Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway - the first bullet train in Southeast Asia

Notes on the Jakarta-Bandung railway project, the future tallest building in Cambodia begins construction, the Thai Land Bridge, and more news about construction and infrastructure in Southeast Asia.

Trivia question: What is the world’s most populated island? The answer is Java, which you probably already deduced from the topic of this week’s post. I remember when I found out this fact, as it blew my mind. I was reading my Lonely Planet Indonesia on a train in Java, appropriately enough on the Jakarta-Bandung route. At that time the population was around 132 million people(!). The 2015 census put the population at 142 million people(!!), while the most recent estimates are now saying 150 million people(!!!).

[Bandung Railway Station from my visit in 2013.]

Now, what is the world’s second most populated island? That would be Honshu - the largest island in Japan - with a population of 104 million people. I often think about the similarities of Java and Japan in terms of population and geography (both are basically blobs of volcanos that joined together). The similarities abruptly end when it comes to comparing railway infrastructure.

This week’s article is about the under-construction Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway project, which Japan had hoped to introduce the Shinkansen-style bullet train to Indonesia. Ultimately it was China that won the right to build what will be (if all goes to plan) the fastest railway in Southeast Asia.

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I’ve been following the news of the Jakarta-Bandung High-Speed Railway without really getting into the details. Given that it will be the first high-speed railway in Southeast Asia with a speed of over 300km/h, it was time to feature it here.

As I mentioned in the intro, I’ve taken the train before from Jakarta to Bandung. While it is slow going, it’s the best way to escape from Jakarta with the least travel friction if you are heading east. The main train station (Gambir) is just around the corner from Jalan Jaksa, the old backpacker street which is now filled with more upmarket stays. The station in Bandung is also close to the centre of the city, making it a convenient way to arrive.

The current train service between Jakarta and Bandung takes 2h 50m to cover the 168.5 km journey. The new train will take 40 minutes, but after plotting the stations on a Google Map I’m not sure if it’s going to benefit the average traveller.

The new Jakarta station at Halim is 13.5 km away from Gambir, and about 35 minutes by car to get there. If you were to go by public transport it would require two train rides to get there from Central Jakarta. You would get the Central Line from Gondangdia to Cawang (16 minutes) and then change at Cawang for the future LRT Line 3 to Halim.

At the Bandung end, it’s an even worse deal. The new station is 22 km away from the old station, which is conveniently located in the city centre. According to Google Maps, it would take 50 minutes by car. I have found Google’s estimates to be accurate enough, and having experienced Bandung traffic before I believe this estimate.

As a tourist staying near Gambir, by the time you get to Halim station and then add up to an hour to get from the HSR station of Bandung to central Bandung, the time saved is negligible. Of course Jakarta is enormous, so while Halim is inconvenient for some it will be more convenient for others.

The last time I visited Jakarta in 2019 it was announced that Manggarai Station will replace Gambir as the long-distance travel hub. Manggarai Station is not a bad location either, and it would have made more sense to make it a true hub by ending the HSR there. That is easier said than done though when I am just sitting here drawing lines on a map without having to spend any Rupiah.

[Manggarai expansion work in 2019.]

The high-speed rail becomes more appealing once it is extended further to Yogyakarta and Surabaya. Yogyakarta is an underperforming city of Southeast Asia that should get more visitors than it does. A high-speed rail service between Jakarta and Yogyakarta would make a genuine alternative to air travel, and perhaps the railway would encourage people to see more of Indonesia.

The current Yogyakarta station is also conveniently located in the city centre, so it will interesting to see how far out of the city the HSR station is located.

On my last trip to Japan, I got the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo. I was always going to get the train, but to be fair on air travel I compared my options. The Shinkansen won out because the stations in Kyoto and Tokyo are right in the middle of the city.

Not having the stations in the city centre is a real negative, and I would have preferred they just upgraded the current railways. While Japan didn’t win the high-speed contract, they will be upgrading the Jakarta-Surabaya northern line to a “semi high-speed railway”. Maybe it would have made more sense to upgrade the current Jakarta-Bandung line to semi high-speed, which would get you there in 90 minutes and via the most convenient stations. It’s too late now, so the success of the high-speed railway will depend on it being extended to Surabaya.

Going back to my Japan comparison, ultimately I would like to see the island of Java criss-crossed with as many railways as Japan. Shinkansen in Japanese means “new trunk line”. The eventual Jakarta to Surabaya high-speed railway will be the new trunk line of Java; a high-speed backbone surrounded by semi high-speed railways.

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