Rail check: Taipei-Kaoshiung

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Taiwan can be disorganised, dirty and sometimes downright chaotic – growing as it has from agricultural society to high-tech leader in a single generation. But the island’s shiny new high-speed railway shows none of these faults.

On its own purpose-built US$16 billion track, the sleek 300km/h bullet train slices with indifference through sprawling suburbs and grimy industrial zones, flashing over crowded freeways and surging past trains as if they were standing still. In fact, there are even complaints that the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp (THSRC) has taken this air of aloofness a little too far, by failing to offer in-town ticket sales and skimping on connections to local transport.

The single line runs down the west coast of Taiwan from Taipei in the north to Kaohsiung in the south, with a stop at Taichung. Some trains also call at Hsinchu, Tainan and other stations. The service runs from 0630 to approximately 2200, with three to five trains per hour in each direction. From Taipei to Kaohsiung it takes from 90 minutes to two hours, depending on the number of stops.

It’s common to see HSR (high-speed rail) cars running near-empty at off-peak times. As a result, THSRC is losing money. Some travellers have complained about the difficulty of last-minute ticket purchasing, and poor public transport links to HSR stations. This is significant because most stations are far from the city centres.

I experienced this for myself when I travelled from Kaohsiung International Airport to the city’s HSR station in the northern suburb of Zuoying. Despite Kaohsiung being Taiwan’s second largest city, the only public shuttle service between its two most prestigious transport terminals is a slow and ancient city bus. Fortunately, there will soon be a new subway line covering the route, and metered taxis are available. Nevertheless, this kind of glaring gap in the service suggests a failure to understand that there’s no point hurtling along at 300km/h if the last 15km of the journey takes an hour. In its defence, the THSRC  is gradually building up a free bus service from most stations to city centres, and blames government regulations for the transport issues.

THE SEAT: Standard Class has five seats across, while in Business Class there are four. The reclinable seats are comfortable, although the Business Class accommodation isn’t as sumptuous as a decent airline’s front cabin. The feeling onboard though is far less claustrophobic than air travel, with more legroom in Economy Class and freedom to stroll along the wide aisles whenever you like.

THE JOURNEY: The ride is astonishingly smooth and quiet for a vehicle which is moving faster than a jet airliner at takeoff. The English-speaking staff trundle a trolley with reasonably priced drinks and snacks through the train after each stop – small lunchboxes are also sold at meal times. Business Class travellers get a free drink and snack, plus a 110-volt socket in the seat arm for laptops and the like. Reports of wireless internet onboard are incorrect, however. Be warned that making mobile calls can be frustrating at times as there are 50km of tunnels on the 345-kilometre route.

PRICE: Between Taipei and Kaohsiung (Zuoying), NT$2,440 (US$75) in Business Class, NT$1,490 (US$46) in Standard Class (20 percent discount may be available for Standard Class tickets bought at stations on departure day).

VERDICT: A fast, efficient and stress-free alternative to other means of transport. Far better than driving, unless you are travelling less than 100km, or your destination is very far from an HSR station perhaps. Door-to-door travel time is comparable to air travel. Check local transport to and from HSR stations before you depart, however, as options may be limited.

CONTACT: Book tickets up to two weeks in advance, online at www.thsrc.com.tw, by telephone 886 2 4066 5678 (from 0900 to 2100) or buy them at the station.

Simon Burns


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