A Railway on Sumatra Constructed by Prisoners of the Japanese During WWII (1943 - 1945)
The coal mine at camp 14
Petai and the Coal Mine
This part of the railway starts 3km north of Petai village and winds west over a river plain and gradually climbs next to the Tapi river before passing through a narrow gorge and ending at a flat area next to camp 14A.
Just past camp 14A, over the river is the transition point for the coal. From this point no locomotives were used. Instead a push cart line of 700mm gauge was utilized. The line then runs south west for another 4km, passing camp 14 before ending at the coal mine.
The location of camps 14 and 14A along with the coal mine
This railway line was mainly built by the Romusha slaves starting in 1943. The history is poorly recorded, however; some information was recorded by the Australian 2/29th Battalion and the other members of the Aceh party which arrived at the mine in November 1944.
Travelling into this area is extremely difficult without the use of a good four wheel drive vehicle and should not be attempted in the rain as the road is extremely slippery and steep. There are four unbridged river crossings, prone to flooding, to cross to access the coal mine. A round trip will take no less than 3-4 hrs.
Today the road to the mine is at Petai village around 117kms South of Pekanbaru. The first large obstacle to be crossed is the Singingi River. This bridge is 2.5km from the Petai intersection and when you drive over it you will be crossing the river at the same position as where the original rail bridge was. This is the first area where the river is narrow enough and where the approaches on either side of the river are high enough to consider a bridge. Just past the bridge on the right hand side, is a monument that signifies the location of the original Petai village in 1943. There are two concrete water tanks here and a village grave with a head stone inscription carved with Ratu (Queen). The road follows the railway line for another 850m before the line curves to the right and heads north towards the Tapi river.
The line continues to follow the Tapi River and stays on the south side, continuing west before taking another curve to the right. From here the embankment can now be determined. The line is now very close to the south bank of the river and enters the Tapi gorge before crossing the river for the first time. From here it stays on the north bank and follows the contour of the hill next to the river which ends at camp 14A and the coal transition point.
Camp 14A is on a large flat area which is now planted in palm oil trees. Facing the camp, and around 100m away, is a small hill with native trees growing on it which are approximately the same age as the trees that now grow on the railway line. This is the camp cemetery area. It is believed that the bodies from the cemetery were exhumed and relocated to the war cemetery in Jakarta.
The train line embankment can be easily spotted before it crosses back over the the river to the coal transition point 800m from camp 14A and where the 700mm cart line started.
Coal transfer area at camp 14A
Rail foundations at the coal transfer area
Today six round wooden foundations are still visible in the river after 70 years of floods and erosion. The push cart line runs south west from here towards the mine still following the Tapi river. The line starts to gradually climb and continues past the Romusha camp which had sidings or passing bays for the coal wagons. Camp 14 and the Japanese camp are in an area where the gorge opens up again.
The cart line then crosses the river and side streams three more times before ending at the mine.
A large cutting in the coal mine area
The mine itself has had coal continually extracted for the last 70 years although the mine itself is progressively moving southward towards Muara Lembu. The coal at the old mine site is still visible on the surface today.
The original coal mine was dug by the Romusha. This was done at many different levels with small tunnels being bored into the hill. It is reported that the Japanese also dug a large hole using dynamite.
The mine site was still active in 2003 and a small gauge railway line sticking out of the ground and some holes in the cliffs was visible. Today all signs have gone and this part of the mine is now unused.
A coal face at the mine
The Japanese area at camp 14 is believed to be where the Tiger Protection Unit camp is now located. It is a flat area and would have been a logical area to build and maintain a camp as it is next to the railway. On previous expeditions it has been discovered that they have had electricity around the camp as cables and insulators, along with cross bars and other hardware was found rotting under the foliage.
On these expeditions, metal detecting uncovered: rail, metal sleepers for the 700mm cart railway and spikes for fastening the rail. Two metal sleepers have also been found in the river. They most likely ended up in the river due to one of the many severe floods that occur in this area.
Electrical artifacts discovered at camp 14