Taiwan’s Bullet Train Set to Fire Up Economy

TAIPEI ~ Taiwan’s much-anticipated bullet train will finally go in to service on Friday, linking the island’s north and south and dramatically altering its economic landscape.

Thousands of passengers were expected to join the first commercial runs from 7am, shrugging off safety fears about the high-tech train that will carve through the countryside at up to 300 kilometers per hour.

The first sleek, white-and-orange locomotive will depart the northern city of Panchiao for the 345-kilometer trip to Kaohsiung, marking the first export of Japan’s iconic bullet train technology.

A seven-kilometer section linking Panchiao with Taipei is expected to be approved next month, making the capital reachable from Kaohsiung in just 90 minutes.

Warnings over the dangers of combining a Japan-made core with European sub-systems were brought in to sharp focus in November, when the second of two minor derailments in testing prompted tighter government safety rules.

But despite safety worries, and criticism over delays from the original October 2005 start date, the initial public response has been enthusiastic.

More than 80,000 tickets have been sold for discounted trips over the first 10 days, described as “commercial test runs” by the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation (THSRC).

The company has been forced to apologize for some embarrassing glitches with its ticket sales system, with one customer receiving only coins in change from a vending machine after inserting two TW$1,000 (US$31) notes.

But the government has high hopes about the economic benefits of the service, which will cut three hours off the current four-and-a-half-hour journey between Taipei and Kaohsiung.

President Chen Shui-bian, who took a test ride on Monday, ambitiously asserted that “the revolutionary vehicle would virtually transform Taiwan into a city state like Singapore.”

Possibilities of commuting to Taipei from central Taichung or even Kaohsiung, unthinkable previously, are now being widely discussed.

And land prices around the line’s eight stations – formerly rice paddies or sugarcane farms – have soared, turning hundreds of farmers into millionaires.

But the new service is expected to hit Taiwan’s domestic air carriers, several of whom have cut flights and started discussing mergers, according to the transport ministry.

Taiwan’s existing rail network and long-distance bus services will also be affected.

THSRC has initially scheduled 19 return trips a day but eventually hopes to significantly increase services, with the system capable of handling 100 million passengers a year.

Passengers will be charged $1,460 ($45) for a standard-class ride from Panchiao to Kaohsiung – about 70 percent of the price of an air ticket.

A seat in business class will cost $2,390 dollars.

THSRC had originally hoped to start commercial runs on October 31, 2005 but core system delays thwarted that ambition and cost the company an extra $19.3 billion ($595.7 million), according to company officials.

The railway system will be managed by THSRC for 35 years before being turned over to state control under the terms of the build-operate-transfer project, the largest of its kind in the world.

Japan’s Taiwan Shinkansen Consortium won the US$3-billion contract in 1998 for the supply of the core system – trains and carriages as well as signaling, electrification, communications and operation control.

A high-speed rail network has linked major cities in Japan since the 1960s.

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