The slow train
Before independence, in 1931, the length of the rail network in Java was over 4,000 km. Today, some 70 years on, the network barely exceeds 3,000 km, with many routes that once connected less-developed districts now gone, reducing the connectivity to areas important to contributing towards economic growth.
Interestingly, the network routes currently serving the Greater Jakarta – Jabotadebek – area can be clearly identified in those earlier days.
In the same time span, the network connections in Sumatra declined from 1,860 km to about 1,350 km, some 270 km of the loss being the result of the discontinuation of the rail link between Medan and Banda Aceh in 1971, although the decision to reinstate this line was taken five years ago and a start, albeit slow due to budgetary constraints, has been made.
Re-tracking out of the midway point of Lhokseumawe towards Banda Aceh has been completed for a distance of about 40 km. The 270-km route between Banda Aceh and Medan is to be built to standard gauge, an acknowledgement that this is the gauge to be adopted for the future of new lines and upgrading of existing routes when possible. However, so far the lack of rolling stock inhibits more than minimal use of the completed section.
The project could do with support from application of a soft loan, perhaps especially to complete as quickly as possible the connection to Medan, especially if the potentially good port facilities that exist at Lhokseumawe were resuscitated, as suggested during the days of Aceh rehabilitation and reconstruction.
Prior to independence, the railways, a mixture of gauges, were self-financing, both passenger and freight traffic contributing to revenues. More recently, most activity has been carried out under the national budget, supplemented by multinational and bilateral aid funding, with Japan being a main contributor and latterly with support from China and Europe.
It is interesting to note that by the 1930s, the authorities in Java were already acknowledging the challenge to railway networks by the growing presence of the motor car, increasing use of which was then advancing rapidly across Western Europe.
In 2007, the Ministry of Transport presented a fairly detailed three-year railway revitalization program for Java and Sumatra, with an emphasis on passenger operations.
In Sumatra, as well as the Aceh railway, work was assigned to the three areas of North, West and South Sumatra. In North Sumatra the program has included rehabilitation of 162 km of track with 34 bridges and signalling and telecommunication stations, further locomotives and rolling stock and institutional development through management upgrading. In West Sumatra the program set out to rehabilitate 39 km of track, not yet done, while in South Sumatra the focus has been on improvement of track alignments, additional locomotives and institutional strengthening.
For Java the program was subdivided into requirements for the island as a whole and particular rejuvenation of the Jabotadebek commuter zone.
The program for Java includes the construction of a railway track between Sidoarjo and Gunung Gangsir and the development of access to the railway network for industrial areas, perhaps similar to the access provided long ago for the extraction of commodities such as sugar.
The Java program has also listed the provision of an additional large number of economy-class coaches and rehabilitation of railway infrastructure – upgrading and doubling of track and station improvement.
Creating modern station environments
Modernizing stations offers commercial opportunities for private sector investment, Bandung being one, for example, that can be addressed in this manner. Often railway land and property can extend significantly beyond the main terminal itself.
For Jabotadebek, the program involves increasing the number of electric-powered engines by 35%, double tracking, electrification and additional stations on the Jabodatebek loop line.
In overall terms the program is behind schedule with lack of progress on many of the items listed in the 2007 plan. However, the plan to spin off the Jabotadebek Railway has taken effect and this is now an independent body.
The hard railway infrastructure, e.g. track and its operation, is owned by the government under the jurisdiction of the Director General of Railways, while train operations are handled by PT Kerata Api. Although the 2007 Railway Law does now allow for private sector involvement in operations, there has as yet been no development in this regard.
In addition, a significant amount of work remains to be done in the upgrading of the institution and skills of the workforce across the industry. Much needs to be done to improve the level of maintenance that is applied and the systems that should be in place for taking care of routine operations, a process not helped by continual lack of investment and funding over many years.
The skills required, whether managerial or technological, to run a financially viable railway are not as strong as they should be. Much management time is dedicated to trouble-shooting rather than sustainable operations and long-term growth. One commentator said he was surprised that there were not more accidents or incidents than there are.
Two Jakarta projects that have been promoted for some time – the airport railway and MRT – have been handicapped by land acquisition issues and, in the case of the airport rail link, optimization of the route and system.
The commodity rail projects in Kalimantan still have many key issues to be resolved, e.g. route and land acquisition and relationships with local governments, as well as the form of PPP that would best serve both the private sector and public involvement. Commodity railways in Kalimantan and Sumatra, in particular, will undoubtedly help to move mine materials from hinterland areas. When?
While railways in the foreseeable future, as elsewhere in the world, will not replace road transport to any large extent, they still have a vital underdeveloped role to play in the overall transport requirements for mass urban commuter travel and for certain key defined mining areas.
The demand is there for passenger travel, especially in urban areas, as can be seen from the huge and often dangerous overcrowding that takes place during peak periods.
There is also a need to put in place a dedicated fast train service between Indonesia’s key cities of Jakarta and Surabaya, an issue that has been on the table for more than a decade. The current air route is becoming saturated and a competitive rail alternative should be taken more seriously than it has been.
The corridor along North Java is the last such route in the world through a very high density population area that remains to be properly served in this way.
It is to be hoped that future rail transport will provide a real buzz to people’s travel and more than just that for those who enjoy the vibration from lying across a track.