High Speed Rail: Getting Back on Track

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High Speed Rail: Getting Back on Track
Harya S. Dillon, Ph.D. (Secretrary-general of the Indonesian Transportations Society (MTI). He earned his doctorate in urban planning and public policy from the University of California, Irvine).

IO – The wise Benjamin Franklin had warned us: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” How true, especially when it comes to multi-million Dollars’ worth of High Speed Rail (HSR). Yet, I am not one for relitigating the past.

There is no denying that in 2015 President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo had promised that the state budget would be barred from funding the Chinese-backed Jakarta-Bandung HSR megaproject. Earlier this month the same President signed a decree (Presidential Decree No. 93/2021) that laid down the track for state funding, triggering quick-fingered netizens and politicos alike to offer their response. Those sitting opposite of the government wasted no time noting the policy reversal. Worse yet, they might even use this case of HSR cost overrun as an example of how President Jokowi is over promising and under delivering.

I will leave the issues of legal and political accountability of the alleged scandal to a more authoritative pundit, a political aspirant perhaps. There are indeed promises that have been made and everyone is within their own right to shape their own views, political or otherwise. Yet, there are salient points that one ought to consider before passing judgements on the HSR.

First, let’s be real: even the best laid plan could not have anticipated for the Covid-19 pandemic that have delayed construction. The pandemic is also hitting the Chinese and Indonesian state-owned enterprise consortium members in their pockets such that they are unable to cover the infated cost or simply inject more equity without state support.

This is not to say that the HSR has been planned carefully. Far from it. There were costs that should have been anticipated in advance, such as land acquisition and costs associated with moving public utilities such as powerlines and underground pipelines. Furthermore, land should have been secured before construction commences. Doing land acquisition in
stages is creating a sellers’ market at the expense of the HSR project. Landowners would want to extract a higher price upon learning that the
HSR project desperately need their property to make progress.

Second, it would not be sensible to just walk away from a construction project 80% into completion. Indeed, the HSR has reached the point of no return. It is too big to fail and the opportunity costs of abandoning the project could not be justifed either.

It is true that perhaps the government could instead persuade it’s
Chinese counterparts to shoulder the infated costs by injecting more
equity. However, that would leave Indonesian project partners losing
shareholding majority and possibly the ability to appoint key company
executives. I would bet top Yuan that going this route would not quiet the opposition even if Chinese counterparts agree.

On one hand, state support for rail infrastructure should not be controversial in the first place; only if President Jokowi had not promised otherwise. Like any president in their last term, Jokowi is probably self-conscious about his legacy and about how history will remember him. It is not that hard to name a handful of presidents who broke their campaign promises, but who’s counting. On the other hand, I don’t think the opposition would take kindly the appointment of a foreign-national CEO, perhaps by invoking the political mantra of economic-nationalism. That said, the determined opposition, especially those who have openly peddled
sinophobic tropes, give President Jokowi little incentive to continue barring the use of state coffers to complete the HSR project.

Third, it is probably better for us to put the best minds to find solutions rather than looking for culprits. This is, of course, not an attempt to defect responsibility. Put simply, one would want to put the fire out before releasing the hounds for the arsonist.

To their credit, the government have made sensible changes to the
HSR plan. For example, moving the interim station from Walini to
Padalarang is a good sign that the government is serious about getting things right this time around. Indeed, the 2015 decision to build a station other than in Padalarang, an existing rail suburb of Bandung, was an insult to transportation planning.

Now that the HSR stops at Padalarang, the government should seriously consider connecting the suburb with Downtown Bandung station with a modern commuter rail system. The current diesel-powered trains just won’t cut it. Better yet, modernizing the entire eastwest commuter rail would make rail commuting more attractive in Bandung Metro area.

Connectivity is key to successful urban mobility investments. As such, getting the most out of the HSR would involve improving connectivity to the Tegalluar terminus as well. It is not too early to plan on improving connectivity between urban centres in Bandung to Padalarang and Tegalluar stations.

Last but not least is audit – extensive and thorough. Those who have perjured the trust of the public and that of the President must be
held to account. More importantly, the current HSR managerial team
deserve to work on a clean slate so that they can perform their very
best. This should start with no delay.

The public deserves to know how we get it wrong so that we can avoid
this embarrassing episode from recurring. Failure to conduct a full audit will only turn all this into a rehearsal for bigger planning disasters. Hint: new capital.

In conclusion, first and foremost we need to leave partisan politics out if we are serious about getting HSR back on track. Given how the opposition have played identity politics in the 2019 election, the path of least resistance for President Jokowi doesn’t seem to include persuading Chinese counterparts to absorb the cost overruns by injecting more equity. Second, connectivity to urban centres in Bandung would make or break the HSR. Getting the most out of our HSR investment requires modernizing the Padalarang-Bandung commuter rail as well as an attractive mass transit options from
Tegalluar.

Last and most importantly; audit. Those responsible for cost overruns must be held to account and so that those who are working hard on fixing it can focus on performing their best. In the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin; pardoning the bad is injuring the good. (Harya S. Dillon, Ph.D.)