Friday, March 28, 2014, 15:22
Indonesia on the right track
By Andre Vltchek and Rossie Indira in Bogor, Sukabumi and Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia on the right track
Children observe train carriages at Sukabumi station. The newly reopened service between Bogor and Sukabumi is part of a government-run project to revitalize old and abandoned lines from the Dutch colonial era. (Photos by Andre Vltchek / For CHINA DAILY Asia Weekly)
Indonesia on the right track
Java’s revitalized rail lines are known for offering passengers picturesque views including rice fields, rivers and streams.
The heavy seasonal rains have brought hardship with them once again to Jakarta. An outdated infrastructure system has left entire neighborhoods in the Indonesian capital under water, with a collapsed transit system offering few options for commuters. Trains strive to run at a reduced capacity and arrive hopelessly late.

But in Indonesia’s third-largest city of Bogor, life is less frustrating. Situated around 50 km south of the capital, the city’s mountainous location has managed to avoid the flood-induced chaos of the capital, with trains running smoothly regardless of the rain.

Children run around Bogor’s commuter train station, pitching huge umbrellas and helping passengers cross the congested and potholed streets outside.

By lax Indonesian standards, this new train terminal is modern, functional and attractive — boasting well-paved floors, transparent signs and light glass roofs.

Passengers zip back and forth between Bogor and Jakarta in mostly second-hand trains from Japan. Air-conditioned and fast, the trains complete the entire journey in less than an hour, and are the best way to beat the legendary macet, or traffic jams, in and around the capital.

It is also cheaper to travel by train, as driving bears the country’s increasing costs of gasoline, tolls and parking fees.

The public is demanding more trains and a better rail system, but the car lobby is tremendously powerful, and Indonesia’s rail network currently accounts for only around 40 percent of what it used to be, even during the Dutch colonial rule.

In fact, almost all rail lines presently in service in Java — Indonesia’s most populous island — were created during the European occupation that ended in 1949.

However, Java’s road network is now so overburdened that the average speed of traveling between West and Central Java is only around 25 km per hour. So a revitalization of Indonesia’s railways is therefore quickly and desperately needed.

With plans and ideas often discussed, no big project is yet ready to fly. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of appetite to build a high-speed rail network to connect Java’s major cities.

Such a network would be the most logical solution to tackle the relentless road congestion and annual losses of billions of dollars due to delayed arrivals of passengers and goods.

Indonesia on the right track
Trains at Sukabumi station offer passengers a choice to travel by business or executive class.
But getting to the heart of the problem would require an extremely expensive project, needing dedicated teams of experts, disciplined construction companies and highly trained workers.

For now, Indonesia’s railroads (run by the government-owned Kereta Api), are aiming at much more modest but realistic goals. These include connecting Soekarno-Hatta International Airport with the capital, improving the commuter train network, and revitalizing old and mostly abandoned lines from the Dutch colonial era.

Rachmadi Wahab, a railway expert and graduate from Bandung Institute of Technology, elaborates on the proposed railroad plans.

“In Jakarta, they are building the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) to Soekarno-Hatta airport,” he says. “As for the existing lines that the Dutch built — they have not been in operation for many years. They are planning to revitalize them and use them again, such as Bogor to Sukabumi.”

This ‘new’ train line between Bogor and Sukabumi is exactly the type of revitalization project Indonesia needs.

The line covers 57 km between the two cities, passing through pristine countryside and taking in breathtaking views of wild rivers and streams, green rice fields, as well as many humble but picturesque villages.

“When I went back to Indonesia during my work leave, I heard about this new service,” explains one of the passengers, Mr Indra, an Indonesian working in Qatar.

Indonesia on the right track
A conductor on board the Bogor to Sukabumi line.