China beats Japan in race to build high-speed train for Asia

That’s a big deal, if you’re a train nerd. But then, if you’re in public procurement, that’s a big deal. And if you’re developing a country’s transport infrastructure, that’s a big deal. And as for the rivalry between China and Japan to deploy high-speed trains for Asia…

It’s a big problem. On August 5, Chinese rolling stock manufacturer, CRRC Qingdao Sifang, unveiled its first complete high-speed train for export. Destination Indonesia.

Let it sink in. The same triumph of technology that rocketed us and made China the envy of the world is about to hit the tracks elsewhere.

Specifically, the CR400AF Fuxing train is among those that will run on the 142.3 kilometer route between the two largest Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Bandung on the island of Java.

Construction of the line is expected to be completed by the end of the year, while the first high-speed trains made in China are expected to start carrying passengers in summer 2023.

But how did we get here today, and how did Japan fit in?

From 2008, Japan had ambitions to export its Shinkansen bullet trains and their associated technology to Indonesia. They were expected to win the bid as well, until China stepped in at the last minute with a more fiscally attractive competing bid.

Indonesia handed over the project to China in September 2015. To say Japan was furious is an understatement.

In the geopolitical scheme of things, the decision to go with China ultimately came down to money. Because the Indonesian government was unwilling to provide funding for the project.

As The Diplomat reported at the time, “Japan’s bid was based on obtaining funding from the Indonesian government and a low-interest loan offered by Japan; China offered to provide a loan and ask Indonesian state-owned enterprises to cover the rest of the costs.”

Back to the beautiful new train itself, where this business model is reflected in its branding. On the smooth exterior, the letters KCIC; Kereta Cepat Indonesia China which is the conglomerate’s joint venture with China.

Inside, though no different from the trains we all know and love here in the Middle Kingdom, Indonesians will instead be reclining on gray and black seats, in a brown and cream paneled cabin.

With a top speed of 350 kilometers per hour, the fastest travel time on the route is expected to be just 36 minutes. This is going to be a huge transformation for many Indonesians. Railway Gazette reports that the current train takes 3 hours on a narrow gauge line.

As a symbol, the unveiling of China’s first high-speed train for export is indeed a big deal, which is sure to have now refocused the attention of other governments across Asia. If Indonesia can have a high-speed railway at no cost to her, why not others?

Jose P. Rogers