Indonesian Coal Railway

In 2003, Chris Newman, in the role of 5AT project webmaster, received an enquiry from Indonesian consortium asking if the 5AT Group might be able to supply steam locomotives to Indonesia for a 100km coal railway that it was planning to construct. Their intuition was that steam locomotives burning coal slack from the mine that the railway served would be much cheaper to operate than diesels burning oil, especially after the government had withdrawn the massive subsidies on which Indonesia indigenous oil industry had been built.

Chris, who was living in Beijing at the time, replied to explain that even if the 5AT was available for sale, it would not be suitable for hauling coal trains, but China National Railways (CNR) was in the process of disposing of large numbers of steam locomotives which would be eminently suitable for coal haulage in Indonesia, provided the railway was built in standard gauge.

This communication led to several years of correspondence and many visits to Jakarta where Chris made presentations to numerous organisations, including the coal mining company, financial institutions and Indonesian State Railways engineers and senior officials, culminating in a constructive meeting with its Director General.

Chris’s cost estimates conclusively confirmed that steam traction offered considerable savings over both the diesel and electric alternatives. Based on this, the leaders of the project consortium became enthusiastic supporters of its adoption, especially when they became aware of its potential to attract tourists. However their planning process was so slow that by the time of the Great Financial Crash in 2008, they still had not raised the finance to begin building their railway.

The final blow came that year when prospective financial institutions pushed the consortium to engage international consultants to review their plans. As might have been expected, prejudice raised its head as the UK-based consultant poured scorn on the very idea of adopting steam traction.

By then, however, the opportunity to procure steam locomotives from China had practically ended. QJs were no longer available, while JSs and SYs (which were rather too small for the requirements) were rapidly declining in numbers.  Thus ended what was probably the last chance for steam to operate a non-tourist and fully commercial railway system.

At the completion of his work for the consortium in 2008, Chris presented its chairperson with a 130 page “Feasibility Report on Rail Traction Options for South Sumatra Coal Transportation Project”. Later that year, an abbreviated version of the report was presented by Malcolm Cluett on Chris’s behalf at the 2008 Conference On Railway Engineering organised by in Institution of Engineers Australia and held Perth Australia in September of that year.