Catastrophic Crowds: The 1987 Bintaro (Indonesia) Train Collision

Max S
9 min readFeb 11, 2024

Background

Bintaro was a town (now a district of 50662 people, as of 2010) in western Indonesia, 12km/7.5mi southwest of downtown Jakarta and 16km/10mi north of Depok (both measurements in linear distance). The area around Bintaro was heavily wooded in 1987, while it has since been taken over by Jakarta’s urban sprawl, turning Bintaro into a district of the Indonesian capital.

The location of Bintaro to the southeast of Jakarta (which at the time of the accident hadn’t reached it yet) on the northwestern side of the island of Java, Indonesia.

Bintaro lies on the Jakarta Kota–Anyer Kidul railway, a partially electrified main line opening in 1900 under Dutch colonial rule. The 140km/87mi line was built to improve connections between Jakarta and Java island’s western area, supported by several branch lines, and still is an important rail corridor to this day. The section of the line at the site of the accident was single-tracked in 1987. It has since been expanded to dual-track configuration, along with nearby Sudimara station being expanded beyond the three tracks it had at the time.

The site of the accident seen from above today. All the housing was woodland at the time of the accident. The line still runs where it did at the time, except for having received a second track in the meantime.

The Trains Involved

KA 220 was an express passenger service from Jakarta to Rangkas, 65km/40mi linear distance to the southwest of the capital, carrying approximately 500 passengers on its southbound journey out of the city. It was pulled by Indonesian Railways (DKA) BB30617, a four-axle diesel locomotive built by Henschel in West-Germany as the DHG 800BB. The BB306 was introduced into service with the DKA in 1984, serving with both freight and passenger services. Each BB306 measures 9.03m/30ft in length at a weight of 37.5 metric tons empty and can reach 75kph/47mph.

An DKA BB306, the same type that pulled KA 220, photographed in 2018.

Coming the other way was KA 225, a passenger service heading northbound from Merak on the island’s west coast to Jakarta Kota, one of the city’s main train stations. It was essentially the same train, but as it was an early morning service into the capital it was quite overcrowded, carrying approximately 700 passengers. A dangerous habit was that of “train surfing”, people who couldn’t fit on a given train would climb onto the roof of the passenger cars or even hang on to the locomotive just to be able to make their commutes. KA 225 was a victim of this habit, carrying several passengers on its roof and all over the locomotive.

An example of commuters riding on top of and along the outside of an overcrowded commuter train in Indonesia (photo taken in 2010).

KA 225 was pulled by DKA BB30317, a Henschel DHG 1000 BB. The BB303 is largely similar to the 306 and can be considered a more powerful sibling to the 306. It measures 11.20m/36.7ft in length at a weight of 39.6 metric tons and can reach 90kph/56mph thanks to its engine putting out 110kW/150hp more.

DKA BB30338, identical with the locomotive pulling KA 225, photographed in 1980.

The Accident

Sudimara station was just about at capacity on the morning of October 19th, 1987. The station had had a train pull in from Jakarta at approximately 6:30am, stopping on track 2, while a row of freight cars had been parked on track 3. The dispatcher at Serpong station, the next station down the line to the south, cleared the northbound KA 225 from Merak to Jakarta Kota for departure without requesting permission from his coworker at Sudimara station, which led to KA 225 occupying that station’s last open track at 6:45am. KA 225 had been meant to pass KA 220, the oncoming passenger service from Jakarta to Rangkas, at Sudimara, which was factually impossible due to all three of the stations’ tracks now being occupied. Despite this, by 6:45am, KA 220 has already began its journey from Kebayoran station (approximately 10.3km/6.4mi up the line to the north from Sudimara) to Sudimara station.

The dispatcher at Sudimara, knowing that the scheduled passing is impossible at his station, calls his coworker at Kebayoran station to try and agree to have KA 220 wait at that station in order to have the trains pass each other there. A station worker on the platform (the best translation for his job title seems to be “guard” or “watchman”) uses a signal lantern to tell northbound train’s driver to wait. To his shock the train departs the station a few seconds after being shown the lantern, without permission. This also happens right after the dispatcher had learned that KA 220 was already underway to Sudimara station, meaning two trains were now in a single-track section, travelling in opposite directions. Another station worker tries to stop the departing train with a red flag and another lantern, once he fails the dispatcher sends yet another worker on a motorbike after the train, but that worker fails to catch up to the locomotive.

The northbound KA 225 reaches about 45kph/28mph on the curved rail line through the woods, while KA 220 is travelling southbound at 25kph/15.5mph. Both train crews only spot the other train seconds before impact due to bends in the track and the wooded surroundings limiting visibility, not leaving enough time for the emergency stops both drivers trigger to have an effect. The driver of the northbound train jumps off the locomotive at the last second while the KA 220's driver throws himself on the ground right before, at 7:05am, the two trains collide head-on. The locomotives take the brunt of the impact, but passengers who had been riding on the northbound train’s locomotive and on both trains’ leading cars are thrown to the ground and/or at the other train. The northbound train’s leading car completely sleeves over the locomotive, both losing its entire interior survival space and wiping any possible remaining travelers off the locomotive’s exterior. 153 people die in the accident (main number given, different sources claim 139-156 victims), most of which had been riding on the outside of the trains, while at least 254 are injured. Both drivers are among the survivors, with the northbound train’s driver suffering severe injuries from his jump off the train.

The northbound train’s leading two cars during the rescue effort. The thin blue line I added marks the back of the train’s locomotive.

Aftermath

The line had no radio communication system and no conventional signaling system, much less one which was linked together in any way to avoid contradicting orders, so it was fairly clear from the start that human error was at the base of what became Indonesia’s worst rail accident in history.

The investigation found out that neither train had had any business being at the site of the accident as it occurred, as neither train had received permission to depart their respective previous station. Why exactly KA 220 had departed from Kebayoran was never clarified, its possible that the locomotive crew had grown impatient and wanted to stay on schedule so they decided to head to the next station as scheduled, not bothering to wait for clearance to depart. The driver insisted that he would never have departed the station without permission, claiming he was cleared to depart Kebayoran station, something the dispatcher there did his best to reject.

The two locomotives sitting in the wreckage after the accident, covered by the remains of their (mostly the northbound train’s) leading cars.

The matter was a little more complicated with the northbound KA 225, though. The driver, once he had recovered enough to be interviewed, explained that he hadn’t been able to see the signal the station worker was giving him with the lantern due to how crowded the outside of his locomotive was. He thus asked the passengers who were blocking his sight line, and was told that he was issued the order to depart. So, he departed. He himself didn’t recall seeing the second lamp a station worker tried to use alongside a red flag to stop the departing train, but even if he did witnesses at the station made contradicting claims, with some stating the lamp had been held up with a green light due to a mix-up by the workers in the panicked hurry. This means even if he had spotted it, he may have seen it but not the flag, and it could have been a green light he would have spotted in the limited visibility he had due to the people riding on the locomotive’s sides.

Both train drivers as well as the conductor of KA 225 and the dispatcher at Kebayoran station were eventually put on trial, with all four men receiving jail sentences of various lengths for negligence causing death. KA 225’s driver received the harshest sentence, being given 5 years in jail despite his pleas that he acted on what he understood as the orders given to him. He was also fired from his job and the DKA refused to pay out his pension despite over 20 years of work for them. A newspaper tracked him down for an interview in 2013, working in his hometown as a cigarette seller at 74 years old. He still expresses anger, pointing out how he’s the only one of the defendants who had the pension refused, but also talks about still being haunted by images of KA 225’s final moments.

The wreckage during cleanup operations, with the roof of a leading car dragged off one of the locomotives.

The DKA installed a radio system on all their trains after the accident, allowing drivers to communicate with each other and the dispatchers without requiring phone calls, and the Jakarta Kota–Anyer Kidul railway received a modern signaling system for a much lower risk of misread signals and to eliminate contradicting signals due to a lack of communication. Lastly, in 2007, the line was expanded to double-tracked configuration, so now oncoming trains no longer share the same track.

The habit of passengers riding on the outside of trains, even locomotives, which is to blame for a large part of the fatalities and may be to blame for contributing to it happening in the first place, remains a big problem which refuses to be solved to this day. Having a whole army of police officers drag people off the trains at the station led to the riders pelting the cops with stones until they backed off. Having popular musicians perform songs about safety, threatening the riders with aggressive dogs, making the outside of trains slick with oil, attaching barbed wire to the roofs, even hosing passing trains down with red paint, nothing really cut down on the number of people who partake in the dangerous phenomenon. Even turning to religious leaders for help didn’t seem to bring the desired effect. Be it simple overcrowding, trying to skip the ticket cost, or even just for fun, hundreds if not thousands of people still ride on train roofs and outsides every day.

A desperate step taken in 2012 saw scaffolding erected at a Jakarta train station’s exit, with several grapefruit-sized concrete balls suspended from it. But even this rather blunt (and dangerous in itself) attempt at literally and physically getting people off the train roofs seems to have no effect worth mentioning. And the simple fact that dozens of people who die doing it every year even without getting into a rail accident doesn’t seem to deter people from doing it either. Trains already don’t have the best passenger protection in an accident, hanging on to the outside of one obviously doesn’t improve things.

A train is about to pass under the suspended concrete balls, which will pass just a few centimeters above the train’s roof.

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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.