Indonesia kicks off construction of first-ever bullet train line

President Joko Widodo attending a ground breaking ceremony for the Jakarta-Bandung fast-train railway line in Walini, Indonesia, on Jan 21, 2016.
President Joko Widodo attending a ground breaking ceremony for the Jakarta-Bandung fast-train railway line in Walini, Indonesia, on Jan 21, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (AFP) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo broke ground on Thursday (Jan 21) on the country's first-ever bullet train line, heralding the project as a symbol of "major cooperation" with China.

The controversial US$5.6 billion (S$8 billion) project sparked a fierce bidding war between China and Japan as the two Asian powerhouses jostle to build key infrastructure projects in Indonesia and the wider region.

Mr Joko kicked off the first construction phase at a tea plantation in West Java, where one of the stations along the line will be situated.

"Send my regards to (Chinese) President Xi Jinping," Mr Joko said at the event, attended by Chinese officials.

"This is a (sign of) major cooperation between Indonesia and China," he added, calling for the two trading partners to further expanded ties in other industries.

The bullet train should in theory be able to travel up to 350kmh between the sprawling capital Jakarta and the mountain-fringed city of Bandung, about 160km away.

It is a key project for Mr Joko, who has pledged to overhaul the archipelago's rickety infrastructure in a bid to attract investors and boost growth in South-east Asia's largest economy, which last year dipped below five per cent.

Last year, Jakarta asked for proposals from investors for the ambitious project, with China and Japan bidding so intensely a senior minister likened Indonesia to a pretty girl being courted by many admirers.

After a chaotic bidding process, China was awarded the contract - infuriating Japan, which was long expected to build the track given its high-speed rail expertise.

Indonesia lacks a mass-transport system, forcing its increasingly affluent 250 million people to rely heavily on private transport, resulting in grinding traffic in the biggest cities.

Mr Joko said he hoped the high-speed railway would spur demand for future public transport alternatives in other parts of Indonesia, as well as speed up the movement of people and goods between cities, helping economic growth.

Construction of the line is expected to finish by 2018, and it should be operational the following year.