High Speed Rail Experience in Taiwan


I know it is quite odd that I am writing about the high-speed rail line in Taiwan before writing about the grandparent of them all, the Shinkansen in Japan.  Although it has been almost a year since I was there, I still hope to post something about it sometime, including some pictures.  But here’s a post on a Shinkansen clone; basically, Taiwan copied the very successful Japanese system, in terms of design, trains, and – luckily for them – performance!

At the southern terminal, Zuoying Station, which serves Taiwan's second city of Kaohsiung

Taiwan High-Speed Rail consists of a single line that is 214 miles long that connects Taipei (the capital and largest city) with Kaohsiung, the second-largest city.  The line uses a completely new alignment and is built to very high standards throughout, although it does generally parallel the existing Western Line of Taiwan’s convential rail system, which was built around the turn of the 20th century.  Basically, the line is about 73% on viaducts and 18% in tunnels, leaving just about 9% on the surface.

An example of tunnel and viaduct sections - the longest viaduct section is a continuous 97.7 miles long!

Along the way there are currently 6 intermediate stations, with plans for a couple of more in the future.  All trains stop at Banciao, which is also in greater Taipei (and served by the Taipei Metro) and at Taichung, which is almost exactly halfway along the line and is the third-largest metropolitan area in Taiwan, with about 2.6 million people.  Every station has excellent infrastucture, including passing tracks to allow “express” trains to pass trains that are stopping; while this seems like overkill at the moment, who knows if someday it will be needed and appreciated.

Taoyuan Station - plenty of room for passengers here!

All of this, of course, was not cheap or too quick; the overall project is said to have cost about US$18 billion in total, and the line opened in January 2007 after 6 or 7 years of construction and after plans were solidified in the early 1990s.  Of course, what is $18 billion when you consider that Amtrak’s plan for a new Northeast Corridor line serving the Washington-New York-Boston corridor is $117 billion!

The departure board at Taoyuan Station, which is about 23 miles out of Taipei and serves Taipei's international airport. I passed through here on my departure - unfortunately a non-free 10-15 minute shuttle bus ride is required to actually reach the airport.

As you know, my thing is the service; well, the basic service is three trains per hour, with one “express” making only the two intermediate stops I mentioned travelling between Taipei and Kaohsiung in just 96 minutes, with the other two trains each hour making all stops and taking exactly 2 hours end to end.  This compares to the previous time of 4 hours on the conventional line.  In peak times (weekday rush hours and/or weekends) there are up to six trains per hour.  This makes the average speed for the express trip about 152mph – the top speed is 186mph (same as the Eurostar).  Trains operate from about 6:30am to 11:00pm seven days a week.

Riders queue for the morning train that I rode from Taipei to Kaohsiung - things are a little cramped at the underground Taipei Main Station, which is also one of the busiest metro stations and interchange between the two major metro lines

So, how well-used is it?  The line carried almost 37 million riders in 2010, with 915 train trips per week – which means an average load of 776 people on each train, or around 100,000 people per day.  Not too shabby!  Each train is 12 cars with a total of 989 seats.  Of course, many passengers are not travelling the entire length of the line either – the same seat could be filled by two or more passengers during the course of the trip.

The trains are mostly 3x2 seating with one 2x2 business class car. However, the train is pretty wide and there is a surprising amount of leg room - reportedly the pitch is about 41 inches in standard cars and 44 inches in business cars (compared to 31-33 inches as is normal in coach seating on airplanes).

The trains are clones of the 700 series Shinkansens that were built and put into service in Japan from 1997 to 2006.  There are 30 train sets that are of fixed length, but I understand that they are planning to buy some shorter 8-car train sets to add capacity.  That seems to make a lot of sense, as not all trips require the same amount of capacity.

The long, aerodynamic nose is so reminiscent of the Shinkansen - but the orange stripe makes me think of The Netherlands! This train is at the southern terminal, Zuoying Station, serving Kaohsiung.

The doors are relatively small and only at the ends of the cars. While the windows look small from the outside, they seem pretty big inside, and each seat gets its own window.

Also copying the Japanese, the trains have vending machines in between cars. What is really cool and I was not able to get a picture of is the urinal - the first urinal I've ever seen on a train!

A quick US comparison – the line is almost exactly the same distance as Washington-New York or Boston-New York.  However, the combination of the Acela Express and Northeast Regional (i.e. regular) Amtrak services carry about 10.3 million annual riders, and that’s for the entire corridor that is twice as long!  While I don’t have time or space now to go into the whole high-speed rail in the US issue (which as you may know has been all over the news of late!), I do want to say that one of the most important factors for high-speed rail is density.  That is why it is successful in Japan and Europe.

Well, I mentioned before that Taiwan has about 23 million people (which is slightly fewer than in Texas) on land not much larger than the state of Maryland.  Well, perhaps this is a better comparison – Taiwan’s total size is almost exactly equal to an area that is less than half of Greater Los Angeles; that is, the area of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and Ventura Counties, which combined have nearly 16 million people.  So, the whole country of Taiwan is almost 50% denser than most of metropolitan Los Angeles – or almost equal in density to Allegheny County which surrounds and includes the city of Pittsburgh.  Sorry, I get carried away with these comparative statistics – I find them fascinating!

Anyway, back to the point – Taiwan High-Speed Rail.  Overall, it was a pretty impressive operation.  We got a tour of their maintenance workshop, but I won’t bore you with pictures from there!  They do have a lift for the whole 12-car train there, that they were quite proud of – at 1,000 feet, it is apparently the longest single lift in the world!  It is a good lesson, perhaps, for the US to learn that finding an existing model (in this case, the Shinkansen) and adopting it rather than building something custom from scratch can be very effective.

Apparently air travel between Taipei and Kaohsiung has virtually ended, and there have been positive impacts on highway congestion as well.  However, most of the stations (except Taipei Main Station) are not in the centers of the existing cities, which is a problem – one that might be solved by new development in the future, or the construction of new local transit systems as has happened in Kaohsiung (see possible future post) or is currently being built in Taoyuan.

That’s all for now – happy high-speed railing!

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Posted on 17/05/2011, in Transit, travel, Travel to Asia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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