California’s High-Speed Rail Dreams Could Go “Whoosh”

The Golden State Seems Primed to Repeat the Mistakes and Miscalculations of Indonesia’s New Bullet Train

Riding Indonesia’s new bullet train Whoosh is like taking a peek into California’s high-speed rail’s future, writes columnist Joe Mathews. And it doesn’t look promising. Photo of Whoosh train by author.

The good news is that California will almost certainly have a high-speed rail line someday.

The bad news is that it may look a lot like “Whoosh.”

Whoosh is the name of the new high-speed rail line that opened last October on the Indonesian island of Java. Its existence is a breakthrough—Whoosh is the first bullet train in Southeast Asia and the Southern Hemisphere. Similarly, California’s train could be the first truly high-speed service in North America. (Amtrak’s Acela and Florida’s Brightline don’t count—they don’t surpass 150 miles per hour.)

I rode Whoosh during a reporting trip to Java in February. It was disappointing, in ways that may preview how Californians are likely to feel about the high-speed rail we eventually get.

Most stories about the possibilities for California high-speed rail look at proven, efficient bullet trains in Europe and East Asia. I myself have written about the glories of high-speed rail systems in Germany and Taiwan. Riding Whoosh was a very different experience.

Whoosh is the by-product of ambitions by the administration of President Joko Widodo to build a high-speed rail route traversing the 600 miles of the island of Java—from the mega-city of Jakarta in the west to Surabaya in the east. California’s official high-speed rail plans are of similar ambition, extending 600 miles from San Francisco and Sacramento in the north to San Diego in the south. Both systems will use similar technologies and have promised the same top speed—350 kilometers, or 220 miles, per hour.

But neither rail ambition, Indonesian nor Californian, seems likely to be achieved in our lifetimes. Whoosh is only a very partial realization of a trans-Java high-speed rail: It extends just 88 miles, from Jakarta to the outskirts of the city of Bandung—roughly the distance from L.A. to Santa Barbara.  Similarly, California voters approved high-speed rail in 2008 on the promise they’d be zipping from L.A. to the Bay in less than three hours by 2020. Currently, only a first segment—171 miles from Merced to Bakersfield—is under construction, and even that isn’t scheduled to be operational until 2030.

I boarded Whoosh early on a weekday morning. The red train was shiny and new, and inside the car, seating was spacious and comfortable. But there were few other passengers. Even with subsidized fares that made my ticket the equivalent of $18, many trains were pretty empty. News reports say Whoosh is already losing money, as many high-speed rail systems worldwide do.

Why isn’t Whoosh more popular? One reason echoes a failure of California’s own high-speed rail plans—the first segment of this train doesn’t take you to the centers of the biggest cities.

What I learned in Java was that, in high-speed rail as in other things, you get what you pay for.

In Jakarta, you don’t board the train in the city center but at Halim Station, on the city’s southeast side. My taxi ride there from Central Jakarta took 45 minutes. Halim is next to a smaller domestic airport—Jakarta’s version of Burbank. But the train doesn’t go into the airport, and one can’t walk easily from terminals, or even surrounding neighborhoods, to the station, because it involves crossing highways.

The train ride itself, from Jakarta to Bandung, was fast and uneventful. It lasted only 45 minutes—much better than the three hours the trip would take by car.

However, on the other end of Whoosh, connections were even more fraught. The train doesn’t go near the center of Bandung. Instead, it dropped me at Tegalluar station, well to the south of Bandung.

There I found myself surrounded by open land and a large soccer stadium. To get to central Bandung, where I was to interview local government members and visit a school, I would need to spend another 45 minutes in the taxis. The two taxi rides—within Jakarta and greater Bandung—took 90 minutes, twice the amount of time I spent on the train ride.

On my return trip from Bandung to Jakarta, I tried an alternative path. I boarded a special feeder train—which ran slowly on diesel engines—from central Bandung to a different Whoosh station. That trip took 22 minutes. After Whoosh delivered me back to Halim station in southeast Jakarta, I boarded Jakarta’s Metro to return to where I was staying in Central Jakarta. That ride took 70 minutes.

California’s approach to high-speed rail suffers from a similar failure to connect. The first segment remains entirely within the Central Valley, not penetrating even the outer edges of the Bay Area or Southern California. That first segment’s endpoints, Merced and Bakersfield, have limited public transportation options; moving on to further destinations would require navigating slow transit connections, or accessing a car.

In California, as in Indonesia, it’s unlikely that either rail plan will ever produce a robust and deeply connected rail system. The obstacle is the same in both places: lack of public money.

Neither Indonesia’s nor California’s government is willing to pay the high costs of a great high-speed rail system. So, both projects are dependent on money from outside the state.

Whoosh’s funding came from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping’s highly touted but largely failed infrastructure loan program. (Chinese entities own a big share of Whoosh as a result). Meanwhile, California, despite state bond funds, needs the federal government to make high-speed rail happen. And Washington is an unstable supporter. The Biden administration recently sent an infusion of $3.1 billion. The Trump administration previously took money away.

Worse still, both Indonesia and California have seen cost overruns and big delays on their first train segments—scandals that discourage further investment. Whoosh was more than $1 billion over budget, and four years late, on its first $7.2 billion segment. California’s first segment is estimated to cost $33 billion—as much as the estimated cost of the entire system when voters approved it in 2008. Now the entire system’s price tag is $128 billion, with completion still decades away.

What I learned in Java was that, in high-speed rail as in other things, you get what you pay for. And if your government won’t spend the money required to build robust and well-connected rail systems, you won’t get much.


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