The completion of the Shanli Tunnel (山里隧道), scheduled for the end of this year, will pave the way for electrification of the entire Eastern Line and direct trains all the way to Taitung, the Railway Reconstruction Bureau said yesterday.
The 5.3km tunnel between Hualien and Taitung is the longest on the modified route.
At present, passengers traveling from Taipei to Taitung must switch to a diesel-powered train at Hualien halfway through their journey.
The bureau hosted a ceremony yesterday celebrating the completion of the tunnel drilling. Workers operating an excavator broke through the rock separating the north and south ends of the tunnel.
Bureau Director-General Jack Hsu (許俊逸) said construction of the tunnel was initially scheduled to be completed by June next year.
Completion ahead of schedule was even more remarkable as construction was interrupted six times in its initial stage because of typhoons and heavy rain, the bureau said.
However, with the drilling completed, workers can now begin laying the tracks and installing the electrical equipment, which could be completed by the end of this year, Hsu said.
“The Shanli Tunnel is the most crucial part of the project [to electrify the Hualien-Taitung line],” Hsu said, adding that the drilling took about two years.
Minister of Transportation and Communications Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) said the ministry was confident the 155km-long electrified Hualien-Taitung line would become operational next year, adding that the new route would reduce the travel time from Taipei to Taitung to about three-and-a-half hours from about five-and-a-half hours.
The ministry’s next project is the South-Link Line connecting Taitung with Greater Kaohsiung, which has yet to be electrified, Mao said.
Work on the project could begin next year, he said.
Mao said the bureau had also started planning the construction of a direct railway route between Taipei and Yilan, which would depart from Nangang Railway Station in Taipei and go to Jiaosi Township (礁溪), Yilan County.
“If the Taipei-Yilan direct line is complete, it could further decrease travel time between Taipei and Taitung to three hours if the train only stops in Yilan and Hualien,” he said. “And when the South-Link Line is electrified, people from the West Coast will be able to take the high-speed rail and switch to the South-Link Line to travel to Taitung, which would also take about three hours. So whether you went along the east coast or the west coast, it would only take about three hours to arrive in Taitung.”
Despite improvements in the railway service, Mao said the ministry still needed to address several issues before it could truly improve transportation along the east coast.
“We need to consider how to properly increase train services during holidays, particularly when there are large events, like the [Taiwan International] Hot Air Balloon Festival [in Taitung County],” he said. “With an increase in train services, we might run short of train carriages and conductors as well.”
Mao suggested that airlines could have additional flights during peak periods.
Apart from the Shanli Tunnel, the Hualien-Taitung line has three further constructionally challenging tunnels on its modified route, including the Guangfu (光復), Zihciang (自強) and Sikou (溪口) tunnels.