The Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA), an agency of the Ministry of Transportation and Communication of Taiwan, is responsible for managing, maintaining, and running passenger and freight services on 1,097 kilometers of conventional railroad lines. In rail transport, track gauge, which is defined as the spacing of the rails on a railway track measured between the inner faces of the load-bearing rails, is important. Taiwan has more than one railway gauge. The gauge for main lines owned by TRA is 1,067mm. Sugarcane Railways are usually 762mm, with some at 1,067mm for connecting to TRA lines. There once existed a long-gone 610mm Sugarcane railroad. Historically, coalmine railroads had gauges of 500mm, 498mm and 610mm while Salt Industry railroads utilized gauges of 762mm. All this may appear incongruous in an orderly nation like Taiwan, but for railroad enthusiasts it represents paradise.
Ali-shan, the Mount Ali Railway, runs on 762mm gauge tracks that were originally constructed by the Japanese Government in 1912 to facilitate the logging of cypress and Taiwania trees. Passenger carriages were first added to the trains in 1918. The completion of the Alishan Highway in 1982 led to the loss of many rail passengers to faster and cheaper buses, and the mountain railroad became primarily a tourist attraction. The line was severely damaged by rains during 2009’s Typhoon Morakot; it was fully reopened to the public on 25 December, 2015.
Taiwan’s government has listed the forest railway as a potential World Heritage Site. However, Taiwan’s exclusion from the United Nations means it is unlikely to be formally recognized in the near future. The main line runs from the city of Chiayi, at 30 meters above the sea, to the final station of Alishan, elevation 2,216 meters, which is more than twice as high as Mount Gimie, whose elevation is a mere 950 meters above sea level. Can you imagine a railway climbing to a height two and a half times higher than Saint Lucia’s tallest mountain? The vegetation along the way changes from tropical to temperate and finally alpine. The line features many switchbacks, or zigzags, on the way up the mountain.
As in Saint Lucia, sugar was once an important part of the economy in Taiwan and, just as in Saint Lucia, tramways or railways transported produce from the fields. The Taiwan Sugar Railways were an extensive series of narrow gauge railways that centred on the many sugar mills in southern and central Taiwan, radiating outwards through sugarcane fields and small towns. Most of the lines were also linked with stations allowing passengers to transfer to long distance trains. In their heyday, the Sugar Railways included over 3,000 km of track. Regular passenger service was discontinued due to the increasing urbanization of Taiwan and the dominance of highways. For many Taiwanese the railways preserve fond memories of childhood. This is how some people remember those days (I have not corrected their English):
“The Taiwan sugar trains are many people’s beautiful childhood memory, especially for many village boys at that time. My family had have planted sugar plants for one long time. It was one pleasing season when the sugar plants were harvested, many sugar farmers, including my family, harvested their sugar plants, putted them on oxcart and pulled them to the train cars. In that time, it seemed to be one harvest festival.”
“When I were a little kid, most land-use of my village was sugar plants. Taiwan Sugar’s railway crossed my village and just about 100 meters away my home. I remember the village boys, including me, invented many games regarding sugar trains. For example, we put nails on railway, the pattern of nails become sword patterns after train passing. I still remember the train almost across my village on time. So, the village boys guessed the train car number first and count them when the train crossed in everyday evening. My father retired from the Pingtung Main Plant of Taiwan Sugar Corporation. He have told me that many employees and the men who want to go to Pingtung could take the sugar train go to Pingtung about 20-30 years ago. Of course, there was no passenger train station along the sugar train railway. You just shook your hands when train was coming and the sugar train would stop and pick you up. It sounds very hospitable. I still remember my childhood’s sugar trains. About 7 years ago, the sugar railway across my village was dismantled and one new road were constructed over the original railway path. Pingtung Main Plant of Taiwan Sugar Plant is shutdown several years ago. For me, railway is dismantled but memory not!”
The US$14.5 billion high-speed rail (HSR) line was built between Taipei and Kaohsiung. Local and intercity passenger services operating from 5am to 1am with very few overnight trains, maintain a 95.3% on-time record. 2008 annual passenger ridership was 179 million travelling 5.45 billion passenger-miles and generating US$434 million in revenue. You may not be interested in railways, but you have to admit that railways in Taiwan are serious business. It’s sad in a way that Saint Lucia has not preserved its numerous estate tramways and railways; they would have provided an educational and entertaining experience for visitors and locals alike. And think about it – an electric railroad through the Barre de l’Isle or round the island, what an experience that would be!