Indonesia to bring in Chinese staff in rush to launch high speed rail link

Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan told reporters that there would be no delay to commencing the service’s operation, and that the schedule remained unchanged.

Vincent Fabian Thomas

Vincent Fabian Thomas

The Jakarta Post


Workers stand beside a high-speed train on Oct. 13, 2022 at the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail service’s Tegalluar depot in Bandung, West Java.(Reuters/Yuddy Cahya Budiman)

June 13, 2023

JAKARTA – The government is insisting on launching the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail (HSR) in August as planned, even if this means bringing in more Chinese workers to handle initial operations.

Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan told reporters on Friday that there would be no delay to commencing the service’s operation, and that the schedule remained unchanged.

The day before, a Reuters report citing an internal document said the Transportation Ministry and three consultants had suggested pushing back the date of commercial operations to January 2024 due to unfinished work.

PwC, one of the consultants mentioned in the Reuters report, declined to comment when contacted by The Jakarta Post, while another consultancy, Mott MacDonald, did not immediately respond to the Post’s request for comment.

Risal Wasal, the ministry’s rail transportation director general, told the Post on Thursday that neither the consultants nor the ministry had made any such recommendation.

PT Kereta Cepat Indonesia China (KCIC), the Indonesian-Chinese joint venture responsible for the project, said in a statement on Thursday that the targeted launch date of operations was still in August to coincided with Indonesia’s 78th Independence Day, but it did not mention a launch date for the rail service’s commercial operation.

KCIC spokesman Emir Monti said the company would hold a soft opening to allow members of the general public to ride the train from Jakarta’s Halim Station to Padalarang Station in West Bandung, though only a limited number of stations would be ready to serve passengers.

Reuters reported that people could ride the train for free starting in mid-August, while the rail service was expected to start charging passengers in September.

Aditya Dwi Laksana, who heads the railway forum of the Indonesia Transportation Society (MTI), told the Post on Thursday that pushing to launch the service’s operations in August was a tall order, as its personnel would not be ready by then.

Train drivers were likely to have had around five months’ training by July, Aditya said, whereas the standard was eight months’ training to produce experienced HSR drivers with a minimum driving distance of 100,000 kilometers under their belt. Less experienced drivers needed at least twice that training period, or 16 months.

Drivers have been training since late February in Madiun, East Java, according to Risal, which means that they would have at most six month’s experience driving a high-speed train by August.

It was therefore likely that early days of operating the Jakarta-Bandung HSR would hinge on Chinese workers who already understood the technology, he said.

“The question now is when the [knowledge] transfer will take place. When will our own people be able to operate the trains? That is completely uncertain,” Aditya said.

According to a document seen by the Post, KCIC requested in January that the government expand the types of jobs with the HSR service that were open to foreigners.

The Transportation Ministry has said it supported expanding jobs for foreign workers to ensure safety, especially during the rail service’s first year of operations, while the Manpower Ministry said in May that it would support “a relaxation” of eligibility if necessary, according to the same document.

Rail director general Risal confirmed the KCIC’s request, noting that Indonesia still had a lot to learn.

KCIC human resources director Adhi Priyanto also confirmed it had made the request.

He added that China would be in full charge of the Jakarta-Bandung HSR during the first year of operations due to safety concerns. In the second year, it would gradually shift half of the jobs to Indonesian workers.

“From the third year on, it will be all Indonesian,” Adhi said, stressing that this arrangement was “better” than an earlier proposal that maintained Chinese operations for the first five years.

Asked about the impact of hiring foreign workers on the rail service’s operating costs, Adhi said this had been fully taken into account from the start of the project.

Neither the Manpower Ministry nor the Chinese Embassy responded immediately to the Post’s request for comment.

Read also: Delays haunt Jakarta-Bandung railway project ahead of Xi visit

The MTI’s Aditya said that while the government and KCIC might have solved the human resources issue, a delay remained likely. He stressed that this was nothing to be ashamed of, however, as the new rail service must prioritize safety over all else.

He also suggested that the service could have a ceremonial launch in August if the government insisted on keeping to the overall time frame, but not for commencing passenger services.

Work was still ongoing at most stations, he added, notably at the Padalarang terminal station, so passenger operations should commence only after all work was complete, which he estimated would be in December.

He emphasized that very little time remained to obtain all certifications by Aug. 17. The process took at least two months for conventional trains, so it could be surmised that it would take longer for high-speed rail services.

According to the same document seen by the Post, China wants the commissioning certificates to be issued by August in line with the operating schedule.

As of May, high-speed trains had been tested up to 180 kilometers per hour, or 60 percent of 300 kph targeted for the free trial service in August and 46.8 percent of the technically achievable maximum speed of 385 kph.

Risal said that as of Thursday, the ministry had yet to receive applications from KCIC for the certification of trains, tracks and drivers, but the ministry was capable of handling the certification process within the short time that remained.

“We will definitely consider input from experts. We won’t be reckless,” Risal added.

He also said the ministry would work together with a Chinese independent safety assessment (ISA) provider contracted by KCIC to handle the HSR service’s certification.

KCIC’s Emir told the Post separately that the company would follow all of the ministry’s regulatory requirements.

Read also: Analysis: Jakarta-Bandung HSR rushes for commercial operation in August

Harun Al Rasyid Lubis, an expert in transportation planning at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), told the Post on Friday that safety was nonnegotiable while warning the government against launching commercial operations too soon.

As for commercial prospects, Harun said the short journey covered by the new service presented a challenge for ridership amid the massive toll road development between Jakarta and Bandung.

He was of the view that state funding might be needed to keep it afloat: “To make it economically viable, [the railway] has to be extended, but that’s something to think about another day.”

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