Medium speed train: An exit strategy to end ‘bullet train’ polemic
By Imanuddin Razak
05 September 2015

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has decided not to give a go ahead for the proposed development of the bullet train project. Instead, he okayed the development of a medium-speed train.

Three years of polemics about the necessity of developing a high-speed train abruptly ended on Thursday evening when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called Coordinating Economic Minister Darmin Nasution to indicate his decision not to give a go ahead for the proposed development of the bullet train project. The President signalled for the development of a medium-speed train instead.

The controversial high-speed train project connecting the national capital of Jakarta and the West Java provincial capital of Bandung, was initially meant to be part of the planned development of a Jakarta-Surabaya high-speed railway track, the plan of which was introduced during the presidency of Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The feasibility study for the Jakarta-Surabaya network, including the Jakarta-Bandung track, had been completed by Japan.
The high-speed train project turned into a polemic after it was decided to also include China in the project through an open bidding mechanism, following an offer made by President Jokowi during his Beijing trip earlier this year.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China — for its participation in the bidding process — was signed in April this year on the sidelines of the organisation of the 60th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference. The “beauty contest” for the US$6 billion project was declared open on August 19.

Throughout the process, Japan, with its shinkansen bullet train technology, and China, with its own high-speed railway system, have made detailed, comprehensive feasibility studies for building such a network. The two countries had submitted proposals with relatively similar offers and the two had offered loans to be paid back in 40 years with a 10-year grace period. The interest rate Japan had offered, however, would have been 0.1 per cent, while the Chinese would have asked for 2 per cent.

According to its feasibility study, Japan was ready to begin construction in 2016 and would have taken five years to build the system, including a one-year trial operation period. Meanwhile, China said it would start building in September and construction would be complete in three years.

The operation of the bullet train to connect Jakarta and Bandung was expected to reduce travel time for the 150-kilometre route to about 45 minutes from about three hours at present.

Those were the conditional “technical” aspects on offer if any of the two competing countries had won the bidding contest.

Yet, the President eventually opted not to choose either of the two and simultaneously abandoned the idea of the high-speed railway network for the Jakarta-Bandung route altogether.

On the other hand, the President considered the medium-speed train as an answer to the demand for an efficient intercity mass transportation system.

The President did not provide a thorough explanation of his decision, but he apparently did listen to criticism about the comparative advantages of the high-speed train system aired by a number of senior analysts and observers.

The most prominent one was the criticism offered by Emil Salim. The minister of state for population and the environment during the New Order government of Soeharto said pursuing such an ambitious high-speed railway network project should not be a priority for the current government in view of the existing problem of income disparity between cities and provinces on Java Island and those outside Java.

“There is a huge social gap between Java and non-Java cities and provinces. The construction of the high-speed railway network in Java will only heighten the gap,” Emil said.

“The money [to be used for the high-speed railway network construction] should instead be used for programs to tackle the existing social problems,” he added.

Based on the financial evaluation of the medium-speed train service, it has also been calculated that an efficient medium-speed rail service would have a better value than the high-speed one as it can save up to 30 per cent on overall costs if compared with the latter. And as it would only take the medium-speed train about 10 minutes longer than the high-speed one, the high-speed railway network has therefore become less competitive for further development.

Another possible reason for the cancelation of the bullet train project is undoubtedly the real condition of transportation services from Jakarta to Bandung and vice versa. Such a short-distance service as for the proposed Jakarta-Bandung railway network is not an urgent project to pursue as the demand for rapid transportation is not as high as the more sought-after one for long-distance service, such as the much farther Jakarta-Surabaya network.

Also, the Jakarta-Bandung route is already served by the equally efficient services of intercity buses, as well as the availability of the Cipularang toll road that helps shorten the mileage for those traveling in their personal cars. All of the above factors serve as a reliable reminder that the proposed Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway network is not a priority for the central government.
Apart from those technical and financial considerations, President Jokowi’s decision to pursue a medium-speed railway network serving the Jakarta-Bandung route is apparently part of his face-saving exit strategy amid the stiff rivalry between Japan and China for winning the high-speed train project.

Rather than opting to appoint one of the two as the eventual winner, which will surely hurt, if not anger, the losing one, the President was apparently smart in not doing so and launching an alternative solution instead.

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