Jakarta by rail: MRT opening week

After a 13-year absence, I had the chance to visit the Indonesian capital Jakarta again, and as luck would have it I landed on the 2nd operating day of the long-awaited Jakarta MRT. So of course I went to check it out: I rode the MRT from end to end at Bundaran HI to Lebak Bulus, covering 15.7 km in 30 min, then backtracked to my office in the Sudirman CBD business district near Istora station.

Underground stations: Bundaran HI and Istora

The MRT’s 6 underground stations all look pretty much identical. 4 sloped, not terribly distinctive entrances from the ground, ticketing concourse underground, another escalator down to an island platform with trains running on the right side (although Indonesia drives on the left). Decoration is sparse to non-existent, with grey walls, a few orange highlights and occasional signage in the MRT’s distinctive shade of dark blue.

Since this was the first week of operation, tickets were not on sale yet and in fact the ticketing offices looked very unready to start operating next Monday, not least because fares were only decided this week. Also, is a single ticket machine really going to be handle the load?

That said, while rides are free this week, it wasn’t quite a free for all either, as you were supposed to have a barcoded ticket you can get online. Fortunately, as a bule gila (crazy foreigner) I was waved through anyway and even handed a printed barcode by friendly staff. Indonesian hospitality for the win!

Elevated station: Lebak Bulus

The 7 stations at the south end are all elevated and once again cast from an identical mold repeating the same pattern: ground, ticketing concourse, escalators up to side platforms. The design is sparse but elegant, with large white sails providing shelter while allowing breezes and half-height platform doors stopping passengers from falling onto the tracks.

Southern terminal Lebak Bulus is next to a depot of the same name, guarded by one of the countless mosques that dot the city.


The MRT uses modern rolling stock built by Japanese manufacturer Nippon Sharyo. The insides of the 6-car trainsets are spacious and built to handle crowds. Announcements are made in Indonesian and English at every station, with the station names jarringly read by a different voice from the rest and repeated to boot: “Stasiun berakhir <pause> LEBAK BULUS GRAB. LEBAK BULUS GRAB.” These announcements also include the stations’ commercial sponsors. Electronic signage is limited to small displays above the doors, which use illegibly small fonts to boot — a general theme for the system. Regular visitors to Japan will recognize the door opening and chimes, which are identical to those used in Tokyo.


Given that this is a brand new system built by the Japanese, who are generally masters of this stuff, signage in the system is really quite astonishingly bad. Not only is there very little of it, but font sizes are tiny, meaning you really need to squint, particularly for the line strip maps (top right) that are drawn in thin white on reflective black. The system also lacks a strong logo, with the “MJ” squiggle above used on occasion, but there’s nothing to distinguish MRT station entrances from random underpasses unless you’re close enough to read the signs.

Station maps are not much better: the ones on the platform show exit letters, but give no clue about what’s nearby. Only at Istora station tucked away in a corner outside the paid area was I able to find a proper vicinity map.


From a technological point of view, the MRT is a marvel and the first modern and efficient mode of public transport this megacity, soon set to be the world’s biggest, has ever seen.

My biggest surprise with the MRT, though, was its lack of popularity: the trains were rattlingly empty at 8-9 AM, which should be peak hour, and many of my fellow passengers were clearly tourists like me. Doubtless newness and the complicated free-but-book-in-advance ticket system are tamping down demand, but the limited route may also be somewhat to blame. The Bundaran HI to Blok M stretch of the route runs along Jakarta’s main drag Jalan Sudirman and parallels a highly successful Transjakarta busway line, so you’d expect this to be popular, but the final stretch to Lebak Bulus doesn’t really connect to anywhere: I suspect this was mostly chosen because there was free space for the depot.

Poor integration to other transport is also a major issue. The north end of the line has two sensible interchanges, one to the busway at Bundaran Hi and one at Dukuh Atas to the commuter rail network at Sudirman, but the south end has nothing. Work on a northern extension towards Kota and the old city officially started only last weekend with a target of 2024, while a east-west line remains on the drawing board and no southern extensions are even planned. The Jakarta LRT still has not opened and will not be anywhere near the MRT when it does, although there are vague plans for extensions. The only real hope is the 43 km Jabodebek (Greater Jakarta) LRT, which will connect a swathe of southeastern Jakarta to the MRT at Dukuh Atas. It’s around half complete as I type and might be open around 2021 if all goes well, although it’s already two years late.

On a more local level, Jakarta remains an extraordinarily pedestrian-hostile city and there appear to be precisely zero direct entrances from the MRT into the countless shopping malls and office buildings along the route — again a great contrast to Japan, where this is done as a matter of course.

All that said, it’s a good start, and at least it’s built and open — which is more than can be said for the twice-cancelled Jakarta Monorail. Here’s hoping it will take less than 13 years for the next line to come along.

Tales from the Zaibatsu: The Engineer’s Zabuton

IMG_20170207_061514So here’s a thing that actually happened, down to the last detail.  (Almost, anyway; names and locations have been disguised to protect the guilty.)

My friend works at a Japanese megacorp you’ve heard of. Let’s call it Matsumura Fishworks, a subsidiary of Tamaribuchi Heavy Manufacturing Concern.  They’re a very traditional Japanese company, where documents are formatted by aligning cells in Excel and salarymen tote around printouts of their Outlook calendars.

The local branch of Matsumura has a smallish factory supplying widgets for the local region, which they’re planning to expand significantly with an eye on exporting to emerging markets as well. This is a really big deal for Matsumura and the planning for new factory has been going on for a good long time, with hundreds of people involved and dozens of new staff hired, but everything’s sorted, leases are signed and construction work is about to start.

Before that, though, Matsumura decided to go on a factory tour at one of their main suppliers, who are located in a Southeast Asian country. This involved sending a delegation composed of a bunch of people from the local branch, including my friend, and another bunch of people from Matsumura HQ, all spending around two days on a plane so they can spend a day and a half at the supplier.

BibAlex_ReadingRoom_LargeWhy only a day and a half? Well, turns out this SE Asian country is Islamic and they scheduled the visit during Ramadan, the fasting month, when the Muslim locals wake up super early to eat before dawn, go to work, get increasingly hungry and grumpy, and knock off around 1 PM to go home and nap until the sun sets and they can eat again. What’s more, they decided to visit on the last two days of Ramadan, right before the start of Eid al-Fitr, when as few people as possible come to work and roads and airports are a swirling maelstrom of chaos since everybody is going back to their home towns. (For comparison, imagine visiting a US supplier on Christmas Eve or arranging to end a business trip on Thanksgiving.)

Fortunately, they found a good way to make use of the free afternoons when the supplier’s office was closed: have meetings between the Matsumura employees only.  Score one for Japanese efficiency!

IMG_20170119_120452But I digress.  Returning to the main story, why does it take two days to get from Japan to SE Asia and back?  Well, it doesn’t, and in fact there are even direct flights from Tokyo to the supplier’s city.  However, Matsumura corporate policy says only flights by Preferred Airline may be used, even when they take twice as long and cost three times as much, as they did in this case.  So everybody flew down to Singapore, did their duty free shopping and sat around in Changi Airport for a couple of hours, and then caught a connecting codeshare flight to their actual destination.

You know what happens when you change planes? Your bags change planes too, or every now and then, they don’t quite make it and get lost.  My friend, who’s pretty hip with this business travel thing, knew this and was smart enough to take only a carry-on bag. However, most of the Matsumura ossan didn’t get the memo and so, of the ten or so people who flew in, two lost their bags.

One bag disappeared completely: there’s no trace of it after Singapore. This bag’s owner is happy, since there was nothing valuable in there except his corporate laptop, which was a old piece of junk, and now he has the perfect excuse to expense a new one. Yatta!

A second bag also didn’t show up. Enquiries were made, and the airline confessed that the bag got loaded onto the wrong plane at Singapore and was sent to Shanghai instead.  Oops.  Good news is, they found the bag in Shanghai and loaded it onto another plane going to its intended destination.  But because the Matsumura crew was on the ground for only two days, the bag didn’t make it back in time before they left…  and at time of writing, they’re still looking for it.

IMG_20170209_203845This bag’s owner is not happy, and in fact the entire Matsumura branch office is now in a bit of a tizzy.  Turns out this was not any old bag, but the suitcase of the Chief Engineer.  In the suitcase was a laptop, and in the laptop were the complete plans of the new widget they’re going to build in the new factory.

“Oh dear”, I told my friend. “You must be worried about the plans falling into the wrong hands and the Chinese cloning up some cutting-edge Matsumura widgets in Shenzhen?”

Well, actually, no, that’s not the primary concern.  The main problem is that Chief Engineer was the only person authorized to have a copy of the plans, and the master copy, meaning the only copy of the Chief Engineer’s work for the past year, was on that laptop.

“So you’re telling me there was no backup? Nothing in the office or the cloud?”

IMG_20170207_171508Well, as a matter of fact, there was a backup.  Every day, the Chief Engineer would faithfully copy the day’s changes onto a USB stick, just in case something happened to the laptop.  Can’t trust them ‘puters, you know.

“That’s good. Or… did something happen to the USB key?”

As a matter of fact, something did. More specifically, Chief Engineer brought the USB key along on the same trip, and packed it in the same suitcase as the laptop.  So now they have both gone missing.

And because Matsumura doesn’t have the plans, they can’t build the new widget, and the entire factory expansion has been put on hold until the runway bag can be located and brought back to its rightful owner.

“Huh. That’s pretty crazy. Why did Chief Engineer check in his laptop in the first place? Shouldn’t he have brought it in as carry-on luggage?”


Well, yes, and as it happens his carry-on luggage was a nice little satchel just big enough for his laptop. But unfortunately Chief Engineer had to take out his laptop and check it in, because he had to carry on something more important, something that simply couldn’t be checked in…

His ergonomically molded, high-tech, ¥10,000 Tabi-Zabu™ butt cushion.

But not to worry!  Matsumura has found a way. The Chief Engineer, distrustful of all this newfangled IT stuff, made regular paper printouts of the plans, as did the Test Engineer and everybody else who worked with him on this.  So now all those people hired for the new factory, including my friend, have been roped into helping reconstruct the product plans.  Page by printed page, character by typed character.