Concrete Balls to Deter Indonesia ‘Train Surfers’

*this story went to air on weekly one hour radio feature show ‘Asia Calling’, which is broadcasted from Afghanistan all the way through the Asia region to Australia* 

Railway staff in Indonesia have started hanging concrete balls above train tracks to try to prevent commuters from riding on carriage roofs.

The first balls were installed just above carriage-height near a station outside the capital, Jakarta. More will be put up elsewhere if they are found to keep people off the roofs.

Authorities have tried to stop ‘train surfing’ by spreading oil on carriages and hiring musicians to perform safety songs.

But they officials say none of those have worked and are now trying to ultimate deterrent.

Morgan Pettersson went to Manggarai station in Jakarta to find out if it’s working.

It is rush hour here at Manggarai train station in Central Jakarta.

The platform is overflowing with sweaty people pushing their way through the crowd.

Suddenly a train pulls up. Around a hundred men jump down from the train’s roof.

23 year old Romie, who only goes by one name, ‘train surfs’ every day to get work.

He says he knows what he is doing is dangerous but he has no choice – there are not enough seats inside during peak hour.

He hasn’t been caught yet or hurt so he will continue to train surf.

In a desperate bid to stop people like Romie, the authorities have erected 20 hanging concrete balls over the train tracks. Each weighs three kilos.

The first balls were installed just above carriage-height near Bekasi station on the outskirts of the capital.

The station manager Eman Salaeman proudly shows photos on his blackberry of a test they did of the concrete balls with a human dummy.

He scrolls through the photos to the last one…..the human dummy’s head has been knocked clean off.

“The installment of the concrete balls are like the 9th step that we’ve taken to forbid them to go up on the train roof. Our laws already state that they are not allowed to go up there, and also other restricted areas where they are not supposed to go. But in reality they still do it. The first thing that the train company did was cement the train handles, put up barbed wires and spikes, did joint operations , we’ve used dogs from the military police, we’ve also  installed spraying machines  but then that failed and they destroyed them too, and we tried changing the doors . So we have installed the concrete balls because it is the last option.”

He says “roof surfing” can be extremely dangerous.

In 2008 at least 50 passengers died in an accident while travelling on a train roof.

Last year 11 people were killed.

Most victims are electrocuted by overhead power cables, but some fall off train carriages while trains are moving.

20 year old college student Bingson who has train surfed once has seen the dangers.

“It’s really scary up there. I once saw a train surfer get electrocuted; I also got a shock also from the electric cables. Of course if it was not necessary we wouldn’t do it. But sometimes we are desperate and have no choice. I did feel scared when I was up there but I had to get over my fear and brave because I had no choice.  If I can force my way on to the train I will.”

Jakarta is the largest city in the world without a metro train system.
At peak times about 400,000 commuters cram in or onto carriages to travel on poorly maintained tracks left behind by Dutch colonisers 60 years ago.

Urban planner Marco Kusumawijaya says that Jakarta needs long term solutions to its transport problems.

“I think it is obvious it is desperate, it is in humane and it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem which is the lack of space in the train cars and I think they should concentrate more on that.”

Most cities in the world with a population of more than 10 million have had metro trains for years.

Bangkok installed a metro in 2004.

Marco says Jakarta is being left behind.

“Maybe more achievable and comparable to Jakarta is Bangkok, which is constantly improving in the past ten years. Jakarta has been talking about improving its transportation for the last twenty years. You can see in many Asian cities they are improving it themselves.”

A metro has been discussed by the Indonesian government for at least 20 years.

It would be the one the most expensive public project in Jakarta’ history but Marco says that with Indonesia’s economic growth it makes sense.

He says in the meantime the current train system must urgently be improved.

“I think we need to look into the economy of this situation. It may not have been attainable in the past to provide better and comfortable cars, even simple, but I think by now even with our economic growing and we are moving into middle income country it is a matter of organising the funds and ways of providing better cars in sufficient numbers.”

Until more train carriages are provided, people like college student Bingson have a plan to beat the concrete balls.

“I have seen the concrete balls, but we can still get around them. My idea is to wear a crash helmet if I have to ride on top of the train. We need to prepare some kind of shield or be the shield. But for now I don’t think I will go up there.”

Audio can be heard here:

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