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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Taiwan's Shinkansen in the news 台湾の新幹線

Max Hirsch has an article in today's Japan Times ジャパンタイムズ on Taiwan's high speed train, "Taiwan's Japan-made bullet trains end first year in red - but on track", a headline which says it all, as do the opening paragraphs:

"Taiwan's Japan-built high-speed trains have yet to become a cash-cow success, but neither are they the disaster critics had once predicted. As Taiwan marked the first year of the rail system on Jan. 5, bittersweet pride surely ranks high among its founders. The bitter sprouts from a fiscal shortfall as Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp. 台湾高速鉄道 seeks to dramatically boost ridership from the current 43,000 passengers daily to at least the break-even point. But the sweet is just as palpable as Taiwan's first bullet trains, which traverse 345 km between Taipei 台北 and Kaohsiung 高雄 at the island's southern tip, run without a hitch."

There were a lot of doubts about the bullet train before, as well as soon after, it started service. I remember many of my students saying at the time that they were too scared to ride it, over fears about its safety. Hirsch recalls these sentiments:

"Over budget and 16 months behind schedule, the high-speed rail system opened for business amid intense, and often negative, media attention on Jan. 5, 2007. Multiple minor derailments in test runs two months prior to the opening supplied ammunition to critics, who conjured up images of a nightmarish pileup at 300 kph, the trains' top speed. Mixing European track technology with Japanese bullet trains, they warned, was a recipe for derailment...a troubled collaboration with Taiwan Shinkansen Engineering to forge the world's first Japanese-European bullet-train system in the world's biggest build-operate-transfer project ever. The final price tag was $15 billion. As delays and cost overruns mounted, critics panned the project as a doomed, extravagant bid to integrate incompatible technologies. But the detractors are falling silent as the system turns a corner in its first year."

And things are continuing to look up:

"Boasting an impeccable safety record so far, THSR plans to increase daily trips from 113 to 176 and post profits next year...Already, a new ticketing policy is boosting passenger traffic. In November, THSR added open seating, while reducing fares by 20 percent, for seats in three train cars, a policy that saw passenger traffic jump from 1.44 million passengers in October to 2 million in December. And so popular is the policy that THSR plans to extend it indefinitely..."

I still have my doubts about the long-term viability of the shinkansen here. I'm fascinated with the technology (I've ridden the shinkansen in Japan numerous times, from Hakata 博多 to Hachinohe 八戸, and many points in between), and I wish the project success, but I wonder if Taiwan is large enough to really need such an expensive transportation system. Could that $15 billion have been spent on something less glamorous, but more vital to daily life, such as improvements to infrastructure?

Hirsch, however, remains optimistic:

"...2 million riders monthly is a far cry from the 3.6 million passengers, each paying at least 1,000 Taiwan dollars (¥3,350), that THSR needs to start settling its debts and making a profit. Nonetheless, 'THSR expects to break even in the latter half of this year,' (Ted) Chia (vice president of the THSR public affairs division) said, adding the network will run 176 daily trips by then. So even though THSR is running deep in the red, its future could be bright. This year's goals...include improving ticketing systems and inducing convenience stores to serve as ticket outlets. Local personnel are meanwhile increasing as THSR internalizes its Eastern and Western technologies...Another key goal this to employ 100 Taiwanese drivers as foreign drivers dwindle. Long-term plans include developing about 92 hectares of land in five 'business districts' near the line, a business opportunity for THSR as its bullet trains drive up real estate near stations...THSR manages the land under government contract. Next year, THSR plans to break ground on a 12-km extension to the Nangang 南港 District in Taipei with operations starting in 2011. Construction of three more stations on the current line will follow..."

The Daily Yomiuri ザ・デイリー読売, by the way, has an article today on how Japan's shinkansen lines are financed ("Shinkansen plans face funding woes"), which sheds light on the different approaches to building bullet train lines in Japan and Taiwan.

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