Rail­ways in Tai­wan

Mus­ings are thoughts, the thought­ful kind. For the pur­pose of th­ese ar­ti­cles, a-mus­ings are thoughts that might amuse, en­ter­tain and even en­lighten.

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

The Tai­wan Rail­ways Ad­min­is­tra­tion (TRA), an agency of the Min­istry of Trans­porta­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion of Tai­wan, is re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing, main­tain­ing, and run­ning pas­sen­ger and freight ser­vices on 1,097 kilo­me­ters of con­ven­tional rail­road lines.

In rail trans­port, track gauge, which is de­fined as the spac­ing of the rails on a rail­way track mea­sured be­tween the in­ner faces of the load-bear­ing rails, is im­por­tant. Tai­wan has more than one rail­way gauge. The gauge for main lines owned by TRA is 1,067mm. Sug­ar­cane Rail­ways are usu­ally 762mm, with some at 1,067mm for con­nect­ing to TRA lines. There once ex­isted a long-gone 610mm Sug­ar­cane rail­road. His­tor­i­cally, coalmine rail­roads had gauges of 500mm, 498mm and 610mm while Salt In­dus­try rail­roads uti­lized gauges of 762mm. All this may ap­pear in­con­gru­ous in an or­derly na­tion like Tai­wan, but for rail­road en­thu­si­asts it rep­re­sents par­adise.

Ali-shan, the Mount Ali Rail­way, runs on 762mm gauge tracks that were orig­i­nally con­structed by the Ja­panese Govern­ment in 1912 to fa­cil­i­tate the log­ging of cy­press and Tai­wa­nia trees. Pas­sen­ger car­riages were first added to the trains in 1918. The com­ple­tion of the Alis­han High­way in 1982 led to the loss of many rail pas­sen­gers to faster and cheaper buses, and the moun­tain rail­road be­came pri­mar­ily a tourist at­trac­tion. The line was se­verely dam­aged by rains dur­ing 2009's Typhoon Mo­rakot; it was fully re­opened to the pub­lic on 25 De­cem­ber, 2015.

Tai­wan's govern­ment has listed the for­est rail­way as a po­ten­tial World Her­itage Site. How­ever, Tai­wan's ex­clu­sion from the United Na­tions means it is un­likely to be for­mally rec­og­nized in the near fu­ture. The main line runs from the city of Chi­ayi, at 30 me­ters above the sea, to the fi­nal sta­tion of Alis­han, el­e­va­tion 2,216 me­ters, which is more than twice as high as Mount Gimie, whose el­e­va­tion is a mere 950 me­ters above sea level. Can you imag­ine a rail­way climb­ing to a height two and a half times higher than Saint Lucia's tallest moun­tain? The veg­e­ta­tion along the way changes from trop­i­cal to tem­per­ate and fi­nally alpine. The line fea­tures many switch­backs, or zigzags, on the way up the moun­tain.

As in Saint Lucia, sugar was once an im­por­tant part of the econ­omy in Tai­wan and, just as in Saint Lucia, tramways or rail­ways trans­ported pro­duce from the fields. The Tai­wan Sugar Rail­ways were an ex­ten­sive se­ries of nar­row gauge rail­ways that cen­tred on the many sugar mills in south­ern and cen­tral Tai­wan, ra­di­at­ing out­wards through sug­ar­cane fields and small towns. Most of the lines were also linked with sta­tions al­low­ing pas­sen­gers to trans­fer to long dis­tance trains. In their hey­day, the Sugar Rail­ways in­cluded over 3,000 km of track. Reg­u­lar pas­sen­ger ser­vice was dis­con­tin­ued due to the in­creas­ing ur­ban­iza­tion of Tai­wan and the dom­i­nance of high­ways. For many Tai­wanese the rail­ways preserve fond mem­o­ries of child­hood. This is how some peo­ple re­mem­ber those days (I have not cor­rected their English):

"The Tai­wan sugar trains are many peo­ple's beau­ti­ful child­hood mem­ory, es­pe­cially for many vil­lage boys at that time. My fam­ily had have planted sugar plants for one long time. It was one pleas­ing sea­son when the sugar plants were har­vested, many sugar farm­ers, in­clud­ing my fam­ily, har­vested their sugar plants, putted them on ox­cart and pulled them to the train cars. In that time, it seemed to be one har­vest fes­ti­val."

"When I were a lit­tle kid, most land-use of my vil­lage was sugar plants. Tai­wan Sugar's rail­way crossed my vil­lage and just about 100 me­ters away my home. I re­mem­ber the vil­lage boys, in­clud­ing me, in­vented many games re­gard­ing sugar trains. For ex­am­ple, we put nails on rail­way, the pat­tern of nails be­come sword pat­terns af­ter train pass­ing. I still re­mem­ber the train al­most across my vil­lage on time. So, the vil­lage boys guessed the train car num­ber first and count them when the train crossed in ev­ery­day evening. My fa­ther re­tired from the Ping­tung Main Plant of Tai­wan Sugar Cor­po­ra­tion. He have told me that many em­ploy­ees and the men who want to go to Ping­tung could take the sugar train go to Ping­tung about 20-30 years ago. Of course, there was no pas­sen­ger train sta­tion along the sugar train rail­way. You just shook your hands when train was com­ing and the sugar train would stop and pick you up. It sounds very hos­pitable. I still re­mem­ber my child­hood's sugar trains. About 7 years ago, the sugar rail­way across my vil­lage was dis­man­tled and one new road were con­structed over the orig­i­nal rail­way path. Ping­tung Main Plant of Tai­wan Sugar Plant is shut­down sev­eral years ago. For me, rail­way is dis­man­tled but mem­ory not!"

The US$14.5 bil­lion high-speed rail (HSR) line was built be­tween Taipei and Kaoh­si­ung. Lo­cal and in­ter­city pas­sen­ger ser­vices op­er­at­ing from 5am to 1am with very few overnight trains, main­tain a 95.3% on-time record. 2008 an­nual pas­sen­ger rid­er­ship was 179 mil­lion trav­el­ling 5.45 bil­lion pas­sen­ger­miles and gen­er­at­ing US$434 mil­lion in rev­enue. You may not be in­ter­ested in rail­ways, but you have to ad­mit that rail­ways in Tai­wan are se­ri­ous busi­ness. It's sad in a way that Saint Lucia has not pre­served its nu­mer­ous es­tate tramways and rail­ways; they would have pro­vided an ed­u­ca­tional and en­ter­tain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for vis­i­tors and lo­cals alike. And think about it – an elec­tric rail­road through the Barre de l'Isle or round the is­land, what an ex­pe­ri­ence that would be!

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