Expanding Taipei’s Popular MRT

A train on the new Danhai Light Rail system. Photo: Wikipedia

Construction continues on several extensions to Taipei’s mass rapid transit system. 

Residents of Danhai New Township by the mouth of the Tamsui River in New Taipei City got a Christmas present last year. On December 24, the first section of the Danhai Light Rail system went into service after four years of construction. The line further extends the reach of the Taipei mass rapid transit system that has become an integral part in the life of the seven million residents of greater Taipei.

The new section, dubbed the Green Mountain Line, is 7.3 kilometers long and contains 11 stations, seven elevated and four at ground level. It connects with the Taipei MRT network at the Hongshulin station on the heavy-rail Tamsui Line. The cost of the project is estimated at NT$8 billion (US$260 million).

Passengers on the line enjoy spectacular views of Guanyin Mountain and the Tamsui River. The trains, decorated in a blue-and-white color scheme to evoke a maritime theme, were produced by the Hsinchu County-based Taiwan Rolling Stock Co., a China Steel Corp. subsidiary, and are the first domestically built MRT cars to be used in Taiwan. The German firm Voith Engineering Services assisted with the design.

A second section of the Danhai Light Rail line, the 4.4-kilometer Blue Coast Line, is still under construction and is due to be completed in 2024. The Blue Coast line will start from Tamsui and also serve the popular tourist site Fisherman’s Wharf.

In another part of New Taipei City, the Xindian District, an additional light rail link – the 7.67-kilometer Ankeng Light Rail Line – is also under construction. Following groundbreaking in April 2016, the project is now about half completed. The line is scheduled to be ready for service at the end of 2021.

Yet another light rail project is under consideration, inspired by the success of the Danhai line. President Tsai Ing-wen has endorsed the idea of building a similar system to connect Taipei and Keelung. The project is expected to require a budget of NT$8 billion.

Light-rail systems can typically carry 2,500 to 6,000 passengers per hour in each direction. Medium-capacity systems can handle 20,000 to 30,000 and heavy-capacity can transport 60,000.

Also under construction is the first-phase of the medium-capacity Wanda Line, which will run 9.5 kilometers with nine stations. From the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall station in downtown Taipei, the route extends along Wanda Road in the Wanhua District. As of the end of 2018, first-phase construction was deemed 39% complete. The section is scheduled to be operational in February 2025.

In the 22.8-kilometer second phase,still being planned, the line will be lengthened to serve the Yongho, Zhongho, Tucheng, and Shulin districts of New Taipei City. Wanda will be the second portion of what is envisioned as a ring line encircling Taipei, with the existing five lines – Wenhu (brown), Tamsui-Xinyi (red), Songshan-Xindian (green), Bannan (blue), and Zhonghe-Xinlu (orange) – serving as the spokes. When finished, the ring line will enable MRT riders to travel from one New Taipei City district to another without having to go all the way into Taipei to transfer.

The first ring-line section – connecting Xindian, Banqiao, and Xinzhuang over 15.4 kilometers – is scheduled for inauguration in the first half of 2019. This January, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications approved plans for a 20.66-kilometer extension of the first section.

Improving service

Given the extensive MRT network already in place or under construction, no new projects are expected to be launched in the next five years. Instead, the focus will be on enhancing the use of the existing system by improving service and facilities.

One approach will be increasing cooperation with YouBike, the highly successful bike-sharing system. Many YouBike leasing stations are located near MRT stations, and the government hopes to encourage more riders to meet their transportation needs through a combination of train and bike rides.

At present, Taipei has 400 YouBike stations, stocked with a total of 13,000 bicycles that are used 65,000 person/times each day on average. The number for New Taipei city are even larger: 500 stations, 15,000 bikes, and 90,000 daily users. Use of YouBike is free of charge for the first 30 minutes, thanks to subsidies from the Taipei and New Taipei governments.

The government wishes to encourage more MRT riders to combine their trip with the use of YouBike.

Starting from April this year, electric bikes will be available in the Tamsui District on a trial basis. There is still no similar plan for Taipei, which has less hilly terrain than New Taipei.

The MRT network is also integrated with the bus system, forming a sprawling mass transportation web that can reach virtually any spot in the two cities.

Enhanced safety is also a prime consideration. Glass doors have now been installed to separate the platforms from the tracks at all of the 117 stations. Previously there were occasional accidents in which waiting passengers fell onto the tracks. Twenty-seven such accidents occurred in 2013, for example.

For the convenience of the elderly and infirm, escalators have been installed in all but 31 stations. A budget of NT$630 million (US$20.4 million) has been earmarked for installation of escalators in another 16 stations by 2021.

As an indication of the Taipei MRT’s cleanliness – aided by the ban on on-board consumption of any food or drink – the sighting of a mouse in a car on the Tamsui-Xinyi line in July 2018 set off a near panic among passengers. The occurrence was so unheard of that the incident generated wide media – and social media – attention. The sanitary condition of the cars is in sharp contrast to the filthy interiors of many older MRT systems around the world.

The system is also quite user-friendly due to the clear multilingual signage, color coding of the various lines, and the recorded announcement of upcoming stations in English as well as several dialects of Chinese. Japanese was also added last August on a trial basis at 10 stations most frequented by Japanese tourists.

Foreign visitors are usually pleased with their experience riding on the Taipei MRT. In a recent posting in the online publication Insider, Martha Sorren, a New York resident, called the system “one of the best in the world” due to its cleanliness, easy navigation for foreigners, safety, punctuality, and inexpensive fare.

“Living in New York, I never thought that taking public transportation like a subway could be so pain-free,” she wrote. “Taipei’s transit system is in a class of its own, and it should serve as an inspiration to other cities.”

The MRT system is also being taken by the Taipei City government as the key to its urban development planning, since home buyers and businesses are eager to locate close to convenient transportation. Under what is referred to as TOD (for transit-oriented development), the municipal government has selected 40 stations as hubs for neighborhood development. New construction in those areas will be eligible for certain incentives, such as a more generous floor-area ratio – the building’s permissible total floor area relative to the size of the plot of land it occupies.

Inaugurated on March 28, 1996, the Taipei MRT system now consists of five lines and two branch lines (Xinbeitou and Xiaobitan) and totals 136.6 kilometers in length. In 2018 it carried an average of 2,276,230 passengers daily.

Following completion of the several additional lines now under planning or construction, the total length will eventually reach 270 kilometers, with the number of passengers expected to come to 3.6 million a day.

The punctuality rate is almost 100%, making it one of the most reliable MRT systems worldwide and a model for many cities around the world that are planning to build a subway. Surveys of passengers consistently show an extraordinary satisfaction rate of around 95%.

“In the more than 20 years since it was first launched, the Taipei MRT has offered stable and reliable transportation service that has brought great convenience to citizens in their daily life,” says Taipei Rapid Transit Corp. president B.C. Yen. “What’s more, it has stimulated economic and commercial activity along the routes and spurred the development of urban green transportation.”