Taiwan on the Fast Track

by Joshua Samuel Brown, Feb 26, 2007 | Destinations: Taiwan
Monks on a Train

Monks on a Train

Monks on a Train

Its Eleven AM on the third day of operation of the opening week of Taiwan's High Speed Rail (HSR) and I'm sitting nervously in car four, watching the subtropical countryside whiz by at an unnerving speed. Adding to my overall malaise is the sound of the old woman in the seat behind me clipping her fingernails, the metallic ‘clack' of nail clippers juxtaposing strangely with the high pitched whine of the bullet train gliding on newly built tracks.   Fifteen minutes out of Banciao and the train is already halfway between the Taoyuan and Hsinchu stations. The digital sign over the front door of the car displays the words ‘current speed: 238 KM/H' in Chinese and English, and we have yet to reach top speed. Behind me the clacking continues, and I find myself praying for the old woman to run out of nails before we really pick up speed.

The HSR project has been big news in Taiwan for years, its construction dogged by charges of pork-barrel politics,  corruption large and small-scale, and overall competence questions since before even the first yard of rail had been laid.  Early on there were fears that the vibrations might damage the precision instruments used in semiconductor factories near to the railway, problems that were supposedly alleviated by changes in route and investment vibration dampening technology.  As the project grew nearer to completion, its opponents have publicly denounced it on grounds more tangible to the average citizen, namely safety.  Possibly the most vocal opponent of the HSR is Taiwan's Consumers' Foundation;  Cheng Jen-hung, chairman of the foundation, gave Taiwanese journalists an early Chinese New Year present by issuing an imminently quotable, if not somewhat hyperbolic warning to the people of Taiwan against taking the train.

"Cherish your life," Chairman Cheng solemnly advised during a news conference before opening week. "Don't be a guinea pig!" 

But it was not Cheng's warning that nearly prevented me from buying my ticket; that honor went to a malfunctioning ticketing machine, one of many reportedly plaguing the system.   On the first day of operations, tens of thousands of Taiwanese queued up at automatic ticketing kiosks at every HSR station along the line, waiting to take advantage of the half price tickets offered up as part of a two week confidence building period. Each kiosk was manned (defeating the purpose of automation, some might say) by a chirpy twenty-something seemingly chosen for apperance, charm and language skills rather than actual experience with either trains or automated ticketing machines.

I bought my ticket in Taipei station, at a kiosk manned by a charming lad named John.  John's conversation skills came in handy, enabling us to have a fine chat about the benefits of the HSR to Taiwan's economy during what might otherwise have been a tense quarter hour while I waited for the machine to relinquish my bank card.  Finally the automated kiosk rejected the card without explanation,  and John suggested I try cash. Moments later the machine (perhaps sensing my dislike for it) had issued me the most unlucky of all possible seat reservations for a train leaving the next day - car four, seat thirteen.

With this inauspicious beginning in mind, I wisely decided to postpone the grittiest phase of my research into the potential hazards of high speed rail travel;  I did not immediately head home and Google the phrase "high speed rail disaster," thus sparing myself from learning the extremely hideous details of the 1998 Eschede disaster (more, unfortunately, about this later).  Instead, I called up Linda Arrigo, a local activist and member of Taiwan's Green Party. I wanted to get an environmentalist's take on the HSR's impact on Taiwan.  After all, anything that offers an alternative to driving has to be endorsed by Greenies, at least so I assumed.

But Arrigo told me that Taiwan environmentalists were less enthusiastic about the train than I'd have thought. 

 "Anytime you concrete over open space you get a negative environmental effect. Animal migration is hindered and groundwater systems are disrupted," She told me. "Personally, I don't think environmental concerns were a priority in the building of the HSR."

Surprisingly, Arrigo said that the most negative impact of the HSR would be not to the environment, but to the socio-economic structure of the towns that the train passed through.

"Essentially what you've got with the HSR is a series of airports out in areas that until recently were zoned for agricultural use.  All of these areas are already becoming magnets for heavy business and residential development. Though much has been written about how the HSR is based on the Japanese model, in Japan the lines were built through urban centers. The Taiwan HSR bypasses them."

Back home, a quick glance at Google Earth showed that Arrigo was correct, at least as far as geography and population density is concerned.   The HSR track - straight in most sections - stands in sharp contrast to the smooth noodle map of Taiwan's road system. Whereas the highways generally follow the curvature of the coast, jutting in and out of city centers, the HSR line carves a path from Banciao (on the outskirts of Taipei) to Zouying (on the outskirts of Kaoushuing) without actually passing through any major cities. 

Sure enough, I discovered the next day that station names along the HSR are a bit misleading.   Hsinchu's station turned out to be in Jhubei ("North Hsinchu"), 15 minutes by taxi from the city center.  And Taichung's station was at least as far from the actual city itself, in a small hamlet called Wurih.  At every station along the line, the story was the same - big-city satellites in the early stages of massive development. While the HSR promises to bring prosperity and development throughout the West Coast, its probable that all the trappings - traffic and urban sprawl, just to name a couple - will follow.

But surely a little urban sprawl, not to mention the fifteen billion USD estimated price tag of the project so far, is fair trade-off for the speed of travel that the HSR brings to Taiwan, right?  The answer to this question is of course subjective, dependent on how much one likes rice paddies versus how fast one wishes to travel.  Less subjective is the matter of speed itself.  While its fun to throw around numbers (like "287 kilometers per hour," the hair-raising speed the train reaches on the flat-out 28 minute burn between Hsinchu and Taichung), can the speed of the Taiwan HSR be put in more easy to grasp terms?

Well, consider the work of Jackie Chan, Hong Kong's favorite son:

Roughly speaking, the average Jackie Chan movie is 90 minutes long.  This seemingly irrelevant bit of information is more illuminating than it might at first seem, for over the past decade a number of luxury bus lines operating in Taiwan have installed personal LCD monitors in each extra-wide seat.  More often than not, these are used to screen - you guess it - Jackie Chan movies.  Generally speaking, a bus trip between Taipei and Hsinchu is just long enough to watch an average Jackie Chan movie (and the bus usually beats a normal Taipei-Hsinchu train by about five minutes).  In the same period of time, the fastest bullet train will do the Banciao-Kaohsiung run, leaving a traveler just enough time to watch "Police Story" on their laptop.   The same traveler going by the speediest luxury coach would be forced to endure "Police Story" and both of its sequels before emerging bleary-eyed into the smoggy sunlight of Taiwan's southernmost city. 

In other words, the bullet train is way fast.  

There are, of course, still some bugs in the system, my own experience with the bank-card hungry ticket machine being one of many.  Some have been mere booking errors: the first few days of operation were filled with complaints of double booking of seats. One mishap was comical - on the first day of operations one passenger reported that an automated ticketing machine poured out a mountain of five NT coins in lieu of a train ticket.   But most disconcerting were the more ominous snafus that occurred during the first week, doors failing to open at stations and a short-circuiting air conditioning system that caused one car to fill up with fumes, horrifying passengers. 

This segues nicely into the most important question of all: Is the Taiwan Bullet Train safe?  There's something about moving that fast while still attached to the ground that gives some people the willies. Paul, a photographer friend of mine living in Taichung, says he's dubious, and its more than just gut feeling.

"I've seen the inspectors coming by and checking out the loose rock that's slid out from the track bed," he tells me as we drive around the railway looking for a good place to get a shot of passing trains. "That sort of thing scares the hell out of me. If it goes five years without having a major accident, than I'll consider taking it. Until then, I'm fine with the slow train."

High Speed Rail systems in general have a far lower rate of derailment incident than do normal trains. The problem is that when an accident does occur the results are catastrophic. On June 3rd, 1998, a high speed train en-route from Munich to Hamburg derailed in Lower Saxony. Results were horrific.  One derailed carriage slammed into the concrete pile supporting an overhead bridge, completely obliterating it and causing the bridge to collapse on cars behind it.  Of the 287 passengers onboard the ill-fated train, 101 were killed and 88 were severely injured (for comparison's sake, 2/3 of the 97 passengers on the iconic Hindenburg not only survived, but escaped with relatively minor injuries).   Had the train not been at less than 50% passenger capacity, fatalities would have been far worse.  Had the accident occurred just two minutes earlier, before the train bound for Munich had already passed, the results might well have been unthinkable.

Rather than mull over such grim statistics,  consider instead that Japan's Shinkansen (the world's best known bullet train, on which Taiwan's HSR is based) boasts a near-impeccable safety record. In operation since 1964, the Shinkansen has recorded only one derailment, caused by earthquake in 2004 and resulting in no fatalities. This isn't to say that there haven't been bullet train related deaths in Japan, but except for one exception (some poor soul who got an arm caught in the door), all of these deaths were the result of people jumping in front of (or off of) speeding trains. You can't blame fatalities like that on poor design.

And where design is concerned, the Taiwan High Speed Rail is a thing of beauty - certainly the trains themselves are.  At first glance the inside the carriages look about the same as the regular trains, save that the cars are cleaner and the seats recline just a bit further back.  But then you notice the smell, a familiar odor but one hard to place. Its that new car smell, the one you might remember from childhood drives in the new family car.  From the outside the differences are obvious, with uniformly sleek orange striped cars and Kawasaki built engines with aerodynamically curved spoon-bill noses. Though the front ends of the Taiwan HSR engines are not quite as sharply angular as those of the newer Japanese bullet trains, they still screams built for speed.  As for comfort, the designers deserve kudos as well.  Even at top speed, the train rides about as smoothly as the Hong Kong Airport Express.  Only the blur of the passing landscape and the ever-present wind shriek gives a true indication of just what land speeds approaching 300/KPH look and sound like.

Speed and comfort aside, the obvious key component is the confidence of the general public. Compared to that of the Japanese, the Taiwanese temperament  leans towards easygoing when it comes to pricey public works projects and malfunctioning ticket machines.  They are far less likely to forget a headline-grabbing disaster like the one that happened in Germany a decade ago. Whether Taiwan's HSR proves boon or boondoggle depends largely on whether it can replicate the Shinkansen's safety record.   The board of directors of the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation, obviously aware of how a multitude of small-scale snafus in the first two weeks might be interpreted by a dubious public, just announced that the two week half-price ticket period will be extended until the month's end.   It would appear that more confidence still needs to be built.

Published originally in the Hong Kong Weekend Standard, January 2007

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Brown is the author of Vignettes of Taiwan (ThingsAsian Press, 2006)

Review of Vignettes of Taiwan, by Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times

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Fact File:

Taiwan High Speed Rail: timetable and online booking.

A look at the technology and project from the Taiwan Railway Administration.

More about the THSR on tealit.com 

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