Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo yesterday launched his country’s – and Southeast Asia’s – first high-speed railway, a milestone both for his administration and for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy scheme.
The $7.3 billion rail line, which links the capital Jakarta to the city of Bandung in West Java, will help ease congestion in western Java, one of the world’s most congested travel corridors. With a maximum speed of 350 kilometers per hour, the train will cut travel time between the two cities from three hours to around 40 minutes.
In remarks he delivered to the press on the platform of Jakarta’s Halim station, the line’s western terminus, Jokowi announced that the railway would officially be named “Whoosh,” an acronym for the Indonesian phrase “Waktu Hemat, Operasi Optimal, Sistem Handal,” which means “timesaving, optimal operation, reliable system.”
“The Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train marks the modernization of our mass transportation, which is efficient and environmentally friendly,” Jokowi said, as per The Associated Press.
“Our courage to try new things gives us confidence and the opportunity to learn and will be very useful for the future, making our human resources more advanced and our nation more independent.”
Jokowi and other senior government officials rode the sleek Chinese-made locomotive from Halim station to Padalarang station, which is located around 30 kilometers outside Bandung. According to the AP, the “trains have been modified for Indonesia’s tropical climate and are equipped with a safety system that can respond to earthquakes, floods, and other emergency conditions.” The 209-meter train has a capacity of 601 passengers, it added.
Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister overseeing the project, said at the launch that free trial rides, which have been under way since the second week of September, will be extended until the middle of this month, when ticketing will be implemented. The prices of tickets have not been finalized, but the company behind the train estimates that a one-way ticket could cost between 250,000 and 350,000 Indonesian rupiah ($16 to $22.60).
The project, which was spearheaded by PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), a joint venture between a consortium of four Indonesian state-owned companies and China Railway International Co. Ltd., has experienced a series of delays and cost overruns since its inception in 2015. At the time, the project was initially slated to be completed by 2019, at a cost $5.5 billion. That has since increased considerably due to the COVID-19 pandemic and complications in land acquisition.
In 2021, “Jokowi” announced that his government would use the state budget to cover the excess costs of the project, overriding a 2015 decree that barred the use of state funds in the construction of the railway. In February, the Indonesian and Chinese governments agreed on a cost overrun of 18 trillion rupiah (around $1.2 billion), down from the more than $2 billion previously expected.
While much of the Western (and, unsurprisingly, Japanese) media coverage has focused on the project’s problems, particular its spiraling budget, the completion of the first high-speed railway in Southeast Asia marks a watershed not just for China’s BRI but also for regional transport infrastructure writ large.
The line comes two years after the completion of another China-backed railway in Laos, which connects the country’s capital Vientiane to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southern China. While often described as “high-speed,” the Laos-China railway, which runs through northern Laos’ rugged terrain, has a maximum top speed of 160 kilometers per hour.
However impressive as a feat of engineering, the ultimate profitability of the project remains unclear, given the limited length of the line and the fact that the existing road and rail connections will likely remain more affordable to the majority of Indonesians.
As my colleague James Guild wrote recently, “the real prize” for Jokowi’s administration, and the reason that it opted for the Chinese bid over a competing Japanese one back in 2015, “was to secure the transfer of technology, skills, and operational know-how so that one day Indonesian rail and construction companies can improve their position on the techno-industrial frontier.” Indeed, Luhut made the same argument in comments to the media yesterday. As Guild wrote, it is on this criterion that the ultimate success of the project will be judged.
Looking forward, the Indonesian government has plans to extend the line all the way to the metropolis of Surabaya in East Java, some 781 kilometers to Jakarta’s east. As Indonesia’s “incumbent” high-speed rail partner, one would expect that China is in the box seat to lead the development of the new line, but given the debate that has accompanied the construction of the first stage, there will no doubt be much debate and calls for the government to hold an open bid for the project. Much also depends on who succeeds Jokowi as Indonesia’s president after next year’s election.