As the electrified railway line between Hualien and Taitung has shortened travel time from Taipei to Taitung from 4.5 hours to 3.5 hours, some have speculated whether this might spell the end of flight services between the two cities.
A Taitung resident surnamed Hsu (許) said that he would probably choose the Puyuma Express more often than flying to Taipei now that the train travel time has been reduced.
“If I am not in a hurry, I think three-and-a-half hours [of travel time] is bearable,” he said.
Though the flight between Taipei and Taitung is only 45 minutes, Hsu said that a round-trip ticket costs NT$4,500 to NT$4,900, whereas a return ticket on the Puyuma Express costs only NT$1,566.
There are only six daily flights from Taitung to Taipei, Hsu said, with the earliest departing from Taitung at 8:30am.
He said that flights depart every two hours after the first plane leaves, with each aircraft only able to carry 70 to 100 passengers.
The Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) on Wednesday increased the number of Puyuma Express trains to 12 per day on weekdays and 18 daily on weekends and holidays. Each Puyuma Express train has 376 seats, with the first train departing from Taitung at 5:12am.
Aside from the Puyuma Express trains, the railway operator said it is to simultaneously increase other train services to Taitung.
Overall, the new train schedule raised transport capacity between Taipei and Taitung by 18 percent on weekdays and 40 percent on weekends and holidays, the TRA said.
A Taipei resident surnamed Chung (鍾), who takes business trips to Taitung two or three times per week, said he would probably stop taking the Taipei-Taitung flights because of the faster train service, citing reasons other than the price.
“Though it takes less than an hour to travel to Taitung by plane, I need to be at [Taipei International Airport] Songshan airport at least 40 minutes before boarding,” Chung said. “To arrive at the airport, I need to change MRT trains twice, which is a hassle when carrying luggage. That does not include delays in flights that happen from time to time. On arriving back in Taipei, it takes at least 20 minutes to travel to downtown from the airport. It is more convenient to travel by train,” Chung said.
Speculation on the imminent demise of the flights was not groundless.
The launch of the High Speed Rail (HSR) system in 2007, for example, eventually caused domestic carriers to cancel flights between Taipei and Greater Kaohsiung, with the final flight made in 2012.
Jason Chang (張學孔), a civil engineering professor and director of the Advanced Public Transport Research Center at National Taiwan University, said flights to the east coast would remain competitive even with the faster train service because of tourists and business travelers.
“In general, railway operators can beat the domestic flights if the former can offer a service lasting less than 150 minutes,” Chang said. “However, if the railway service takes more than 150 minutes, it will face competition from civil aviation services.”
Civil Aeronautics Administration deputy director-general Fang Chih-wen (方志文) said the change to the transport system on the west coast was very different from that on the east coast.
“It takes 90 minutes to travel from Taipei to Kaohsiung on the HSR. A Taipei to Kaohsiung flight, on the other hand, takes about an hour. To travelers, the difference is not significant,” Fang said. “However, the travel time from Taipei to Taitung on the Puyuma Express is much longer, so the aviation service still has an advantage.”
Fang said the TRA would monitor the changes in the occupancy rates of flights between Taipei and Taitung to determine if the faster railway service affects demand for them.
Uni Air (立榮航空), one of the carriers offering flights between Taipei and Taitung, said it has not seen any change to traveler numbers using its service after the Hualien-Taitung line was launched, adding that flights and railway services attract different passengers.
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