Ko-Thih sui-jiân thong-chhia-a,
Tān-sī, kài-sêng bô siáⁿ-mi̍h-lâng beh kā phâng-tiûⁿ,
Góa tiō-bē, thài-kùi ko thái-hûi-hiám-á,
Í-āu ū ki-hōe chiah lâi-khí che.
TAIPEI, Taiwan, Dec. 28 — The sleek, bulbous-nosed new bullet trains here look like they are designed to whisk passengers across wide-open spaces. But on this congested island, they represent the start of a 180-mile-per-hour commuter train system.
After a quarter century of planning and construction, the system is scheduled to open on Jan. 5. It will tie together cities and towns where 94 percent of Taiwan’s population lives, offering an alternative to clogged highways and the air pollution the vehicles on them produce.
For some urban planners and environmentalists, the project is an example of how Asia may be able to control oil imports, curb fast-rising emissions of global-warming gases and bring a higher standard of living to enormous numbers of people in an environmentally sustainable way.
Passengers who travel on a fully loaded train will use only a sixth of the energy they would use if they drove alone in a car and will release only one-ninth as much carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming. Compared with a bus ride, the figures are half the energy and a quarter of the carbon dioxide, train system officials said.
But the system’s enormous cost — $15 billion, or $650 for every man, woman and child on Taiwan — has made it a subject of dispute. And a series of commercial disputes since the project began in 1980 has produced a remarkable hodgepodge: French and German train drivers who are allowed to speak only English with Taiwanese traffic controllers while operating Japanese bullet trains on tracks originally designed by British and French engineers.
The system has become so complex that the leader of Taiwan’s consumer movement is calling for citizens to boycott it entirely until extensive safety data is released.
“Cherish your life, don’t be a guinea pig,” Cheng Jen-hung, the chairman of the Consumers’ Foundation, said in an interview, repeating his group’s slogan. With 900 passengers on a fully loaded train, he warned, “if there is an accident, there will be very heavy casualties.”
Arthur Chiang, the vice president for administration at Taiwan High Speed Rail, said the system was completely safe. But he acknowledged that the project had been bedeviled by opposition.
“Pandora’s box has already opened and everything has come out except hope and mutual trust,” he said during a recent test run on one of the new trains from the capital, Taipei, in the north, to the city of Taichung, in west-central Taiwan. “We just wanted to make it simple, but we failed,” he added. “Politics is one of the factors.”
Using overhead electric lines instead of diesel locomotives, the trains will run from Taipei down through western Taiwan to Kaohsiung, the main industrial city in the south. That is a distance of 215 miles, about the same as between New York and Washington.
The system will start with 19 trains in each direction daily and eventually will be able to handle 88 trains daily in each direction.
Planning started in 1980, when Taiwan was still under martial law. The route was preliminarily picked in 1991, as Taiwan was starting on the path to become the vibrant, even tempestuous, democracy that it is today. Every large city and town along the route lobbied to have its own stop and new railway station, and a succession of governments agreed.
Three trains a day will travel from Taipei to Kaohsiung in 90 minutes, with just one stop, in Taichung. But most of the trains will make six intermediate stops, lengthening travel time to two hours and seven minutes.
That is still 38 minutes faster than Amtrak’s Acela Express between New York and Washington, which also has up to six intermediate stops but a lower top speed. But flights between Taipei and Kaohsiung take just 40 minutes.
Enormous stations resembling state-of-the-art airport terminals have been built on the outskirts of each city along the route except Taipei, where the existing main rail station is being used. The new stations cannot be in most downtown areas because of the difficulty in acquiring land for tracks: the high-speed trains travel almost entirely on specially built, 60-foot-tall viaducts to avoid the need to cross roads.
Smaller trains and buses will link the new stations to downtown.
Although many urban planners see systems like this one as positive for the environment, Lee Schipper, the research director at Embarq, an environmental transport research group in Washington, said the system could eventually increase the use of energy, rather than save it, if the ease of using the trains encouraged people to move farther away from work.
The expectation in Taiwan is that the train system will attract a lot of users at first, notwithstanding Mr. Cheng’s call for a boycott; the consumer movement here is not as big or visible as it was even 10 years ago.
A French train driver sporting a magnificent handlebar mustache, who declined to give his name, sent Mr. Chiang’s train hurtling down the tracks on the recent test run. The driver said the trains were actually simpler to operate than those in France. “It’s easier, it’s all automatic,” he said in French. But the requirement that all communications take place in English is a complication, he added. The electronic displays in the cabs of each train are also in English.
The Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation is training Taiwanese drivers to replace the European drivers and plans to switch the entire system to spoken Chinese and Chinese-language computer displays in about three years, Mr. Chiang said. The consortium had expected to hire experienced Japanese drivers, but the Japanese companies that made the trains were unable to persuade Japan’s rail system operators to transfer any of their drivers to Taiwan.
Whether the train system becomes a commercial success will partly depend on how many people use its somewhat inconveniently located stations, how quickly the land is developed around these stations and how much the tickets cost. The initial price for a one-way, coach ticket from Taipei to Kaohsiung will be $44, or two-thirds the price of a typical airline ticket.
Riding the train is much like a very low-altitude flight, and very quiet. Chen Chi-cheng, a 5-year-old invited on the test run, watched with fascination as the rooftops of houses flashed past. “It’s like a plane,” he said breathlessly.