Railway experts yesterday urged the government to seek world heritage status for the Alishan Forest Railway in Chiayi County, which is set to celebrate its centenary this year.
Su Chao-hsu (蘇昭旭), assistant professor at National Kaohsiung University of Hospitality and Tourism, recently published three books about the forest railway. He said that mountain railways designated as World Heritage sites were generally constructed using five main techniques to deal with mountainous terrains: building a horseshoe curve, a spiral railway route, a zig-zag and a cog rail as well as using special engines. The Alishan Forest Railway was constructed using all of those solutions except the cog rail.
Su said there are only three railways in the world which have both a spiral route and a zig-zag, and the Alishan Railway is one of them.
The Alishan Forest Railway’s US-made Shay locomotive makes it a unique cultural asset as well, Su said, adding that Taiwan is the only place outside North and South America where such a locomotive is used.
Su said the highest Alishan Forest Railway station, Jhushan (祝山) Station, is 2,451m above sea level, which is higher than any of those on the Word Heritage railways. The lowest station is Chiayi Station, which is 30m above sea level. The elevation difference between stations demonstrates the level of skill in volved in building the railway, he said.
Su added that the forest railway has helped improve Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other countries. Su said that when he visited the Puffing Billy Steam Train Service in Australia, he found that the railway service preserved the Alishan Forest Railway locomotive No. 14, which was given to the Australian service 29 years ago.
Forestry Bureau director-general Lee Tao-sheng (李桃生) said Su’s research showed the Alishan Forest Railway could be the world’s No. 1 in several categories. First, it could be Asia’s highest narrow-gauge mountain railway. It might also be the world’s most complicated spiral route system.
The Alishan railway has probably the largest elevation difference among all other 762mm narrow gauge railway systems.
“The World Heritage bid may be difficult to accomplish given Taiwan’s status in the international community, but we’ll do our best to achieve our goal,” Lee said. “It is not only the hope of Taiwanese or Chinese people, but also that of all mountain railway enthusiasts. There is really no reason why the Alishan Railway should be excluded from the list of World Heritage sites.”
Adding that the forest railway is one of the nation’s tourism spots worth preserving, Lee said it gives tourists the rare experience of watching the scenery change from plains to tropical forests to warm temperate forest and cool temperate forest during one trip.
The forest railway opened in 1912 and is 71km long. It was used as a logging railway during the Japanese colonial era.