August 30, 2013
Trains in Taiwan
We are often asked about the best way to get around Taiwan, and trains are definitely an important link in the transport chain.
The first thing to point out is that Taiwan isn't that big, and so the rail network is not as extensive as somewhere like Japan. In fact the total length is only around 1500 km, but hey, size isn't everything. It's also worth pointing out that the central spine of Taiwan consists of a substantial mountain range, meaning the only place you can cross Taiwan is in the southern county of Pingtung. More on that later.
The first line in Taiwan started operation in 1891 from Taipei to Keelung, although development really took off during the Japanese occupation. There are a couple of great maps available on the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) website, showing an overview of the lines (http://www.railway.gov.tw/en/images/big_map.jpg) and every station in the network (http://www.railway.gov.tw/Upload/UserFiles/tra_line_e.pdf). Note that the TRA is separate from the Taiwan High Speed Rail, but more on that later.
There are four different types of train in the TRA network, from fastest to slowest, tze chiang, ju guang, fu hsing and local (which is the shame as fu hsing but you can't reserve seats). The ticket prices are also highest for the tze chiang trains. Seats can be reserved in the first three classes of train, however standing is also allowed. It's best to book in advance, and you can book up to two weeks in advance via the website (http://railway.hinet.net/net_eng.htm) or at any train station. While it's not the easiest booking system in the world, if you successfully pay for the tickets you can pick them up from the station up to 30 minutes before the train departs.
Allegedly it is possible to purchase a rail pass, however as you will still need to confirm seats it is probably easier to book the tickets as needed. Plans are afoot to make the process much easier with an around the island tourist train and I'll post again when this takes effect.
Essentially train travel in Taiwan is either along the east or west coast. The east coast is by far the more scenic route, and the section that runs across the island from Kaohsiung to Taitung is also well worth the trip. The Taroko Express is a fairly new addition and, and cuts the time from Taipei to Hualien to around two hours from the three hours it used to be by using tilting trains. As I've mentioned before, Taroko Gorge is one of my favourite places in the world, and you would usually get there from Hualien, hence the name of the train. The west coast is perhaps more functional, and I therefore recommend the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) network (http://www.thsrc.com.tw/en/).
The THSR is the Taiwanese equivalent of the Japanese bullet train. It is very well run and stretches from Taipei to Kaohsiung (although the last station is called Zuoying, it is in Kaohsiung). The website is somewhat more modern that the TRA website, and it is pretty straightforward to book tickets online with a credit card then pick up the tickets from the station (or certain convenience stores through the electronic ticket machines, but you will need to read Chinese for this).
Honourable mention must also be given to the branch lines of Pingxi, Neiwan and Chichi. I've written before about Pingxi and Neiwan, and Chichi is noteworthy as being the epicentre of the great earthquake of September 21st 1999.
We are also frequently asked about the Alishan mountain railway. Unfortunately, it is still not possible to take it from Chiayi as repairs from typhoon damage are still ongoing. There is no information on when it will open at present, but I will post if there are any developments. Having been on this journey before it was closed, it is not hard to imagine how difficult it is to make repairs. For the moment though, you'll have to take the bus.
Another common query is about steam trains. Unfortunately, there are no regular trips so you have to watch out for one of the special events. For the last few years there have been trips from Sanyi in Miaoli, however the tickets sell out in minutes. If I get any information, I'll be sure to let you know.
Also worthy of mention are the lunch boxes on the TRA. They are generally considered to be the best lunch box you can buy in Taiwan, so you really have to try one.
Enjoy your trip!
•Previous article: Bali Taiwan Style
•Next article: The End of Summer