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.