What a pleasure it is to witness government agencies and the private sector deliver the latest extension to a public transport network that continues to transform the way that people live in — and think about — the Greater Taipei area.
The opening of the MRT’s Neihu Line on Saturday inevitably attracted criticism over hiccups with safety measures, journey delays and the smaller capacity of the cars that will supplement the Muzha Line carriages. The many years that it took to complete the line also attracted no shortage of criticism.
Indeed, the discomfort that some passengers have reported on trial runs — particularly the handicapped — is a result of planning and oversight problems that the Taipei City Government should take note of and rectify as soon as possible.
It is essential that the same mistake is not made when adding carriages to extensions under construction. If cars with such limited capacity are commissioned for the Songshan, Sinjhuang and Xinyi lines — extensions of lines with much larger passenger loads (the Sindian, Jhonghe and Tamsui lines respectively) — there will be hell to pay.
Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin’s (郝龍斌) last-minute decision to reserve sections of the new Neihu Line cars for the disabled was praiseworthy, but also highlighted the fact that something went wrong in the tendering process and that nobody did anything about it — or cared —- until it was too late. Of greater concern is the possibility that corners were deliberately cut and money saved by compromising on passenger comfort and accessibility.
In balance, however, the Neihu Line is a welcome addition to Taipei’s superb MRT system. It ushers a growing and increasingly congested district of northern Taipei into a network that has had a profoundly positive impact on the local economy, air quality and Greater Taipei’s sense of civic unity. And if competent management of the MRT continues, there is a good chance that lines in the planning stage will get the green light, potentially doubling the size of the system as it stands.
Taxi drivers may not be so happy as the MRT extends into more outlying areas. Their dwindling income amid excessive issuance of taxi licenses is sure to take another hit. Still, to an extent, the government will continue to do the industry a favor by ceasing MRT operations at the surprisingly early hour of 1am on most lines.
For everyone else, the growth of the MRT is helping to transform previously unfashionable parts of the metropolis into gentrified, middle class-friendly zones that attract increased government spending and commercial interest — not to mention acting as a big boost for property owners and investors.
Like his predecessors, Hau opened the line with a big smile on his face, and so he should: Nothing has ever covered a Taipei mayor with glory like the opening of an MRT line. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who waited an eternity for MRT payback, Hau is likely to gain substantial political capital from the pending opening of most of the Taipei City segment of the Sinjhuang Line next year — the year he will run for re-election. Valuable capital it is, too, given that in most respects Hau’s term has been wholly unremarkable.