Fri, Mar 08, 2019 - Page 8 News List

TRA could learn from Japanese railway firm

By Tseng Kuang-tsung 曾光宗

The Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) last week unveiled a new “tourist train,” after having spent a large sum of money converting old Chukuang-class train cars.

Despite high hopes that the TRA would create a fresh and exciting design, the remodeled cars have drawn criticism for their unattractive appearance — what is often called the “Republic of China aesthetic” or “TRA aesthetic.”

Forced to respond to the barrage of criticism, the TRA said that the intention behind the remodeling was to add an additional stream of income and that it would “take on board the public’s advice and criticism with an open mind, and consult with Taiwan’s design community to gain their insight and views.”

Considering the TRA’s motives, a comparison with East Japan Railway Co (JR-East) is apt.

Between 1990 and 2017, JR-East has managed to increase the share of revenue from its non-core transportation business from 16.8 percent to 31.5 percent.

Having looked at these figures, the TRA clearly thought that there was scope to add a revenue stream outside of its core business operations — and there is nothing wrong with this logic.

However, the agency seems to have thought that all it needed to do was “improve” the aesthetic appeal of its train cars. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

From my experience of riding on Japanese tourist trains, the design of the Kokutosei Sleeping Car Express, which operated between 1988 and 2015, connecting the main island of Honshu with Hokkaido, appealed to the romanticism of northern Japan.

The distinct black-and-white-liveried Ibusuki no Tamatebako operated by Kyushu Railway Co tells the legend of the Dragon King, which originates from Kyushu’s Satsuma Peninsula.

Then there is the jet-black Hayato no Kaze train, which takes passengers back in time to the golden age of railway travel.

Finally, the Setsugekka tourist train — designed by well-known architect Yasuykui Kawanishi and with food and marketing planned by creative director Iwasa Toru — began operating in 2016, and boasts the largest viewing windows of any train in Japan. Every aspect of the train was a collaborative effort across different sectors.

These examples show that regardless of what class or category a tourist train belongs to, detailed theme planning, a connection to local stories and external collaboration are all important factors for success.

The TRA might excel at its core business — transportation — but when dealing with a complex and specialized external business, it not only needs to gain a deep understanding of the reason behind the latest controversy, it must open up its closed decisionmaking process and conservative mindset, and look for external assistance, rather than just “further study the train’s interior and exterior decoration.”

If the agency were able to recognize these concepts, it would change the TRA aesthetic.

Tseng Kuang-tsung is a professor in the architecture department at Chung Yuan Christian University.

Translated by Edward Jones and Perry Svensson

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