Indonesia gets its first bullet train

Indonesian President Joko Widodo inaugurated Southeast Asia’s first bullet train on Monday after years of delay and $1.2B in unforeseen costs.

The $7.3B high-speed electric train connects Jakarta to the hub of Bandung 142km away. It can reach speeds of 350 km/h, and cuts the trip between the two major Indonesian cities from three hours to 36 minutes.

The best part? The train is called WHOOSH, which is a Bahasa acronym for ‘time-saving, optimal operation, reliable system’.

During the inauguration, Indonesia’s investment minister thanked the “Chinese government and its related companies”, which financed a significant part of the project through Beijing’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

It’s China’s first full high-speed rail project abroad, and construction of a 608km high-speed link is also underway in Thailand. But other proposed high-speed links haven’t materialised. Why?

  • 😬 Beijing sometimes baulks at local political & security risks, and
  • 💳 Hosts often baulk at taking on too much debt.

So most BRI rail projects, like the Ethiopia-Djibouti link (opened in 2018) or the Belgrade-Budapest line (due 2025), use more conventional rail tech.

Intrigue’s take: The idea behind the BRI was as simple as it was ambitious: Beijing got to deploy its vast savings and absorb its massive industrial overcapacity, while building needed infrastructure and influence abroad.

Many folks in Asia and Africa certainly seem to dig it, and for Indonesia’s ‘infrastructure president’, the new rail link is also nicely on-brand.

But there’ve long been questions around the BRI’s motives and quality, and there’s a sense it’s slowing under its own weight: China has bailed out many BRI projects, and now seems to be paring it backde-risking it in private, and de-emphasising it in public (at least by initial standards).

Still, the BRI is enshrined in China’s Communist Party charter, and entwined with President Xi’s leadership. So while it’ll evolve, it’s probably here to stay.

Also worth noting:

  • The BRI is marking its 10th year anniversary this month.
  • China won the Indonesian high-speed rail contract in 2015 after Jakarta backed away from earlier proposals (including from Japan), reportedly on cost grounds.
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