Taiwan: Bumpy trip to economic boost

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. 700T series passenger trains seen at the Zuoying station in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 2005.
Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. 700T series passenger trains seen at the Zuoying station in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, in 2005. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

To catch her favourite exhibitions, museum buff Tina Cheng used to endure a four-hour bus ride from her home in Taiwan's south-west Tainan city to Taipei in the north.

The ride was all the more gruelling, stretching beyond eight hours, if the bus was caught in bad traffic.

"By the time I get into the city, I will be so tired and won't really enjoy the show, making the whole trip a waste of time and money," said Ms Cheng, a manufacturing company executive.

But with the high-speed train, the commute is no longer a chore and Ms Cheng can be in Taipei within 90 minutes.

"It is so convenient that I can decide on the fly to go into the city in the morning and even have time to have lunch and dinner before heading back," said Ms Cheng, who takes the high-speed train to Taipei for a day trip two to three times a month.

Increasingly, more people are using Taiwan's high-speed rail service, known as Gaotie in Mandarin, which started in January 2007.

Daily ridership on the sleek orange and white bullet trains has grown from 43,000 to more than 150,000. The trains are based on Japan's shinkansen technology. The 345km journey, along Taiwan's western coast linking the capital Taipei to the southern city of Kaohsiung, is 21/2 hours faster than regular train services.

But it has been a bumpy ride for private company Taiwan High Speed Rail, which ran into deficit and had to turn to the government for help.

Although the company said it has grown its profits, it remains to be seen if high-speed rail will be commercially feasible.

Yet, the government's High Speed Rail Bureau is optimistic, pointing to the economic benefits that have prompted businesses and people to move out of Taipei and Kaohsiung to less expensive cities and jumpstart their economies.

Drawn by cheaper property, account manager Jason Lee moved out of his two-room apartment in Taipei in 2014 to a four-room condominium in nearby Taoyuan city, about 45 minutes away by car.

Taking the high-speed train, Mr Lee's daily commute to work in Taipei's Zhongzheng district is just 15 minutes.

"I can lead a city life without having to deal with the bustle of the city centre," he said.

"With the high-speed rail, it is just as convenient to get around but I pay half the price for a bigger house and better scenery."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Taiwan: Bumpy trip to economic boost'. Print Edition | Subscribe