on the bonnet of the loco.
Being finished with our second day at Kisaran (4th day on the journey), it was time to make our journey back to the province capital, Medan.

We arrived at night, and the traffic at Medan is I have to say one of the worst. But eventually we arrived at our hotel. Having spent much of the time out and about, I forgot to realize that the next day was a holiday. My driver, who also forgot, was also surprised to see the road conditions much being free from traffic. So of course everything was easy on the Good Friday. We went to Medan National Plantation Museum to take photos of the plinthed locos, followed by a quick stop at the PTPN IV Headquarters to take a photo of the former Bah Jambi plinthed loco, and our last stop at the Medan Railway Station to take photos of the diesels and the plinthed DSM steam loco. We finished by the afternoon, before we continue our way to see the North Borneo steam in Malaysia.

The Medan Depot in the morning, as the fleet are being prepared for duty.

Former Deli Railway's (Deli Spoorweg Maatschappij or shortened as DSM) no.38 built by Hartmann 2-6-4T, plinthed just outside Medan Railway Station.

Former Gunung Bayu's no.2 Borsig 0-6-0T, plinthed on the front garden of the PTPN IV Headquarters in Medan.

Last but not least, former Bah Jambi's no.104, D&B 0-4-4-0T mallet, today plinthed at Medan National Plantation Museum (Museum Perkebunan Nasional Medan).
All in all, I wouldn’t exactly recommend it. Besides from the fact that they are located at remote locations and hardly any means of public transports, bureaucracy at the PTPN IV and PT BSP Headquarters were really complicated. The bureaucracy was made so complicated, that it would be lucky enough for you if you can even speak to the front desk operator. Also, North Sumatra is no longer a place for Western enthusiasts, as steams have disappeared for around 2 decades ago. But if you are still craving for it, and consider yourself as the last diesel and industrial railway gricers, well then, yes, this might just be for you. However, you do have to prepare a lot of money for the journey, especially for car rentals. Car rentals would set you back around Rp 550.000,- per day (around 55 AUD/48 GBP), and not to mention you also have to pay the daily fuels and driver accomodations. The best way to get there is I would suggest to do it in a group of four so that the costs can be reduced. But for now, this maybe North Sumatra’s last ever narrow gauge industrial railways that one could possibly still be able to witness.

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