Indonesia's Big Rail Plans

Indonesia is either about to get the most advanced high-speed rail operation in the world -- or it isn't. On Jan. 7, the Ministry of Transportation announced in Jakarta that following a 90 day feasibility study, work will begin this year to build a US$3 billion high-speed 357-km railway connecting Jakarta to the West Java cities of Bandung and Cirebon.

It isn't just any high-speed rail system, and its untested technology inspires a certain amount of doubt about its viability. It is a "Hydrogen Hi-Speed Rail Super Hiway." H2RSH, as it is called, is not only a maglev – a system levitated above the tracks by magnetism – but one that would float above dual tracks through which electricity, water, fibre-optics and gas would flow, according to a US-based publication called the Infrastructurist. Although it is expected to be completed in two years, no prototype has yet been built.

Solar panels inlaid in the track would provide the energy to move the trains and convert water to hydrogen to be stored for future use as fuel. The line would form the backbone of the government's US$500 billion West Java Economic Corridor, which also includes the construction of a new international airport and seaport.

"H2RSH has been years in the making so we are very pleased to see this unprecedented yet groundbreaking project move forward," Martjin Mollet, the Managing Partner for Creative and Strategic Marketing for the San Francisco-based CAEDZ Eco Synesis Group, which heads the consortium to build the project, said in an email to Asia Sentinel. "The Hydrogen High-speed Rail Super Highway is part of the West Java Regional Economic Corridor that CAEDZ is co-developing with the West Java Provincial government."

CAEDZ Eco Synesis Group says it heads a consortium including the German engineering company Obermeyer Planen +Beraten GMBH, Asian Energy Ltd., the Malaysian engineering company Pembinaan Aktif Gemilang Sdn Bhd, Aon Risk Services, Aqua-PhyD, Aruna Solutions, Asian Energy Ltd., Tricap Group, Copernicus International, eCompass Group, Fidelity National Financial, Global Green Management, McGladrey & Pullen, Modular Integrated Technologies, Interstate Traveler and Tum Geotechnical Research.

According to Marjorie Hoeh, the CAEDZ director of Investment, Finance and Business Development in an email, the concept behind the hydrogen-powered maglev train was created by Justin Sutton, the Michigan-based founder of an entity called Interstate Traveler, which has come up with a series of concepts that can only be described as startling, including "BioDome Humanitarian Complexes" that according to Sutton were designed for planets with no atmosphere but are equally suitable for war-torn countries like Afghanistan. None have been built.

CAEDZ itself thinks big. Very big. A consortium of "planners, architects, designers, engineers, economists, sociologists, educators, environmentalists, futurists, advocacy groups, technology vendors, developers, construction groups and product suppliers, its aim appears to be nothing less than to redesign the world.

It seeks to "develop a seamless, cohesive, and sustainable global community ... a social and environmental blueprint that encompasses all of the key elements needed for successful quality and technologically advanced community that is appropriately and economically sensitive to the balance between environmental biodiversity and human needs."

According to its website, CAEDZ got its start through the design of "teleport cities," communities built to deliver direct and economic access to a large number of domestic and international satellites for users in the surrounding region. However, no teleport cities appear to have been built, including the one that brought the organization together in the US state of Nevada.

Putting the "social and environmental blueprint into practice" appears to be problematical. In 2005 CAEDZ announced it had an exclusive contract to design and build an "International Eco Health City" on 4,000 hectares in the Iskandar development in Malaysia across from Singapore, to include "several large hospital complexes, a medical university, medical research facilities, a biotech industrial park, four health resorts, and almost 10,000 homes" as well as "farmlands, parks, public transportation, schools, and shops needed make it a viable self-sustaining community."CAEDZ described it as "the largest sustainable development project yet undertaken in the world."

The project seems to have fallen off the map. Martjin Mollet said the Nusajaya Eco Health City "was a concept city that CAEDZ introduced to the Malaysian authority. However that development is under full control of the state-owned Iskandar now."

"It never happened," said a source in Kuala Lumpur, beyond an initial story in Malaysia's Business Times. CAEDZ's website still cites it as alive and well, however.

Then there is the Project Indonesia Initiative, a "broad and comprehensive economic re-engineering development program that seeks to do nothing less than transform the country's "economy, environment, people, policies and infrastructure."

Among other things, CAEDZ says, it is in charge of bringing "massive beneficial change to Jakarta: rubbish landfills will be converted into a usable gas which will be turned into electricity and hydrogen fuel; all public transportation and taxis will be converted to hydrogen fuel, creating a hydrogen fuel economy; high-quality low-cost ecologically friendly housing, to be designed considering the needs of local communities, will be built for people currently living in makeshift housing; and new parks, public spaces, and commercial infrastructures will be created."

The Jakarta project, CAEDZ says, is expected to create three to five million jobs in Jakarta alone, or one job each for a fourth to nearly half of Jakarta's 13.1 million citizens.

If there are skeptics, they aren't in Indonesia's Ministry of Transportation.

"We will facilitate the feasibility study and detail the engineering design for the project," Tundjung Inderawan, director general of railways at the Ministry of Transportation, told reporters on Jan. 7. It will be the first major infrastructure project in Indonesia not to involve public funds although no recent intercity train system has been built anywhere in the world without government participation.

The feasibility study was signed Jan. 11. The project, Tundjung said, is expected to cost less to build than a conventional system, at US$10 million per mile, compared with $36 million per mile for conventional systems. By contrast, the Shanghai maglev system cost US$63 million per mile and a system being proposed for the United States is estimated to cost US$110 million per mile.

Maglev systems are also notorious for their exacting engineering. The 357-km system CAEDZ is proposing runs across some of the most unstable geology in the world. Maglev systems also require absolutely constant electricity supply, as any power loss would cause the magnetic levitation to cease and the train, traveling in excess of 300 km per hour, would come into contact with the tracks with potentially disastrous results.

According to a 2007 law passed by the parliament, private-sector contractors and regional administrations can participate in building infrastructure across Indonesia.

"The private sector can propose railway construction," Tundjung said, adding that the government would monitor the process. Construction of the 357 km line, he said, is expected to take two years. The Shanghai line built by the German Transrapid consortium, primarily composed of Thyssen Krupp and Siemens, took two and half years. It is 30 km long. The government has since suspended plans to build another maglev line between Hangzhou and Shanghai.