Taiwan’s High-Speed Rail project overcame daunting engineering challenges to connect major cities. There are plans for future expansion, but the dream of an around-the-island high-speed rail network remains a subject of debate and uncertainty.
Taiwan is confronted by numerous engineering obstacles given its high humidity, unpredictable typhoons, and frequent earthquakes. In some respects, it’s the very definition of an engineer’s nightmare.
Still, the relatively flat plain that much of the population calls home makes for ideal conditions for a massive public transport initiative. While freeways stretch far, a high-speed rail is faster, more sustainable, and more efficient at moving people.
Plans for the Taiwan High-Speed Rail (THSR) were approved in 1992, and operations started in January 2007. But the logistics of completing the approximately 350-km (217-mile) line were staggering. Tunnels, viaducts, and 10 new stations were built, connecting eight major population centers between Taipei and Kaohsiung.
The current trains (or rolling stock, as they’re referred to in the transport industry) are from the Japanese manufacturing company Kawasaki. The models used in Taiwan are based on Japan’s iconic Shinkansen trains, though they’ve been upgraded to withstand Taiwan’s hotter climate and reach faster speeds than their Japanese counterparts (300 km/h compared to 285 km/h).
Twelve sets of new generation trains (which are around 6% more energy efficient than the previous generations, according to makers Hitachi and Toshiba) are set to start running in 2026, with revenue operations expected to commence in 2027. The new 300-meter trains will also operate at 300km/h and be equipped with 110V charging sockets at every seat. Each car will have a full-color LCD information display, arrival light reminder, and two-tier luggage racks.
A single central control room monitors and operates the entire line and controls access to all depots. Additional communications systems manage public announcements, telephone, radio, CCTV, and passenger information. THSR utilizes TETRA (Terrestrial Trunked Radio) technology, the highest safety standard of communications technology used in transportation throughout Europe. Other users of this system include the London Underground and metro systems in Paris, Madrid, and Copenhagen.
These robust communications include specialized wayside systems that detect unusual operating conditions such as earthquakes, high winds, flooding, and landslides. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s difficult to truly grasp the enormity of this project – not only in its construction but also in its ongoing daily operations. THSR currently transports almost six million passengers per month.
With a commitment to reducing its carbon footprint, the THSRC had recycled over 1,613 metric tons of waste, with a recycling rate of approximately 27%, as of 2021. Water consumption was also reduced by 17% compared with the previous year.
THSR has also built solar power generation facilities at four maintenance depots and six stations. In 2021, annual solar power generation reached 11,657 MWh. And since 2019, THSR has used only energy-efficient LED lamps at its headquarters.
Connecting the island
Current plans will see THSR service expanded to Pingtung County in the south and Yilan County in the northeast. THSR’s southern terminus is currently Zuoying Station, located in the northern part of Kaohsiung, but the line is planned to be extended 17.5 km, via Niaosong and Dashu, to Liukuaicuo Station in Pingtung County. The extension will also have an interchange with the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) Pingtung Line. When completed, the line will enable direct service between Taipei and Pingtung with a travel time of 104 minutes, according to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC).
Passengers will soon be able to reach a 273-hectare science park close to the new Pingtung terminal. The science park is set to focus on technologies related to agriculture (a major part of the Pingtung economy), healthcare, and software engineering. Seeing the economic benefits science parks have brought to other areas in Taiwan, it is hoped that linking Taiwan’s major population centers and the science park will bring an economic boost to Pingtung.
The current route for the track will bypass the Renda Industrial Park – an area that hosts petrochemical plants in the districts of Renwu and Dashe in Kaohsiung – and is planned to run parallel to the second east-west motorway between Kaohsiung and Pingtung cities. Besides facilitating business activity, the new Pingtung THSR terminal will offer an alternate route and arguably easier access to the popular holiday areas of Kenting and Hengchun in southern Taiwan. Completion is expected in 2029, with a projected cost of NT$55.4 billion (US$1.9 billion).
But the plan to extend the THSR to Pingtung has been met with some opposition. Local media reports have highlighted opponents’ criticism of the project as a wasteful expenditure of taxpayers’ money. Some argue that constructing a metro line would offer a more viable and cost-effective solution for servicing passengers along the route. And some politicians in Kaohsiung want to see the line pass through their city’s main railway station to help develop its southern neighborhoods.
In northern Taiwan, a new 56-km route is estimated to enable riders to get from Nangang to Yilan in less than 30 minutes. The plan has passed the first round of an environmental impact study, although the second round will be more rigorous as the proposed track will pass through 23 ecologically sensitive areas and include 11.4 km of tunnels. However, construction isn’t likely to start for another two years, with the government hoping the extension will be completed by 2036. Costs are expected to come to around NT$188 billion (US$6 billion).
Three design proposals were presented for the project, with the longest ultimately selected. This selection was made due to concerns about the two other proposed lines possibly impacting the water quality of the nearby Feicui Reservoir in New Taipei City. The second proposal, which was 54.1 km long, would have included a nearly 4-km-long section across the reservoir, while the third was 45 km long, with a section of more than 11 km crossing the reservoir. Although the chosen route is the longest of the three proposals, journeys will only take 30-60 seconds more than the alternatives, according to the MOTC.
The line is intended to provide an additional travel option between Taipei and eastern Taiwan to address congestion on existing roads and conventional rail links between Yilan and the capital, particularly on weekends. The HSR station at Yilan is planned for a site 350 meters south of Yilan County Hall. The mayor of New Taipei City, Hou Yu-ih, has also proposed an additional interchange at Pingxi to connect with conventional rail services. However, this project has yet to be confirmed.
Long talked about in online forums, tentatively raised in boardroom meetings, and longingly discussed in conversations among friends has been the dream of a THSR line that loops around the entire island. Whether feasible or not, it’s a subject that forever hangs in the air. It’s been verbally raised, deflected, and bounced around at numerous government press conferences for years.
As for the official take on the idea, MOTC Minister Wang Kwo-tsai said in an October 2021 press conference that the government has neither assessed the possibility nor estimated the cost of building an “around-the-nation high-speed rail network.” He simply stated, “One section at a time,” referring to the northern and southern line expansions.
But in mid-2022, the minister stated his hopes of extending the THSR service further to make a loop of Taiwan proper after the planned Yilan and Pingtung upgrades. Wang told Yahoo! TV that the ministry’s long-term goal is to make the service available nationwide. He reiterated that further extensions should be done section by section due to the high construction costs. However, it’s worth noting that no formal evaluations or research into this loop has been announced.
Whether such an engineering feat is, in fact, possible is open to debate – though given the skills of Taiwan’s engineers at overcoming topographical challenges, chances of success are likely high. But it’s another issue entirely as to whether smaller counties and coastal communities in Taiwan’s east and south want a bullet train running through their backyards. The future of Taiwan’s Golden High-Speed Loop will likely be debated for many years to come.
From Losses to Gains
Taiwan passed a law in November 1994 that addressed the use of private funding for infrastructure projects, which came to apply to the state-run THSR project. With this new law, the Bureau of High Speed Rail (BOHSR) in October 1996 began to tender THSR as a build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme.
The bidding process included the Taiwan High Speed Rail Consortium (THSRC) and competitor Chunghwa High Speed Rail Consortium (CHSRC). THSRC’s bid was based on the high-speed technology platform from Eurotrain, a joint venture by German Siemens and French GEC-Alstom. The bid from CHSRC was based on Japanese Shinkansen technology supplied by Taiwan Shinkansen Consortium (TSC), a joint venture of Japanese companies.
THSRC was chosen as the preferred bidder in September 1997 after submitting the lowest bid and promising to build the line at no net cost to the government. In May 1998, the group was renamed and formally established as the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation (also abbreviated THSRC), which signed a BOT agreement with the government.
But as THSRC struggled to raise capital in May 1999, the Japanese government offered THSRC soft loans in exchange for switching to its technology. The Eschede rail disaster in June 1998, in which a high-speed train derailed and crashed into an overpass killing 101 people in northern Germany, gave THSRC second thoughts on whether to use the European technology. When TSC offered its newer 700 Series Shinkansen to Taiwan, THSRC ultimately reopened its core system bid and selected TSC as the preferred rolling stock supplier in December 1999.
Despite eventually conceding the bid, Eurotrain filed a US$800-million claim against THSRC at the Singapore International Arbitration Centre in February 2001. Following a lengthy arbitration process, the court ruled in March 2004 that THSRC should pay compensation for the US$32.4 million Eurotrain spent on development, as well as nearly US$36 million in “unjust enrichment.” In November 2004, THSRC agreed to pay Eurotrain US$65 million (over NT$2 billion) in compensation.
Despite widespread criticism in its early years over over the BOT management plan, high levels of debt incurred, and initial failure to meet projected ridership, THSRC posted profits of over NT$3 billion in 2023. The railway’s financial stability was verified with a recent report from Fitch Ratings, a multinational credit rating agency.
According to a report released July 27, 2023, Fitch Ratings says the THSRC outlook is stable. The AA+ rating the company received is considered a golden credit report.
As the Fitch report outlines, the switch in 2015 from private BOT status to majority government ownership has been the main factor in the corporation’s stability. “Ownership by the state and state-backed institutions has been steady at about 63% since the government approved a financial reform plan in 2015,” states the report. It goes on to say that the plan does not allow the government to transfer or dispose of the shares, thereby maintaining stable majority ownership of the public service. The MOTC is the largest shareholder, holding 43% of the Taiwan High Speed Railway Corporation on behalf of the government.
Most importantly, the government has extended THSR’s concession period to 70 years from 35 years and increased barriers to entry by precluding competing high-speed rail services until 2063. These changes have enhanced THSRC’s market position. Fitch states that any other competitor in the high-speed market would likely have a minimal impact on the THSR as other forms of transport, standard train services, and freeways are already available to consumers.