EDITORIAL: Yilan needs more than just an HSR

Sun, Oct 27, 2019 - Page 6

Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) on Wednesday confirmed government plans for a high-speed rail (HSR) line extension to Yilan County.

During the announcement, Lin touted the economic benefits, particularly in tourism, from the Yilan extension, as well as the Kaohsiung-Pingtung HSR extension announced on Sept. 10. Lin also said the Yilan line would bring in commuters who have trouble buying tickets for Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) trains, which are frequently sold out during high-demand periods, such as long holidays.

Lin is correct that tourists and commuters would benefit from an HSR extension to Yilan, but neither of these demographics would pay for the extension with their ticket purchases or justify the cost of its development.

Lin said that up to 18,000 passengers per hour could be served by the extension, but government statistics show that the number of vehicles traveling through the Hsuehshan Tunnel (雪山隧道) peaks at about 2,500 per hour. Even assuming there were more than one person per vehicle and taking into account the daily average of 9,700 entries and exits at the TRA’s Yilan Station, the ministry would be hard pressed to reach a ridership of anywhere near Lin’s estimate.

Also, even once the extension is completed, it is unlikely that all travelers between Taipei and Yilan would take the HSR. Statistics on the line between Taipei and Kaohsiung show that roughly half of the people traveling between the two cities each year do so by HSR.

If the Yilan extension is to justify its estimated NT$95.5 billion (US$3.12 billion) price tag, the government would need to attract significantly more travelers to Yilan than it currently does. Since Yilan is not a financial or commercial hub, and since there are relatively few daily commuters between Taipei and Yilan, this influx of people would have to come from the tourism sector.

Although creating a transportation system for riders that do not yet exist might put the cart before the horse, the idea is not without merit. The government has been trying to make up for a decline in the number of Chinese tourists by promoting Taiwan to travelers from ASEAN and India — countries targeted by the New Southbound Policy. Yilan is a popular destination for Taiwanese tourists, and the county has great potential as a destination for international tourists.

A June article on top hot springs destinations on the Web site TripSavvy lists locations where the scenic environment is as much of an attraction as the hot baths. Places like Japan, Iceland and the parts of the US and Canada in the Rocky Mountains offer hot springs in quiet, idyllic towns surrounded by mountains.

People looking to take a hot springs vacation do not want to deal with the hustle and bustle of cities, which is a drawback of going, for example, to Taipei’s Beitou (北投). Taiwanese also like to visit Wulai (烏來) for hot springs, but getting there is inconvenient for international travelers, and riding a crowded bus up a winding mountain road is hardly the way to begin a relaxing resort vacation.

Yilan’s Jiaosi (礁溪) is the perfect place for a hot springs resort getaway. The town is picturesque, bordered by mountains and the sea, quiet and slow-paced — and if it is accessible in 13 minutes by HSR from Taipei it could easily be marketed to international travelers.

However, the government needs to put some effort into the town. It could start by renovating older buildings and putting restrictions on building appearances to prevent the tacky structures seen in some other tourist towns in the nation. Additionally, they should restrict scooters in certain parts of the town, or after certain hours, to control noise levels.

Developing the HSR extension hand-in-hand with Yilan’s tourism industry could be a win-win result for everyone.