Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
The first corridor of Jakarta’s US$1.1 billion MRT connects the iconic Hotel Indonesia roundabout at the city centre to Lebak Bulus in the city’s south. Photo: Kyodo

Jakarta’s long ride to an MRT is almost over. Will it boost Widodo during the Indonesian election?

  • After a delay of almost 30 years, the capital is about to get a US$1.1 billion subway system, just in time for the April polls
  • The president is talking up his work in getting it across the line, but there is more to do to solve congestion in the traffic-clogged city
Maya Rizki is fed up with her daily Jakarta commute, which can take up to five hours. The mother of two lives in the eastern part of the Indonesian capital and works in the southern part, some 15km apart. Every day, Rizki and her husband drive their children to schools along the way to their respective offices. To avoid the morning rush hour, she tries to leave the house at 5am, a ritual familiar to many Jakartans.

“If I leave after 6am, I will be stuck in traffic for 1.5 or two hours,” said the 42-year-old civil servant. “During the after-work rush hour, if I leave my office after 5pm, it will take two to three hours to reach home. Sometimes I only get home by 9pm.”

Indonesia’s Prabowo Subianto plays to Muslim voters in a twist of faith before election

But things are looking up for Rizki and 30 million other Jakartans, as the city prepares to launch its long-awaited Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which will officially open to the public in the fourth week of March, according to PT MRT Jakarta – the city-owned firm set up to build and maintain the subway system.

The first corridor of the 16 trillion rupiah (US$1.1 billion) system is 16km long, connecting the iconic Hotel Indonesia roundabout at the city centre to Lebak Bulus in south Jakarta. There are 13 stations and the route took less than 30 minutes to complete during a recent trial for European diplomats, an astonishingly swift journey by the standards of the traffic-clogged metropolis.

Click to enlarge

The MRT will operate from 5am to midnight every day, and MRT Jakarta expects it to accommodate up to 130,000 passengers daily. Trains will run every 10 minutes, and every five minutes during rush hour, with proposed fares ranging from 8,500 rupiah (60 US cents) for the first 10km to 12,800 (91 US cents) rupiah for all 13 stations.

“We have completed the construction of the main infrastructure, everything is on track to open the MRT to the public,” said Muhammad Kamaluddin, MRT Jakarta’s corporate secretary head. “Our trials are focused on maintaining the security of the journey and the train itself. We are optimistic that we can install the support facilities before the free public trial on March 12.”

Can Indonesia’s Go-Jek loosen Grab’s grip on Southeast Asia?

Those wanting to try the MRT before the official launch need to be cautious about the lack of support facilities. Non-functioning escalators and lifts mean passengers have to climb stairs to reach the concourse and train platforms, which are still hot due to the lack of air conditioning.

But Rizki, who recently got to ride the MRT, is already a convert. “It was really fun trying out the MRT … Jakarta is finally at the level of other metropolitan cities,” she said. “I have been curious about the MRT since the government announced the construction plan. I think having the MRT here will help many people in Jakarta, who are looking forward to ride the subway to reduce the road congestion.”

The MRT project had been abandoned for 26 years over land acquisition issues and funding constraints. Photo: Bloomberg

Other Jakarta residents are similarly enthusiastic about the project.

“I’m very happy with the arrival of MRT in Jakarta. It’s high time for Indonesia to have the subway, this is a very important development for the country,” said Stephane De Loecker, the Belgian ambassador to Indonesia. “Millions of people in other cities around the world already use subway to avoid traffic congestion. Having people stuck in traffic jams is bad economically, as you are losing a lot of money. I’m looking forward to using the MRT once it’s fully operational.”

But Indonesia’s journey to getting an MRT was not as smooth as the trial rides. The project had been abandoned for 26 years over land acquisition issues and funding constraints, before construction resumed under then-Jakarta governor Joko Widodo in 2013. Widodo, now Indonesia’s president, has been hailed by many for his bravery in cutting through red tape to ensure the subway’s construction.

Indonesia faces a diabetes epidemic – and it’s the young who are most affected

For example, he issued a special policy to speed up land procurement in the area along the first MRT corridor, which had been difficult due to issues such as costly land prices and unclear land ownership.

“When I was Jakarta governor, I was told why [MRT construction] was abandoned for 26 years. Their presentation about the project was always about how much profit and loss we are going to make,” Widodo recently told reporters. “I was told that the Jakarta government needed to subsidise about 3 trillion rupiah every year. If we didn’t kick-start MRT [construction] at that time, it would never be built because they will always count the losses … which I think is nothing compared to the state’s loss of 65 trillion rupiah every year because of road congestion.”

Jakarta’s MRT was funded by a soft loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Photo: Bloomberg
To fund the project, Indonesia secured a soft loan from Japanese state development body Japan International Cooperation Agency, which will see the Jakarta government repay 51 per cent of loan payments while the central government will cover the rest.

The Japanese body is also funding the second phase of the MRT, an 8km route linking the city centre to western Jakarta that will cost 25 trillion rupiah and is scheduled to be running by 2024. The city aims to build five MRT corridors with a total length of 300km – including inner and outer loop lines that will connect Jakarta and its satellite cities – by 2030.

“The loan is 100 per cent a government-to-government loan between Japan and Indonesia. For the second phase, we are also funded by Japan. We’re still looking for investors for the third phase,” said PT MRT Jakarta’s Kamaluddin. “We will invite investments from all countries that have capacity for loans and we will finalise it as soon as possible.” The company aims to start the development of the third MRT corridor next year and get it operational by 2025.

Duterte, Modi, Widodo. Re-elected or not, their populism will live on

Japan is now proposing a high-speed railway between Jakarta and east Java’s Surabaya, the country’s second-biggest city, with the goal of cutting the 11-hour journey in half. The proposal came after Japan lost to China in a bid to build a high-speed rail link between Jakarta and the city of Bandung, a proxy showdown between two countries vying for a bigger slice of Indonesia’s infrastructure drive.

The 142.3km Jakarta-Bandung link is progressing, despite currently being stalled at a 6km section of the Jakarta-Cikampek highway due to an overlap with the construction of an elevated road. KCIC, a joint venture between Chinese and Indonesian firms, is looking to complete the project by 2021.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his election contender Prabowo Subianto. Photo: AP

“There are only a few details available for now, we know it’s no shinkansen, no express train,” said Masafumi Ishii, Japan’s ambassador to Indonesia, during a recent panel held by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club. “We are trying to make the best use of existing infrastructure and improving it with a limited amount of money. Details will come after [further studies].”

Meanwhile, Widodo has been using his success in bringing Jakarta’s MRT to life in his re-election campaign ahead of Indonesia’s April polls, in which he is facing opposition leader Prabowo Subianto. Analysts said it is within Widodo’s right to use the MRT to highlight his infrastructure achievements.

Indonesia election: Joko Widodo’s latest challenge may come from people refusing to vote

“Jokowi was brave to launch the MRT during his time as Jakarta governor,” said Djoko Setijowarno, a specialist with the Indonesia Transport Society, using Widodo’s nickname. “In 2013 Jokowi was not a presidential candidate and he actually targeted the MRT for operation during the Asian Games last year … but he missed the target. It’s his luck that the MRT will operate in this election year.”

Besides the MRT, Jakarta is also scheduled to open a 5.8km section of its Light Rail Transit (LRT) metro by the end of this month that will connect Rawamangun in the east to Kelapa Gading in north Jakarta. Unlike the MRT, however, the LRT is yet to obtain a permit from the Jakarta administration to operate, and is awaiting recommendations from the country’s transport ministry on its stations and depot.

Jakarta still needs to build an integrated public transport system involving its subway, metro and buses. Photo: Bloomberg

To be sure, the MRT and LRT will not be silver bullets automatically solving Jakarta’s gridlock if the public lacks the willingness to switch from private vehicles to public transport. The city still needs to build an integrated public transport system involving the subway, metro, and buses, just like in other Asian megalopolises such as Tokyo and Singapore.

MRT Jakarta said some MRT stations in the first corridor will be linked to Transjakarta bus stops and LRT metro stations to realise an integrated public transport system that the city has called Jak Lingko.

“MRT is still a small part of Jakarta’s public transport system; just relying on the MRT won’t solve the road congestion problem,” said Setijowarno of the Indonesia Transport Society. “Passengers are likely to still take motorcycle taxis after they get off the MRT. People will take the bus if the stations are integrated with Transjakarta bus stops.”

Muslim teen Rahaf Mohammed is safe in Canada. What if she were Malaysian or Indonesian?

As the MRT’s main backer, Japan hopes the subway’s arrival will change the existing commuting pattern in Jakarta – and expects the city to benefit economically from the project, particularly in areas near MRT stations.

“You will have positive impacts in the economy by reducing the gridlock in Jakarta,” said Ishii, the Japanese ambassador. “If you start having some different [ways to] bring you closer to your workplace, you will change the gridlock in front of the station as well, which makes the development of the area near the station even easier – which makes usage of the stations more efficient. I do hope the MRT will come up as a huge plus for the economy of Indonesia.”