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The backstory: Since taking office in 2014, one of Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s main goals was to get more modern infrastructure projects off the ground. The idea was to make things more efficient to boost economic growth. China and Japan both proposed high-speed rail projects to Indonesia in 2015. At the time, President Widodo decided to go with China’s plan, which was part of China’s international Belt and Road Initiative. When China made this proposal, it was offering a loan with a reported interest rate of over 2%, which was higher than Japan’s.
More recently: In 2016, Indonesia broke ground on the rail project, which would become the first Southeast Asian bullet train. The train was supposed to be operating by 2019, but there were a few snags hit over the past few years that delayed everything – issues getting the land needed, environmental problems and the COVID pandemic.
When building the rail system, Indonesia’s tropical climate and frequent natural disasters (earthquakes, floods) were all taken into account. Initially, the whole thing was supposed to cost about US$4.3 billion, but it ended up coming out to about US$7.3 billion. China shouldered most of this cost, loaning Indonesia the funds, but some of Indonesia’s state-owned companies also had to foot part of the bill. It finally wrapped up production recently, covering over 140 kilometers (88 miles) of land.
For the past couple of weeks, 500 free tickets per day have been available for Indonesians as the train did test runs.
The development: On Sunday, Indonesia started running the train, nicknamed “Whoosh,” which is an acronym for “time-saving, optimal operation, reliable system” in Indonesian. The first bullet train in Southeast Asia, it travels between the capital, Jakarta, and the arts and culture hub, Bandung, in less than an hour – a trip that usually takes about three hours. It goes 350 kph (217 mph) and runs on electricity, with no direct greenhouse gas emissions. President Widodo rode the first train out of the Jakarta station.
“Proud to be a child of the nation,” said Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who rode the Whoosh on September 19. “We have a high-speed train; it’s sophisticated, modern and clean. Feels like [traveling] abroad, it feels very good.”
“The high-speed train cannot replace the old transportation that previously existed,” Deddy Herlambang, executive director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Transportation Studies, said. “People, of course, will prefer to use far cheaper modes of transportation for short-distance trips.”
“This should be a lesson learned for the government,” said Andry Satrio Nugroho, a researcher for the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), referring to the project's higher interest rate and final costs. “It is quite difficult for the fast train to be profitable. According to our calculations, it won’t be profitable even after the next three presidents.”