Not long ago, they used to be an absolute disaster: Indonesian trains. Compared to the Dutch colonial era, the network has shrunk dramatically, from 6,811 km to 5,910km in 1950, and to a disastrous 3,000 km recently.
Just a few years ago, passengers used to climb onto the roofs of rusty dilapidated local carriages, often falling down to their death, or getting electrocuted. Often, trains were so terribly decrepit that the roofs would give way and people would fall down, also breaking floors in the process, finally ending up on the ground, in between the rails.
During the Suharto’s pro-Western dictatorship, and also later, the train network was abandoned to its terrible fate; dirty, underfunded and primitive. The country and its corrupt officials concentrated on assembling and selling mostly Japanese cars and scooters, and on burning millions of gallons of gasoline. At some point, the situation became unbearable. By some counts, Indonesia has the most ‘used’ road system in the world: meaning, particularly in the cities, the traffic is so horrendous that it has begun to resemble ‘total and permanent gridlock’.
Even corrupt officials had to recognize the fact that without a comprehensive railroad network, Indonesia simply couldn’t survive.
President Joko Widodo began listening to his, and foreign advisers, who were pledging to improve, in fact to overhaul, the entire Indonesian rail network. But even before his administration, the real ‘hero’ of Indonesian railways emerged, Ignasius Jonan (born 21 June 1963 in Singapore) who is now the Indonesian Minister for Energy and Mineral Resources. A former Indonesian Minister of Transportation, he headed the government-owned railway company, PT Kereta Api Indonesia (PT. KAI) from 2009 to 2014.
During his reign, the number of passengers increased by 50%, toilets at the stations and on board the trains became clean, and intercity trains began to run more or less on schedule.
The City of Jakarta purchased hundreds of second-hand but excellent Japanese suburban carriages, and dramatically increased the number of lines and frequency of the service, connecting the terribly overcrowded capital city with its suburbs, such as Tangerang, Bekasi and Depok, as well as with its neighboring city of Bogor.
Filthy, crumbling and dangerous stations received a total overhaul, now being equipped with escalators, elevators and relatively clean platforms.
The legend says that Mr. Jonan used to sleep inside the trains, often not having time to return home to rest. He achieved a lot, but much more has to be done.
After Mr. Jonan moved to another ministry, the work on the improvement of Indonesian rail services did not stop.
New intercity trains were added, and some innovative luxury services introduced, including carriages that resemble flat-beds in business class airplanes. But even the ‘economy class’ became comfortable and air-conditioned.
Hari Sungkari, an executive at BEKRAF (Indonesian Agency for Creative Economy) explained:
“Today PT KAI (Indonesian Railroad Company) has much better service than before. I am paying for comfort and punctuality, these days, things that are really important to me.”
Tracks are the biggest problem. Most of them are outdated, single traction and non-electrified, as well as narrow; in brief – 1,067mm gauge.
Some are terribly old, often using viaducts spinning over the deep ravines, built a century ago. There are almost no railway tunnels in Indonesia, and even express inter-city trains have to habitually crawl when passing through the mountains, at sharp curves, hardly exceeding a speed of 10 kilometers per hour. That is true even about the most frequent passenger service between Jakarta and the third largest city in Indonesia – Bandung.
Java with nearly 200 million inhabitants and large, multi-million populated cities such as Jakarta, Surabaya, Bandung and Yogyakarta, has a similar shape somehow as the Japanese island of Honshu (home to Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto and other major cities), also over-populated, and also long and relatively narrow, while mountainous in the middle. In Japan, shinkansen bullet train lines have already managed to solve almost all transportation troubles.
Much poorer Indonesia could never even dream about the introducing a bullet train network. Until now.
Losses from the city and inter-urban gridlocks became so horrendous, estimated in tens of billions of dollars annually that the Indonesian government had to start thinking ‘big’. Huge investment into ports, airports, roads, and above all, rail, was desperately needed.
Studies were prepared. Japanese and Chinese companies began competing, for construction of the first stages of the inter-city high-speed train corridors.
Both the Japanese and Chinese systems are excellent, and have more strengths than weaknesses.
Japanese bullet trains are the oldest, the safest (no train has ever been derailed) and perhaps until now – the most comfortable, on earth.
China so far has managed to build the longest and the fastest high-speed rail network in the world, considering its length also amazingly safe and punctual.
There are certain serious problems with Japan in relation to Indonesia. For years and decades, Japanese companies producing cars and scooters, used Indonesia as an assembly line, regurgitating gas consuming and very outdated and stripped-down models of motor vehicles. Many say that Japanese car companies actually paid the Indonesian government officials not to build public transportation network in the cities.
Recently, I was told by Mr. Sidqy LP Suyitno, an Indonesian high government official and former State Finance and Monetary Analysis Director of the Ministry of National Development Planning:
“The Japanese have been enjoying the benefits when it comes to relations with Indonesia, ever since Suharto’s dictatorship: the automotive industry is more like an oligopoly for Japanese cars in Indonesia. And what do we get back? We still don’t have our own car industry, our national car or our own national motorcycles production. Even though we have a very large “captive market”; in 2018, 1.1 million cars & 6.5 million motorcycles were sold in Indonesia.”
He and many others in Indonesia have been actually supporting the Chinese bid.
And the Chinese bid finally won. Partially because the Chinese projects are cheaper than the Japanese, but also because the speed with which the Chinese are constructing new railroads, all over the world, cannot be matched.
The collapsed Indonesian infrastructure needs an extremely fast overhaul. And the Chinese firms can deliver, both high-speed railroad networks, as well as more modest (but equally important), express, cargo and local rail.
The tragedy of the Indonesian extreme capitalist ‘economic’ model is that the government does not have a large budget for infrastructure. The Jakarta metro (until now, only one line) or the intercity lines are being constructed gradually, step by step; not simultaneously, all over the archipelago, which would be much more economic in a long term.
The most logical first bullet train line project should be connecting two largest cities in Java, Jakarta and Surabaya, located approximately 1,000 km from each other. Such a line could move millions each day, as the shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka does. Such a mode of transportation would bring great relief to the overstretched and environmentally destructive road system.
But after countless ‘studies’ and debates, The Indonesian government has decided to first build the short stretch between Jakarta and Bandung, two cities only 138 km from each other by road (or 180 km by the slow, existing railway built by the Dutch more than a century ago). Today, the train journey takes 3h30mins and single traction does not allow more InterCitys to be deployed. Traffic jams on the highway often reduce driving to a crawl, or 20 km/h on average (6-7 hours in total).
China has already began building the bullet train line, and the estimated opening is at the end of year 2021.
Visiting the construction site near Bandung, I was told by a Chinese supervisor, that “everything is on target”.
If all goes well, in approximately two years, the journey between Jakarta and Bandung should be reduced to 40 minutes.
The problem is that both cities are choked by traffic jams and particularly in the case of Bandung, count with absolutely inadequate public transportation. Super-fast trains will be delivering passengers from one urban congestion nightmare to another.
Of course, China knows perfectly well how to resolve the problem, on both the intercity and urban level. That’s what BRI is for. And Chinese cities are living testimonies of efficient and ecological urban planning.
But The Indonesian government has still no ‘appetite’ to go ‘all the way’. It is still sticking to half-measures. Slow progress is leaving it behind even such countries like the Philippines, and Vietnam.
To give credit to Jokowi’s administration, it knows that without railroads, ports, airports and highways, there could be no progress in Indonesia. And his plans are truly ‘Napoleonic’. When it comes to railways, he wants to build 12,000 km of tracks by the end of 2030, all over the archipelago. In Java, Madura and Bali alone, 6,900 km. Even 500 km in Papua. In Kalimantan (Borneo), 1,400 km, in Sumatra and Batam 2,900 km and in Sulawesi 500 km.
The new lines are supposed to be double traction, electrified and of wider gauge; not all, but at least some.
But here is the catch: China will either get deeply involved, and things will get constructed, or the entire dream will collapse, as so many Indonesian sand-castles have already vanished before.
Indonesia does not have the know-how nor stamina. China does.
Indonesia after the US-orchestrated coup in 1965, has been cannibalizing its natural resources, filling the pockets of a few rich and corrupt individuals, and building virtually nothing, regressing into one of the most under-developed nations in Asia.
Now BRI may change all this. Communist and highly enthusiastic, hardworking and internationalist China is raising the entire Africa from its knees. It can do the same for Indonesia, if the rulers in Jakarta allow it to do so. And if the Western propaganda and Western-paid NGO’s do not succeed in derailing the entire national infrastructural revamp.
Andre Vltchek is philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He’s a creator of Vltchek’s World in Word and Images, and a writer that penned a number of books, including China and Ecological Civilization. He writes especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”