Riding the Taiwan High Speed Rail

When booking my flight back to Bangkok, I was able to find a cheaper fare if I included a 15-hour layover in Taipei.  Not only did this save money, it also afforded me enough time to finally take a ride on Taiwan’s High Speed Rail system.

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A trio of trains sits in the winter sun at Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the Taiwan High Speed Rail. 

I’ve prepared a seven-minute video that tells the whole story, embedded below.  Or else you can just browse a selection of pictures and descriptions below.  Your choice.

After a nearly 15-hour flight from Los Angeles, of which I managed to sleep more than 10, I arrived in Taipei a few minutes before 6:00 in the morning.  My extended layover had caught the attention of EVA staff, who met me at the entrance to the security screening for connecting passengers.  The agent wanted to know what I was going to do for that length of time.  If I was going to go into the city, she explained, they wanted my boarding pass back.  That way they would know when I had returned and checked in again, reducing the uncertainty of a potentially missing connecting passenger.

Not keen on doing that, I explained that I was going to go through security and wait in the lounge.  “Okay,” the agent said, “but if you come back please stop by the customer service counter and give us your boarding pass.”

“Sure,” I lied.

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For this final leg of the trip, I cashed in some miles and upgraded to business class.  The only reason to do this is that the lounge facilities are nicer and there was a risk I’d end up having to stay in the lounge the whole time if my plans to go into the city went awry. 

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First thing upon arriving in the empty lounge was to take a shower.  My tote bag contained three changes of clothes: one for the previous night in LA, one for this morning after arrival in Taipei, and a third for the end of the day before heading home to Bangkok.  One key to comfortable long-haul travel is to be able to change your clothes every so often.  Fifty hours is too long for one outfit!

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After the shower and a shave I enjoyed a spot of breakfast from the lounge.  The food is better than you might expect and there is a variety of both western and Asian food.  A latte helped wake me from my drug-induced drowsiness and steeled me for my day ahead.

On the way out of the lounge, I explained that I was going to go out for a while and inquired whether I would have any problem re-entering the lounge since they had already taken my invitation card.  “No worries, sir,” I was told.  “Do you want to leave your bag in a locker?”

That was a helpful offer as I would otherwise have had to pay for a rental locker in the main terminal building, something that isn’t very expensive but made for one more step.  My bag securely stored in a complimentary locker in the lounge, I walked back downstairs through security (explaining to the guard that I had gone the wrong way and had meant to go to immigration), passed the EVA agent who had spoken to me about getting my boarding pass (didn’t make eye contact; just kept walking), and continued to Immigration, where I was the last person in a modest queue.

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After breezing through Immigration and Customs, I followed the signs to the High Speed Rail shuttle bus.  This is U-bus number 705.  The ticket counter is inside the doors and the service, which runs every 20 minutes or so, was just 30 NTD (about US$1).  Interestingly, I had thought that it was a free service, but it seems to only be free for the return portion.

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The Taoyuan HSR station is a ten-minute drive from the airport.  The station itself isn’t much to look at from the outside, although the interior is clean and inviting.

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Across from the HSR station is the construction site for the Taoyuan Airport MRT line, which will provide direct rail service to the airport starting in 2013.  This will ease some of the load off the High Speed Rail as there seem to be many passengers who use the HSR to connect to and from the city, causing a surge of passengers on this approximately 36 km portion of the route.  Once the MRT line is open, the High Speed Rail will be used by the longer distance passengers while local passengers can just use the MRT.  It will also provide an easier connection for passengers riding the HSR from points south and then connecting to the airport, eliminating the bus ride.

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The interior of the Taoyuan station, modern but plain.  Lots of clear signage, though.

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The Zuoying station, the southern terminus of the HSR, has a much more spacious looking terminal, similar to many recently built airport terminals.  

After purchasing my tickets and stopping by Starbucks for another latte (they have Starbucks at each of the HSR stations, save one, as I learned in the seat back pocket magazine), I descended to the platform and waited less than five minutes for my train to arrive.  Service seems to run about once every half-hour, although there are some express trains that run in between, skipping many of the stations on the route.

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For the southbound journey, I bought a ticket in the economy cabin for NTD 1330, or about US$ 44.  This is for a roughly 300km journey that took 1 hour, 40 minutes.  An airline ticket (although the HSR has resulted in a significantly reduced the number of flights offered each day) is about twice that much and takes about one hour, not including check-in time, etc.

The seating is five-abreast in seats very comparable to airline economy class seats.  With the exception of three of the cars, seats are assigned.  Unassigned seats cost NTD 1260, a modest discount.

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While I haven’t done a lot of train travel, I can understand the appeal.  These seats are similar to an airplane’s but have much more legroom and the ability to get up and move around the cabin any time you want.  Compared to the experience on an airplane these days, the train sure looks like a nicer way to travel. 

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The train also offers two cars of business class, which I tried on the return trip.  The fare for the same Taoyuan to Zuoying is NTD 1760, a 32% premium over economy class.  For the money you get a wider seat – only two-by-two seating – and several other features.  Notice, though, that the carpet in the aisle is badly worn.

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Legroom is even greater than in economy, with wide armrests to ensure you aren’t elbowing your seatmate.  The footrest confused me a bit.  The only position it folded to was nearly on the floor of the train, which doesn’t raise your feet very comfortably.

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Several channels of music are available, although you have to bring your own headset.  In this day and age, I wonder if anyone is not already traveling with their own digital music player?

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The business class seats also come with power plugs in case you want to recharge your digital music player, phone, etc.  Interesting that they are not the three-prong grounded plug.

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The back of each tray table has a map showing the amenities on the twelve-car train.  These include a trio of vending machines as well as several lavatories.  There are also phone booths but they do not actually have any telephones in them.  Maybe just a quiet spot in case you need to make a call?

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Attendants roll up and down the aisles with snack carts, featuring drinks and food items.

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My business class ticket entitled me to a free beverage (coffee – not too bad, actually), snack mix, and a chocolate cake/cookie thing.

My overall impression of the system, which reaches its fifth anniversary on January 5, is very positive.  The timing was perfect, as I had listened to a KQED podcast about California’s High Speed Rail Commission just a few days before and was thinking about the pros and cons of building a high speed rail system there.  There is also an initiative here in Thailand to get Chinese investment to help build four high speed rail routes, so I was very keen to have the chance to actually try high speed rail.

Ultimately, high speed rail is an expensive proposition.  But it is also one that can be very convenient to use and bring a lot of benefits to a state or country, not the least of which is a reduction in automobile and aircraft trips, which are less efficient than rail.  I’m not saying that high speed rail is necessarily the right choice for California or for Thailand, but it is certainly worth exploring.

 

0 thoughts on “Riding the Taiwan High Speed Rail

  1. that’s an nice report! actually if Thailand is really thinking of getting a HSR, they shd check out this from Taiwan first rather than the China’s one, because of the accident last Jul…..anyway tks for sharing

  2. An interesting way to spend an extended layover!! I am glad that you made it home…did you find the flooding situation had gotten a lot better while you were gone? We watched a documentary last night on the Tsunami in Japan…unbelievable…the power of rushing water!! Happy New Year to you and Tawn!!! Ruth Ann

  3. Thanks for the interesting post. I would to do the same trip. Here, the high speed rail system has been rejected by the governor who turned down a federal grant.

  4. Thanks for the video! I opted to watch the video and it brought such good memories! The high speed rail is such a convenient way to travel and so affordable. I’ve also taken a ride on the old style trains which is also an adventure on its own. Much slower and cheaper but very good for people watching! I wish we had a high speed rail in Canada too going all the way east/west but I doubt that would ever happen…

  5. Here’s to novel ways to spend a layover! In the spring, a friend and I used a 14-hour layover in Seoul to visit Panmunjom and the DMZ, then stroll through town to shop for a few hours afterwards. (With the added bonuses of high speed rail link between Incheon and the city, and the wonderful shower cabins in the Asiana lounge, much like you experienced!).I find the value-pricing propositions in some countries very curious, as you noted. Assigned seating on your train was only a 5% price increase over unassigned seating. At least the business class seating price differential made a little more sense. A few years ago in Brazil, I took an inter-city coach from Rio to Sao Paulo; the “business class” seats (reserved, bigger seats, full recline, blankets, pillows, meal service, etc.) were maybe less than 10% more expensive than the coach tickets — perhaps $16.25 instead of $15.I missed the debut of HSR in Taiwan; I was there about 4 months before it opened; it definitely would have changed what we did while in Taiwan — we decided that air travel from one part to another would be a pain, and didn’t want to use up precious travel time on the former slower train system. So, we just stayed in Taipei. For another time, I guess!John and I very much want the California HSR to happen, though it is certainly turning into a mess. Having a 2.5 hour trip from LA to SF by train would dramatically increase our intrastate travel. We don’t go to SF often because of the current inconvenience of doing so — it takes close to 8 hours on Amtrak, 5 hours by car, or 1 hour by plane — which often turns into almost 4 hours due to airport logistics and frequent fog delays or flight cancellations.

  6. You certainly benefited with the long lay over. Very educational. You always make the best out of every hour that you have in the day, it seems. The video was great. I could actually feel the speed.Thanks for that great comment on my rant. I agree with you one hundred percent. I went ahead and made it private.Happy New Year Chris.

  7. This is a great travel guide, you should write them! I’m always envious of how International flights have cooler stuff than domestic flights.  Even the snack looks interesting! Those trains look amazing, America is falling behind thanks to certain political ………. voters.

  8. @agmhkg – Yes, you would think that with China’s recent high speed rail misfortunes, maybe Thailand should forgo their help with a new rail system.  That said, I think what Thailand really needs to do is just build double tracks (and upgrade them) throughout the whole rail network.  In most places, there is just a single track and this causes a lot of delays.  It would be a lot cheaper and would vastly improve the network productivity.@stevew918 – Thanks for the recommendation, Steve.  I tried to make sure everyone ended the year with a little education!  Ha ha…@CurryPuffy – Thailand would be well served by a better rail system, wouldn’t it?@The_Eyes_Of_A_Painter – Actually, that’s something I always try to be cognizant of.  What’s I’ve noticed, though, is that in a lot of places (including Taiwan) I was far from the only tourist snapping photos!  Especially when police or military are around, I certainly play it conservatively.@bmojsilo – Glad you liked it and thanks for the recommendation.@Redlegsix – Yes, the waters have receded here in Thailand.  Lots and lots of damage to be cleaned up, though.  I read somewhere that water (floods, etc.) causes more damage each year than any other type of natural disaster.@Fatcat723 – I recall reading about the governor’s decision to reject the federal funding.  I also read some analyses, though, that suggested that the project really wasn’t the best use of high speed rail, but was the most ready-to-go.  Don’t know if that was true, though.@brooklyn2028 – From what I’ve read, high speed rail works best in situations where the distance is up to about 600 km or so.  Not sure if a full east-west line in Canada would work, but Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal would seem an obvious route.@homealiven45 – When I first thought about it, I wondered if it was a tad ambitious.  In the end, it really was just a morning trip.@mike august – I’ve had a few long layovers in Incheon over the years and the timing has yet to work out to do a short excursion.  One of these days, though.  Have done it in Tokyo, though, where the little town of Narita is just a short distance from the airport.  Great grilled eel.@icepearlz – Hope you enjoyed!@ZSA_MD – Thanks for the recommendation, Dr. Z.  As for your post, I didn’t intend to suggest that you should pull it from the public domain.  Just wanted to encourage you to enter the new year with a positive outlook.  They say that what you do on the first day of the year sets the tone for the next 364 days.@DivaJyoti – Glad you enjoyed.  You know, I watched a documentary last week titled “Urbanized” and as it showed examples of how cities in various countries have tackled urban layout and transit issues, it reminds me that it *isn’t* inevitable that the US has to be such a car-centric, pedestrian unfriendly country.  We can change it and have a much more enjoyable quality of life at the same time.

  9. As usual, you do a splendid job on your trip report. I also want to compliment you on your planning and uhm… stealth in leaving the airport. I would have liked a bit more footage on the landing though.

  10. I took the HSR from Taoyuan to Kaoshiong back in 07 (I think) and it was phenomenal πŸ™‚ Well compared to the slow diesel/electric trains we have here that is.

  11. That’s awesome. I don’t agree with their reasoning of having you return the boarding pass either. Probably more in case you don’t return they can fill somebody else in. But the flight’s not even full!HSR looks interesting. I may have to try it some time if I have somewhere to visit haha.

  12. @yang1815 – I can understand their reasoning as they want to know if they’ve lost a passenger, but with advanced on-line check in these days, I guess it is hard to really know where your passengers are anyhow.  What I was most worried about was that they might pull my bags from the flight and forget to reload them.@AzureRecollections – There are so many areas in North America where high speed rail could really revolutionize our transportation networks.  True, there are also many areas where it would not be practical.  

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