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

Wed, May 25, 2005 - Page 13

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.

Some of the most picturesque of the remaining Japanese colonial-style stations include Shengshing (勝興), Taian (泰安), Hsinpu (新埔), Jueifen (追分) and Renan (日南).

Before setting out to explore Taiwan by rail, passengers should first consider the speed and comfort with which they intend to travel. The TRA operates three classes of long-distance rail service and one type of electric commuter train.

The fastest and most comfortable of the long-distance classes is the ziqiang (自強號), or express train. The ziqiang can reach a top speed of 120kph, but the average speed is around 94kph. All the carriages are air-conditioned and the large windows allow passengers to enjoy some splendid scenery as the train hurtles past. The ziqiang trains only stop at a handful of stations on both the west and east coast- routes.

A slower and slightly less comfortable choice of train is the juguang class (莒光號). While the top speed of the locomotives that pull juguang class carriages is 100kph, the trains rarely reach this speed and amble along at a pleasant 70kph. Stops are more frequent than on the ziqiang class, but for those looking to explore some of Taiwan's lesser-known and out-of-the-way locales, this is probably the best way to do it.

The slowest and least comfortable of Taiwan's trains is the fuxing (復興號) class. Tickets are cheaper, but if you plan to circumnavigate the island on the fuxing, you'll need a hefty tome, a strong back and a lot of patience, since the trains stop at all the stations on all of the routes and have rather unsanitary toilet facilities.

TRA operations run 24 hours day, but there are no sleeping compartments on any of the trains. Not all trains cater to passengers with disabilities, and for those who rely wheelchairs, it is best to check TRA's schedule for information regarding wheelchair accessibility before purchasing a ticket.

A pleasant alternative to station hopping on regular trains is to purchase a ticket on one of the nation's special Tourist Trains (觀光列車). Operated jointly by TRA and EZ Travel, the carriages of some of these trains are easily recognizable. Painted blue and covered in Aboriginal artwork, these trains first took to the tracks in 2000 with the Hualien Tourist Train (花蓮觀光列車).

The special carriages, with their oversized airplane-business-class-like seating, large windows and dining cars where everything from coffee to regionalized lunchboxes can be purchased, proved such a hit with local tourists that TRA and EZ Travel added more routes; there are now five Tourist Trains operating daily.

The Hotspring Princess (溫泉公主號) travels from Taipei to the hotsprings township of Chiben. The Kenting Star (墾丁之星) carries passengers to Taiwan's favorite seaside resort town. The Southern Link Star (南迴之星) plies the island's southern rail route from Taitung to Kaohsiung, and the Treasure Island Star (寶島之星) traverses the entire island.

Along with offering travelers the chance to relax in over-sized seating comfort, the windows on these trains are twice as large as those of regular carriages. And in contrast to the rather dowdy uniforms worn by regular TRA staffers, Tourist Train staff wear traditional Aboriginal costumes or colorful sarongs, depending on the route.

While traveling on any one of the Tourist Trains certainly has its benefits, they are certainly not the quickest way to ride the rails. Although operated by Taiwan Railways, the Tourist Trains are not priority traffic and do, on occasion, grind to a halt at some small rural train station in order to allow regular express-locomotive-driven commuter traffic to pass.

Tickets for the Tourist Trains can be booked via EZ Travel's Web site or at one of three tour companies operating out of Taipei Railway Station. Individual tickets for travel on these trains can also be purchased directly from Taiwan Railways' ticketing offices. Hotel accommodation and any additional travel costs to and from tourist spots are not included, however.

Package tours on the Tourist Trains range from NT$2,300 to NT$25,000, depending on the route and the length of stay in any one hotel/resort. The number of Tourist Train carriages is limited, and trains can only accommodate between 120 to 175 people in tourist comfort. On weekdays this makes little difference to availability of tickets, but if you plan to travel weekends, it is advisable to book seats at least two weeks in advance.

For Taiwan Railways info, log on to www.railway.gov.tw/index_ok.htm. The site has up-to-date schedules and timetables in both English and Chinese.

Tickets and train timetables can also be checked in both Chinese and English at train2.twtraffic.com.tw/TaiTrain/time.html.

For EZ-Travel Tourist Train packages, log on to eztravel.com.tw/package1/taiwan_train.htm. This site is only available in Chinese.