Typhoon Morakot could have changed the fate of the Alishan Forest Railway, one of the world’s few alpine railways, once and for all.
Built as a logging workhorse by the Japanese and later turned into a tourist attraction, the railway is now facing a crisis after the typhoon undermined the tracks with the worst flooding in Taiwan in half a century.
Torrential downpours that fell non-stop for nearly three days brought the mountain railway to a complete halt, with its tracks damaged or washed away by flash floods in more than 400 places.
Tourists attracted to Alishan (阿里山) by the thrill of taking a pre-dawn train ride to watch the sun rise from a cloud sea over Taiwan’s highest peak Yushan (玉山) as the whistle of the mountain trains in the distance piercing the calm, will be out of luck now, as the Forestry Bureau, which oversees the railway, has no timetable for when or even if the railway will run again.
Hung Ju-chiang (洪如江) of National Taiwan University, an expert in geotechnical engineering, said many sections of the 86km narrow gauge network built a century ago are constructed on soft, loose colluvial soil, making them vulnerable to floodwater and landslides.
“These vulnerable sections have been financial black holes because of their liability to fail,” said Hung, a member of the government’s Post-Typhoon Morakot Reconstruction Committee.
He said that several sections of the railway are worthy of conserving because of their high tourism value, but said other vulnerable sections should be abandoned altogether.
Instead, he suggested, a cable car system could be built over the Alishan scenic area, which is one of the top three “must sees” for Chinese tourists.
Before the killer typhoon, which claimed the lives of more than 600 people, government agencies had listed the railway as a potential candidate for inclusion as a UN World Heritage Site.
The railway is unique, with several steep gradients, a spiral and four switchbacks. It climbs through the most dramatic climate changes of any railway of its kind in the world, running from an elevation of 30m in Chiayi City to the terminal station of Alishan, located near the Yushan massif that is part of the nation’s Central Mountain Range at 2,274m.
The vegetation along the way changes from tropical to temperate and finally alpine.
The line’s unique Z-shaped switchbacks and spirals are a marvel of engineering and the huge US-built iron Shay locomotives that began bringing down timber in 1912 were something Taiwanese had never seen before.
According to Alishan Forest Railway, a historical account of the railway authored by the late Chang Hsin-yu (張新裕) — who worked for 50 years on the railway, initially called the Imperial Taiwan Railway and retired as its head administrator — the Alishan Forest Railway also serves as a window on Taiwan’s Japanese colonial history.
The Japanese colonial government began planning the narrow gauge line in the late 19th century as a means to facilitate the logging of the area’s valuable red cypress.
A Japanese official in charge of development in Taiwan, Ohtosaku Saito, ventured into the Central Mountain Range in 1896, the year after the Japanese occupation, as the head of a 27-member expedition.
Their aim was to find Yushan, but on the way, they accidentally discovered a huge coniferous forest on Alishan, Chang’s book says.