Page last updated at 12:09 GMT, Thursday, 18 January 2007

Indonesia's public transport perils

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Jakarta

Ferry survivor arrives at the port of Surabaya, Indonesia, on 3 January 2007
Only a third of passengers survived the Java Sea ferry disaster

In a country of 220 million people, spread across some 17,000 islands, transport systems are crucial to keeping Indonesia moving.

But transport statistics here make worrying reading for passengers.

Last year, there was an aircraft incident recorded every nine to 10 days - planes that crashed, almost crashed, missed the runway, were forced into emergency landing or had technical problems.

There were two train crashes or derailments every month, and at least eight accidents at sea.

These are official statistics. The real figures, say analysts, are probably even higher.

This year has got off to a particularly bad start.

On New Year's Day, a passenger plane carrying 102 people disappeared from radar screens near the island of Sulawesi.

Rescue teams were already out in the Java Sea at the time, looking for hundreds of victims of a ferry disaster that had happened two days earlier.

Around the same time, a ferry carrying 58 people sank off the coast of Sumatra, a speedboat went missing near Kalimantan, a train derailed in Central Java and two other minor airline incidents have been reported.

In February a fire aboard a Jakarta ferry killed dozens of people, while on 7 March, 22 people died when a Garuda plane crashed upon landing in Yogyakarta.

Poor investment

Tough questions are being asked about why Indonesians are at so much risk when they travel.

Bambang Susantono, head of Indonesia's Transport Society, an independent think tank, says that since the economic crisis in the late 1990s, investment has been a big problem.

The trains are very old and there's a lack of spare parts
Indonesian train technician

"The government doesn't have enough money to build the infrastructure it needs; things like repairing damaged ports, or making improvements to airports," he said.

According to the Transport Society, hundreds of millions of US dollars are needed to bring infrastructure up to standard.

The government denies it is risking safety, but does admit that it needs more money.

Not everyone, though, agrees that the solution is to bring in the private sector.

Air and sea transportation have already been partly liberalised.

An Indonesian airline crew member helps search for the missing jet on 7 January 2007
The search for the missing Adam Air jet continues

The result is a mushrooming of cheaper, budget carriers, which now account for around two-thirds of the incidents reported on scheduled flights.

That is something that worries Bambang Sustanono.

"Our concern is that they cut costs by simplifying safety procedures," he said.

"You hear stories about instruments not working, or pilots working long hours. It's a signal that something has to be fixed in the airline industry."

The plane lost at the beginning of 2007 was operated by budget carrier Adam Air.

Twenty-nine of its pilots have resigned in recent years, and several have made allegations that the company pressured its pilots to fly unsafe planes.

The company denies the allegations, and a court case is in progress.

With so much murkiness around the causes of disasters, people are increasingly turning to the government and asking why it is so difficult to enforce safety regulations.

Wendy Aritenang, Secretary-General of the Transport Ministry, says the government needs to catch up with a rapidly growing industry - deploying more inspectors, enforcing regulations better and encouraging passengers to report on negligent operators.


At Kota railway station in north Jakarta, the problems of maintaining crumbling networks are worryingly familiar.

A technician, waiting out his shift in a dark office on the platform, told us that he and his colleagues were simply "forcing the trains to go".

We give opportunities to the private sector but not a blank cheque
Wendy Aritenang
Secretary-General of the Transport Ministry

"The trains are very old," he said, "and there's a lack of spare parts. The attitude of our superiors is [to] make the best of what we've got; so we cannibalise the broken engines to fix the others."

A bill going through parliament now is set to open up the railway network to private operators in the next few years.

Government regulations are going to need to catch up fast to stop safety problems growing.

The spotlight has been on air operators in recent years, but Indah Suksmaningsih from Indonesia's Consumer Association says this attention does not mean safety on cheaper forms of transport is any better.

She believes the lack of a safety culture, combined with a reluctance among poorer Indonesians to make complaints, means operators often get off without penalties.

Family member of an Adam Air passenger during meeting with vice-president
For some Indonesian families, 2007 has begun without loved ones

But Bambang Sustanono believes the growing focus on air safety, following de-regulation, is forcing a reappraisal of safety issues on all forms of transport.

At the start of 2007, the president announced the formation of a new transport committee to assess what needs to be done across the industry - a process Wendy Aritenang says his ministry has already begun.

He is confident this is the right time to push for more liberalisation in the transport sector.

"We give opportunities to the private sector," he told me, "but not a blank cheque. We give opportunities, but also responsibilities. I think this is a good way to improve the transport sector."

Commuters waiting for their trains here at Kota station say they broadly welcome the idea of private investment in the railways.

The possibility of cheaper fares goes down well with the poor majority here, and there is a hope that competition might improve the quality too.

But making - and keeping - the railways safe will need massive investment, something analysts say many sea and air operators have so far been unable or unwilling to provide.

And if the government cannot pay, passengers here may need to make a choice between lower fares and higher safety standards.

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