The Cost of Postponing Railroad Improvements

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

Does Indonesia lack public transportation infrastructure? If yes, compared to other countries, how far left behind are we? This is one of the issues put forward by William Sabandar, the director of Jakarta MRT, in his speech during a seminar commemorating the 60th anniversary of Indonesia-Japan diplomatic relations held at Universitas Indonesia on 11th October 2018. 

The seminar also invited Shinichi Kitaoka, the president of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), as a speaker, primarily focused on discussing the types of cooperation that have been implemented by the two countries since the day it started forming diplomatic relations. Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, specifically, was given the spotlight as the city is currently building the first-ever MRT in the country’s vast archipelago. Support in transportation, in addition to other urban infrastructures as well as education and training infrastructures, have been the scope of Japan’s JICA contribution in Jakarta since the past decades.

As of 30th September 2018, the construction progress of Jakarta MRT’s first phase (out of three phases), which stretches from Lebak Bulus to Bundaran HI (16km), is on overall reaching 96,54%, with 95,36% complete on the depots and elevated sections (10km), and 97,72% on the underground section (6km). If there is no serious impediment, Sabandar said that it will begin to operate around March 2019.  

The pioneering project involves several Japanese corporations, among others, Mitsui & Co., Tokyo Engineering Corporation, and Kobe Steel, Ltd. in the construction of its railroad system and trackwork; as well as Sumitomo Corporation in the procurement of the rolling stock. Having Japan as the main role model for the MRT development doesn’t limit the Jakarta MRT to learn from other countries; they also benchmark its overall system against several countries each known for their quality performances: Japan on operation and maintenance consulting services; Hong Kong on rail, property, and MRT academy; India on risk management; Singapore on construction and engineering; and Malaysia on drivers training.

An interesting comparison appeared on the screen as it compared the length of subways in Tokyo, Delhi, and Greater Jakarta. Greater Jakarta and Delhi particularly showed a glaringly stark difference. As both are emerging sprawling megacities, Delhi, with the size of 1,483km2, has made major inroads in term of subway development and managed to build 329km of subway. Greater Jakarta, on the other hand, with the size of area four times than that of Delhi, is just about to have a 53km-long subway in 2024, considering the three phases are completed. “In 1990, the feasibility study of the Delhi Metro started together at the same time with Jakarta, both of which were supported by JICA. Delhi, however, went straight to build [its subway] after finishing the feasibility study; the 329km-long [subway] was built in nearly 30 years. Indonesia, on the other hand, instead continued to conduct more and more studies, and only commenced the construction in 2013,” Sabandar said.

Notwithstanding the slow progress, Sabandar encouraged his fellow Indonesians to support and expedite the railroad program as Indonesia could not wait for another 30 years to have an extensive subway like in India, to say the least. The cost of doing nothing—of not building more railroad system, he lamented, is that now Indonesia is fraught with possible ramifications, including the predicted gridlock in 2020. In addition, the frequent traffic jams in Jakarta is said to cost the city more than three billion US dollars a year. “With the 50 trillion rupiahs [more than three billion US dollars] we can add an additional 50km for [Jakarta MRT’s] elevated line, and 30km for underground line, every year we can do that,” he argued, further asserting that, while developing railroad system may be financially discouraging, it will indeed bring more benefits to the citizens as a whole if looked from a broader and long-term perspective.

But there is more to railroad than just developing its system: there should be also the culture that encourage citizens to shift to public transportation. As in the U.S. cities, Jakarta’s strong car culture becomes an impeding factor that will disincentivize the use of public transportation, and thus the expansion of more railroad. Jonathan English in his writing ‘Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.’ conducted historical study to find out why public transportation—including railroad—in European cities are more developed than in the U.S. cities and arrived at the conclusion that—as I summarized some of it—the European cities tended to put transit first when they built new neighborhoods and not the other way around, the latter of which will end up bringing steep rise in land price, hence costly railroad development (as in the case of the U.S. cities and Jakarta); provided frequent, regular bus feeder system to the adjacent train stations; and provided good service “even in places that are typically deemed ‘not transit supportive.” Basically, the transit service needs to be well planned and to deliver its best service or otherwise people will keep on using their cars.