Wed, May 25, 2005 - Page 13 News List

Trains cater to tourists

Traveling around Taiwan by train takes in the country's scenic attractions and avoids the traffic. photos courtesy of Taiwan Railway Administration

STAFF REPORTER

Traveling around Taiwan by train takes in the country's scenic attractions and avoids the traffic.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TAIWAN RAILWAY ADMINISTRATION

Traveling by train may no longer be the quickest way to reach destinations of rest and relaxation, but for thousands of holidaymakers it remains one of the most preferred ways to get to resorts and tourist hotspots throughout Taiwan.

Nearly all of the nation's leading seaside resort towns can be reached via one of the two major coastal rail arteries, and visitors can explore scenic mountain areas by traveling one of four narrow-gauge routes that wind into the lofty northern and central mountain ranges.

Trains enable tourists to sit back, relax and enjoy a smorgasbord of spectacular vistas of Taiwan's lush, verdant countryside, breathtaking mountains and tranquil coastlines.

The nation's sole rail operator is the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA, 台灣鐵路管理局), which was established after the surrender of Japan in 1945. The TRA administers all 1103.7km of track and all of the roughly 120 operational stations.

Taiwan has three standard-gauge major trunk lines -- West Coast Line, Southern Link Line and the East Coast Line -- and four narrow-gauge railways -- Pingxi Line, Neiwan Line, Jiji Line and the Alishan Line.

Every year the TRA carries an average of 480,000 passengers per day. And while safety factors and price considerations are some reasons so many people choose to travel by rail in Taiwan, another factor is the historical significance of the network.

Taiwan's rail network dates back almost 120 years, and until the completion of the Sun Yat-sen Freeway in 1977, it was the quickest and most direct route from north to south.

Taiwan's railway system was born in 1887, after the governor of Taiwan and founding father of Taiwan's railway, Liu Ming-chuan (劉銘傳), sanctioned the building of a 28.6km track from Taipei to Keelung.

The route was completed 1891, and while its inception led to the closure of several of Taipei's once-thriving ports, it proved hugely lucrative. Before Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895, work had already begun on Taiwan's second rail link, the 78.1km line that ran from Taipei to Hsinchu. Although work was completed in 1888, Liu is still credited with linking Taiwan's then-busiest cities.

During the years of Japanese occupation, the colonial authorities continued to develop the nation's rail network, and by 1945 it covered roughly 750km.

But rail development in Taiwan ground to a halt from 1945 until the 1970s, when the TRA began to electrify existing tracks, add double tracks and build additional routes along the east coast. The longest of these was the 162.2km Hualien-to-Taitung route, which was built from 1978 to 1982. Full electrification of Taiwan's west-coast rail network was completed in 1979.

For many of the nation's multitude of train buffs and "train spotters," one of the most popular reasons to travel by train is that is gives them the opportunity to see some of Taiwan's oldest and most historic stations. The architecture of many dates from the early years of Japanese colonial rule, and the rustic surroundings and remote hamlets make for a marked and pleasing contrast to the concrete, bunker-like modern stations that have sprung up in recent years.

Many of the classical station structures have now been demolished and are gradually being replaced by ugly, featureless concrete monstrosities, but there are still over a dozen striking wooden stations in operation and open to the public. Sadly, it is predicted within the next five years the picturesque wooden stations from the pre-World War II period will all have either been torn down or been converted into museums.

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