Sun, Aug 14, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in time: The two fathers of Taiwan’s railroads?

Qing Dynasty official Liu Ming-chuan initiated Taiwan’s first railroad, but his vision was completed by Japanese engineer Hasegawa Kinsuke 20 years later

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The first railroad in Taiwan was built under Liu Ming-chuan, governor of Taiwan under the Qing Empire.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aug. 14 to Aug. 20

On Aug. 15, 1978, the first Tzechiang-class express train (自強號) made its official maiden voyage, traversing the newly electrified route between Taipei and Taichung. It was a British EMU100 train, a model that was used by the Taiwan Railway Company until June 2009.

It was a major milestone in Taiwan’s railroad history, which stretches back to the construction of the first railroad in 1887 under the supervision of the Qing Empire’s governor of Taiwan, Liu Ming-chuan (劉銘傳). Liu is often considered the “father of Taiwan’s railways,” but a quick Google search will reveal that there is another contender for the title — Japanese national Hasegawa Kinsuke, who was the chief engineer behind the completion of the Taiwan Trunk Line (縱貫線) in 1908, which connected Kirun (Keelung) and Takao (Kaohsiung).

Liu was Taiwan’s first governor when the Qing decided to separate it from Fujian Province in 1885. Long considered a backwater province, the Qing only began to take an interest in developing Taiwan in the latter half of the 19th century.

The idea of building a railroad in Taiwan was first proposed in 1877 by Fujian governor Ting Jih-chang (丁日昌), who saw Taiwan as a key defensive location — but it never materialized due to technical and financial issues.

Liu officially submitted a requested to the imperial court in April 1887 to build a north-south railroad. The court approved it a month later. Liu quickly set up the government-run Taiwan Railway Business Administration (全台鐵路商務總局) and recruited British and German engineers. Construction reportedly began June 9, the birthday of George Stephenson, who built the first public railway in the world — some dispute this claim, but the date is still officially observed as the anniversary of Taiwan’s railroad.

The first tunnel, from Taipei to Keelung, took about three years and resulted in many deaths and accidents. Upon its completion, Liu wrote a couplet which ended with “human power triumphs over God’s work” (居然人力勝神工). The first car made a test journey from Dadaocheng (大稻埕) to Xikou (錫口, today’s Songshan District, 松山) area in July 1888, drawing thousands of spectators.

Qing era railway construction ended in Hsinchu in 1894. Liu had left his post three years earlier, and his successor Shao Yu-lien (邵友濂) stopped most of Liu’s modernization programs soon after.


A year later, the Qing ceded Taiwan to Japan. Historian Tai Pao-tsun (戴寶村) writes in the book Around the Island: The History of Taiwan’s Railway (縱貫環島:台灣鐵道) that the railroad was already in pretty bad shape when the Japanese took over and the situation was exacerbated when the retreating Qing troops sabotaged the tracks and facilities.

By July 1895, the Japanese had restored the entire railroad to working condition, using it to transport supplies in their campaign south against local resistance. Tai finds it ironic that the railroad, which was built to protect Taiwan, ended up being used by the invaders against the local population.

In the first few years, the Japanese uprooted sections of the old railroad, even abandoning the Taipei-Keelung tunnel and building a new one that was easier to traverse.

In 1899, construction began to extend the railroad further south, employing Japanese engineers and cheap Taiwanese labor. Books on Taiwanese history barely mention Hasegawa, who began his railroad career as a technician in 1877 and arrived in Taiwan in 1899 as the project’s chief engineer.

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