Training Wheels

A railway system for Bali is a great idea. Creating a workable off-road mass transit infrastructure makes sense in the crowded south where the streets are jammed on no particular schedule, or at the behest of some policeman’s whistle or some stupidly parked or broken-down truck. But like everything, assessing a proposal, formulating a plan, legislating for the land acquisition and infrastructure involved, sorting out the extra demand on the power grid and making administrative arrangements such as who is going to run it and under what commercial conditions is a little more complicated than just having a nod-nod, yes-yes session.

The test of any rail system is whether it will operate at speeds faster than those available on the roads. That shouldn’t be difficult, unless Governor I Made Mangku Pastika proposes to have his “slow train” pulled along by horses. Even Thomas the Tank Engine could outrun traffic that struggles to achieve trip speeds of much over 20 kilometres an hour.

The governor’s plan, apparently now carrying at least the partial imprimatur of the central government’s transportation agency and some visiting Japanese transport officials who met at Nusa Dua last week, is scant on detail. He is said to want a train that will gently circumnavigate Bali and deliver passengers, local and tourist, to destinations of their choice throughout: All aboard the Mitty Express, then.

The reality – if indeed there is any reality – is that an urban rail system linking Denpasar with its neighbouring closely settled areas and running (on another in-the-protected-mangroves set of pylons perhaps?) down to Nusa Dua has merit.

But even in the crowded and urbanised south, where much of the traditional farmland has already disappeared, acquiring land for the rail corridor would be a political and administrative challenge, and horribly expensive. Prising people out of their cars, off their motorbikes and into trains for which they would have to pay a fare, however much it is subsidised down to make it feasible, could be even more difficult.

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