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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007, 14:03 GMT
The bullet train bites in Taiwan
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taipei

Taiwan's new high speed train service - which begins commercial operations on Friday - is expected to herald the start of a transport revolution on the island.

Taiwan's high speed train (file photo)
The train reaches speeds of 300 kilometres per hour

The service could change the way people work and live along Taiwan's densely populated western corridor, which is home to more than 90% of its 23 million population.

Travelling on the sleek white and orange trains at speeds of up to 300km/h (186 mph) will see journey times between the capital, Taipei, in the north, and Kaohsiung, the island's second largest city in the south, slashed from more than four hours to just 90 minutes.

"With the opening of the high speed rail, Taiwan island will become Taiwan city," predicts Hank Huang, at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.

He has been studying the economic impact that the world's largest BOT (build-operate-transfer) project, costing nearly $15bn, is likely to have.

"Travel times and costs will dramatically decrease, communications between cities will be far easier, and Taiwan city can compete with the top Asian cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai," Mr Huang said.

I have the confidence that the more people ride on this train, the more confidence they will have
Ou Chin-der
THSRC chief executive officer

In the first phase of operation, 19 trains will run return journeys each day.

The operator, the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation (THSRC), hopes to attract 150,000 passengers per day.

The company hopes to quickly expand services to full capacity of 88 round trip journeys per day.

Currently, there are eight stations along the 345km (214 mile) line, although one 10 km section of the line from Taipei to Banciao will not be open in the initial stage.

There are plans for four new stations to be added to the system by 2010.

Classroom tests

Journalists were recently invited to check out the train in a test ride.

Our journey was fast, smooth and trouble free.

map

But two minor derailments during test runs had prompted the postponement of the inauguration ceremony, planned for 7 December.

With so many concerns raised over safety issues, our tour included a stop at the system's operation control centre in Taoyuan county.

This involved a peek inside a classroom where new drivers - who had only previously driven trains capable of maximum speeds of 80km/h - were being tested in simulated training exercises.

Each driver receives more than 1,000 hours of training - including simulated and on-the-job exercises - over an eight month period.

The instruction is all in English, and experienced international high speed train experts have been recruited as tutors.

But the high speed rail project has had image problems and became mired in controversy, almost from the start.

The decision to switch from the European Eurotrain consortium to a Japanese consortium offering Shinkansen, or bullet train technology, proved costly.

Train drivers' training centre
Drivers are being taught how to cope with the faster speeds

The THSRC eventually agreed to pay the European consortium $65m in compensation.

There were technical, construction and financing problems.

And the system's original target opening date, 2003, was delayed several times.

Concept towns

Despite the negative publicity, Ou Chin-der of the THSRC predicted that the service will get enough customers and break even within a year.

Under its BOT contract, the company has operating rights for the high speed rail system and stations for 35 years, before management is transferred to the government.

It will also operate and develop businesses in station special zones for a 50 year period.

"The traffic volume, the demand is extremely high, but it will depend on... how many trains we can run," he told the BBC.

But he also admitted that people still had reservations about the system.

Train passengers
Officials believe the train will change Taiwan's economic face

"Frankly, they still don't have sufficient confidence. Its just because of the media. But I have the confidence that the more people ride on this train, the more confidence they will have," he said.

The government has high expectations of the new transport link. It hopes the rail service will foster more balanced regional economic development.

More than 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres) of land has been set aside for multi-million dollar new town developments around five stations.

Lu Hsiang-hwa, deputy chief engineer at the Bureau of High Speed Rail, showed off computer generated designs for the five areas - which will be jointly developed by his bureau and the THSRC.

Each station will have a different development concept.

If these areas can't build a local character industry to pull some people in, I fear they will die
Professor Stone Shih
Taipei's Soochow University

He is convinced the high speed rail will strongly influence Taiwan's future development.

"Most people now live in cities; but maybe the rail can help to revolutionise lifestyles. People can live in the suburbs and go to work in the station district areas," he said.

But the images and maps in the brochures so far remain plans on paper.

Previous attempts to develop new towns in Taiwan have failed - largely because they have lacked integrated transport and communication facilities.

And it could take several decades for the new towns to mature.

Not everyone is convinced the high speed rail will have such positive benefits.

Professor Stone Shih, a specialist in urban sociology at Taipei's Soochow University, fears poorer areas - such as Yunlin and Changhua counties - could suffer as people migrate towards what he calls extended metropolitan areas.

"Taipei and Kaohsiung are like magnets... pulling people towards the two cores," he said.

"People can't find good jobs, good leisure facilities in smaller, local areas. They'll push to move near the cores.

"If these areas can't build a local character industry to pull some people in, I fear they will die," he warned.


SEE ALSO
Taiwan seals bullet train deal
13 Jun 00 |  Business
Eurotrain sues over Taiwan train deal
13 Jan 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Taiwan
07 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Taiwan
02 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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