The prices of high-speed rail tickets are not going to rise before the Lunar New Year holiday next February, Minister of Transportation and Communications Mao Chi-kuo (毛治國) said yesterday, adding that the ministry would conduct a comprehensive review of the system’s pricing mechanism.
“We currently have no plan [to raise ticket prices],” Mao said.
Mao made the announcement at a meeting of the legislature’s Transportation Committee to review the high-speed rail’s budget and construction funds for next year.
While Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp (THSRC) had just welcomed its 200-millionth passenger earlier this month, the operator faced mounting criticism at the committee.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Lee Kun-tse (李昆澤) said the system had failed to reach its target of 150,000 passengers per day because ticket prices are too high. He added that fares are even higher than those of the Beijing-Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong High Speed Railway in China that was launched on Wednesday.
He said that THSRC should lower fares to boost the occupancy rate.
DPP legislators Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津) and Kuan Bi-ling (管碧玲) also opposed raising ticket prices.
Yeh said there would be high-speed rail stations in Yunlin, Miaoli and Changhwa counties by 2014. With the addition of these three new stations to the route, the travel time on the high-speed rail from Taipei to Kaohsiung would increase by 30 minutes if the train stops at every station, he added.
While residents in Taipei, Greater Taichung and Greater Kaohsiung can expect express or semi-express trains every 15 minutes, those in Chiayi and Greater Tainan have to wait for the train for 30 minutes, he said.
“The high-speed rail has become a low-speed rail. Shouldn’t the tickets then also become cheaper?” Yeh said.
Kuan said that writer Liu Ka-shiang (劉克襄) recently complained in a letter to the Chinese-language Apple Daily that he found the situation in a rail car with unreserved seats was so chaotic that the entire car appeared to be in a state of anarchy.
Even though the company has offered various discounts to passengers who book in advance, also known as the “early-bird package,” Kuan said that many customers complained that the cheaper tickets tend to be sold out quickly.
She said the contract between THSRC and the Bureau of High Speed Rail (BHSR) allows the company to raise ticket prices should the consumer price index (CPI) rise by 3 percent.
However, the Ministry of Economic Affairs had said that an increase in the CPI this year occurred because the government raised the electricity and gas prices, she said.
“It [the CPI increase] was the government’s fault and using it as a reason to raise the ticket prices of the high-speed rail would be simply unacceptable,” Kuan said.
She added that, according to her calculations, the THSRC overcharged passengers in several railway sections. Those traveling between Chiayi and Hsinchu, for example, were charged NT$25.1 more per person.
In response, Mao said that the Ministry of Transportation and Communications supervised THSRC operations based on its contract with the government and its proposed financial plan.
Even though the company began to generate a profit last year, Mao said that the profit is mainly used to pay off company debts.
According to Mao, THSRC has accumulated financial losses of about NT$70 billion (US$2.3 billion) and collective loans of about NT$30 billion.
“All I can say right now is that there is hope of solving the company’s financial problems,” Mao said, adding that the problems would be addressed in multiple phases.
Mao also said that adjusting the ticket price could change the company’s proposed financial plan.
BHSR Director-General Chu Shu (朱旭) announced that the train schedule would have to be adjusted after the addition of a new train that arrived on Sunday last week.
He said that the Fair Trade Commission has looked into complaints about the company’s “early-bird packages.”
THSRC executive officer Ou Chin-der (歐晉德) said the company has limited room to lower ticket prices.
“If we want to cover our losses, the bank could lower [our loans’] interest rates and the government could give us more years to operate the high-speed rail system. Then we may be able to talk about lowering ticket prices,” Ou said.