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'Whoosh, yes!': Lessons from Indonesia’s Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail as country mulls its next fast train

JAKARTA: “Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, yes!” — this is the greeting yelped through the loudspeakers aboard the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail (HSR), touted as the first in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, at the start of the journey and intermittently throughout.

Whoosh is the name given to the train, which is inspired by its sound. It’s also an acronym for timesaving, optimal operation and excellent system in the Indonesian language — Waktu Hemat, Operasi Optimal, Sistem Hebat — as the HSR can run up to 350kmh, covering a distance of 142km.

Ms Asteria Mutiara, who works as a parliamentary assistant in Jakarta, has been pumped up to try out the train since she often needs to go on business trips to Bandung, the capital of neighbouring West Java province. 

She usually takes a regular Jakarta – Bandung train called Argo Parahyangan, which takes about three hours and costs 150,000 rupiah (US$9.45) on a one-way ticket. 

But with the HSR, travel between the two cities is just 45 minutes though a one-way ticket now costs 300,000 rupiah, equivalent to a car drive from South Jakarta to Central Jakarta. 

“This is pleasant. I have tried a high-speed train in Saudi Arabia and South Korea before. So when Indonesia launched its HSR, I’ve been wanting to try it out,” the 34-year-old told CNA on board the train on a recent trip.

Funded by China, the HSR is viewed as part of its landmark Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect Asia, Africa and Europe through land and maritime networks aimed at increasing economic growth.

It was awarded to China after a competitive bid against Japan, and when the project began in 2015, it was expected to cost about 66.76 trillion rupiah (US$42 billion). 

According to PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (PT KCIC), the consortium of Indonesian and Chinese state companies building the railway, the average train occupancy of Whoosh is at about 90 per cent or about 7,000 passengers daily as of end-October. It will serve 28 daily trips in November, twice as much as last month. 

In the long run, as more daily trips will be added to the schedule, KCIC aims to have 30,000 passengers daily. 

The government believes there will be more passengers if Whoosh is expanded from Bandung to Surabaya since it will pass more cities and Surabaya is a major city surrounded by industrial areas. 

“So we will look at this HSR (option) because if it only goes to Bandung, it is not quite enough,” said Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs Airlangga Hartarto on Oct 11.

The government’s thinking is that with more passengers using the train, there will be more revenue, which means less time needed to pay back the debt, but economist Bhima Yudhistira from the Center of Economic and Law Studies (CELIOS) is sceptical.

He disagrees that by extending the route to Surabaya, the return on investment will be quicker and more attainable.

“It is not a guarantee because of course, the costs will be higher, and the return on investment may take longer,” said Mr Bhima.

Jakarta-based transport analyst Darmaningtyas, who goes by one name, also believes extending the route to Surabaya means a bigger budget that would pose challenges.

“Considering that the construction of the Bandung – Surabaya HSR requires a large budget, definitely more than 150 trillion rupiah, the government should really assess the urgency,” he said.

Based on Indonesia’s experience in building Whoosh, which is expected to break even in at least 40 years, Mr Darmaningtyas does not believe the private sector will be able and willing to finance the construction of another longer route as it could take too long to break even.

“The private sector will invest in profitable cases. And they need guarantees from the government so they don’t worry about losses.”

Assuming that the new lines turns out to be a collaboration again with China, analysts say its financing model will be similar to that of the Jakarta-Bandung line.

The latter was funded by China with a 75 per cent loan from China Development Bank, with the rest covered by the PT KCIC consortium in a 60:40 split between the Indonesian and the Chinese side respectively.

About 7.3 trillion rupiah was also used from the state budget to pay for the budget overrun. 

Indonesia’s capital is also set to be relocated to Nusantara in eastern Kalimantan next year, with the entire move expected to be completed by 2045. 

This raises the question of whether more HSR on Java is truly needed, said economist Bhima Yudhistira from CELIOS. 

“It will definitely affect the projection of how many passengers it could garner if people in Java are slated to move to Nusantara. 

“And it will also lead to confusion for investors who want to invest in Nusantara if Java will still be the place of main infrastructure development,” he pointed out.  

Mr Bhima said it is more crucial to build other infrastructures such as ports, regular trains connecting industrial areas, and roads. 

Mr Roni Septian, head of policy and advocacy at civil organisation Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA), also said he believes Java does not need another HSR. 

“It’s better to build 1,000 schools than the Jakarta-Surabaya high-speed train,” he said.

He added the private sector, backed by oligarchs, is often the one who decides where a certain route or station should be for it to be strategic to their business.  

Mr Usman also said the government should explain why the route is crucial, given that there is already a train connecting Jakarta with Surabaya.

If the target is to grow a certain area economically, then villages or towns must be connected efficiently while protecting people’s traditions and conserving the environment, he noted. 

“It is very important to respect their human rights,” he stated.

Mdm Suraya Afiff, an anthropologist with the University of Indonesia, believes the government has not been transparent regarding land acquisition.  

She pointed out that given Indonesia will hold presidential and legislative elections in February, people should be careful and sceptical about new projects emerging.

“People could oppose a candidate who would continue with projects which are not in favour of the people.”

She said regardless of where the next HSR will be built, if the route passes a densely populated area, the track could be built underground to avoid conflicts with the locals.  

However, she noted that it may be geologically challenging in certain parts of Indonesia. 

“Whatever the decision will be, the process must be transparent because even with the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train, there were many planning mistakes which resulted in the cost overrun.” 

For example, the route was initially slated to go through Central Bandung but due to the high land acquisition cost, authorities decided otherwise.

But for people who may not be affected by land acquisition problems, having a new HSR track, such as one connecting Jakarta and Surabaya, seems exciting.

“I am in favour of having a HSR so that Surabayans can also ride on a high-speed train,” said 44-year-old Agus Harianto, a rental car driver.

“There are people who are afraid to fly, so using a fast train could be an alternative.” 

As for Ms Asteria, the Jakarta-based employee, she thinks she will continue to use the HSR.

“There is a certain pride that Indonesia has its own high-speed train,” she said.

Related:

Indonesia's China-backed high-speed railway unlikely to be profitable, say observers

Indonesia expects to finalise US$560 million railway loan from China next week
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