Venturing Forth —Taiwan’s Branch Rail Lines


2017 / April

Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Robert Green

Extending into remote townships, rural backwaters, and coastal areas, the branch lines of the Taiwan Railways Administration network are giving passengers on Taiwan’s main north‡south rail lines the opportunity to set out in search of new adventures.

Coastal lines snaking between land and sea, remote unmanned stations that seem enveloped in the stillness of a lost world…. Away from the busy main lines, branch lines offer riders the opportunity to venture forth on journeys of the soul—escaping hectic realities and rediscovering themselves.

In order to promote tourism, in 2011 the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) joined with travel companies to develop “cruise-style” train travel from ­Yongle Station in Su’ao, Yi­lan County, southward to ­Fangye Station in Ping­tung County. As a result, underused and gradually forgotten rural stations are experiencing new visitor traffic.

“In addition to providing transportation, the plan will further boost railway culture,” says ­Hsiao Kuan-chun, product manager for ezTravel, an online travel agency.

When the TRA decided to develop tourism activities, it enlisted the cooperation of ezTravel to offer trial runs for cruise-style trains between Shu­lin in New Tai­pei City and Su’ao, and between Hua­lien Station and Guan­shan in Tai­tung County. In 2011, after the tourist trains proved popular with riders, a plan was adopted to offer cruise-style services at least once a month. The services differ from traditional rail travel packages that provide for stops only at major stations along the eastern and western mainline routes. The new itineraries also include visits to smaller stations such as Feng­tian in Hua­lien County and Duo­liang in Tai­tung.

For example, ­Fangye Station in Ping­tung, which doesn’t even have a platform, and the normally disused ­Shanli Station in Tai­tung, which was described by author Liu Ka-­shiang as the “unreachable station,” are both included in the rail tourism program, as is ­Miaoli’s Qi­ding Station, which is highly popular with tourists. Unlike the hurly-burly of major stations, the unmanned Qi­ding sees fewer than 100 passengers pass through daily. Not far from the station, the Zimu (“mother and child”) Tunnels—two short tunnels left unused after the tracks were rerouted, and now open to visitors—present a scene reminiscent of the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, in which the main character escapes reality and enters a dreamlike tunnel setting.

Jialu Station in Tai­tung, known as the largest of the TRA’s minor stations, is also included in the itinerary. ­Hsiao explains that ­Jialu Station, located on the South Link Line, formerly functioned as a railway marshaling yard. “Although ­Jialu does not boast a large station structure or many passengers, it has the air of a major station,” says ­Hsiao.

In order to give passengers a taste of the leisurely pace of unmanned stations, the itinerary allows passengers to disembark at stops such as ­Fangye and ­Shanli, and also slows down to 20 kilometers per hour while passing through, so that passengers can enjoy the languid pace of branch-line travel.

The unique character of the branch lines

The resurgence of the minor stations has been paralleled by the return of tourism to the branch lines. Aside from the well-known ­Pingxi, Jiji and Nei­wan lines, the opening of the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in Keelung in 2014 spurred the reopening of the ­Shen’ao Line, which had been withdrawn from service.

“If the TRA main lines are the main dishes, the branch lines are like side dishes offering different flavors,” says Professor Su ­Zhaoxu, a railway expert. Which branch line is his favorite? Su explains with a chuckle that in his view each branch line has its own special characteristics.

For example, he says, “Riding the ­Shen’ao Line is all about the sea views.” From Rui­fang Station to Ba­douzi Station, the ­Shen’ao Line hugs the sea along Taiwan’s Northeast Coast with mountains on one side and water on the other, presenting a romantic spectacle reminiscent of the Eno­shima Electric Railway that runs through the Shō­nan coastal area in Japan’s Ka­na­gawa Prefecture.

The ­Shen’ao Line, located in the northeastern corner of Taiwan, is at present the northernmost TRA branch line and the one with the steepest gradient. The origins of the line can be traced to 1936, when the Japanese Mining Corporation built a light rail line at Lian­dong (Shui­nan­dong) on the coast below Jin­gua­shi to transport minerals to the harbor. The next year it was extended through ­Shen’ao and Ba­douzi to Ba­chi­men. This freight line was also used by local residents to travel between Rui­fang and Kee­lung.

Because of the construction of Provincial Highway 2, which runs along the coast, and the decommissioning of the ­Shen’ao Coal Power Plant, the rail line ceased operating for a time. Service was revived only after the opening of the National Museum of Marine Science and Technology in Ba­douzi, Kee­lung, when the ­Shen’ao Line once again became a scenic coastal route.

The Old Mountain Line, running between ­Sanyi in ­Miaoli and Feng­yuan in Tai­chung, which was for a time included in the cruise-style train tourism program, offers spectacular mountain vistas entirely different from the coastal Shen’ao Line.

The Old Mountain Line passes by the ruined Yu­teng­ping Bridge (better known as the Long­teng Bridge), and is considered a potential World Heritage Site. The bridge was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake in 1935. Although the Old Mountain Line has now been superseded by the New Mountain Line, its construction in 1908 was of epochal significance. Running from ­Sanyi in the north to Feng­yuan in the south, the line constituted the last stretch of Taiwan’s western main line. At that time, the sections of the line north of ­Miaoli and south of Tai­chung were already in service. Connecting them together would create a single transportation network running the length of Taiwan. Because the Mountain Line helped link the north and the south, it became common to say that the opening of the Mountain Line connected the whole island.

New possibilities for old lines

The well-known Jiji, Nei­wan, and ­Pingxi branch lines each possess their own unique qualities. But in Su ­Zhaoxu’s opinion, Taiwan has a treasure trove of other branch lines that could be renovated and put back into service.

Su would first like to see the reinstatement of the final stage of the ­Shen’ao Line, connecting to Lian­dong. The ­Shen’ao Line currently terminates at Ba­douzi Station, and the final stage would run along the coast to ­Lian­dong. There, if a cable car system could be built to take visitors up to the old mining towns of Jin­gua­shi and Jiu­fen, this would provide even better access to the unique scenery of the Northeast Coast.

Su’s next priority would be the Hua­lien Harbor Line, which runs beside the Pacific Ocean. The line’s construction was an important part of the Ten Major Construction Projects initiated by the central government in the 1970s. It is one of three existing harbor lines operated by the TRA, and the azure ocean views leave a lasting impression. At present, however, the line used solely for freight transportation. If it could be converted for passenger service, it would be ideal for sightseeing.

In Su’s opinion Ping­tung’s Dong­gang Line also has considerable potential for further development. The 6.2-kilometer line, which runs between ­Zhen’an and Dong­gang, was part of the western main line until 1940, when the main line was extended southward from ­Zhen’an to Fang­liao, and the Dong­gang Line became a branch line. Before it ceased operating in 1991 the Dong­gang Line faced considerable competition from highway transportation. As ridership plummeted, it was finally taken out of service.

However, this branch line in the far south of Taiwan once ran beside fish farms with their plumes of spray glistening in the sunlight. If service resumed the former military base at Da­peng Bay, Dong­gang’s famous bluefin tuna, and the ­Wangye Boat Burning Festival would all become special attractions for the line.

Su speaks of railway lines in passionate detail. For him, they offer a journey of the spirit and the opportunity for the leisurely enjoyment of surrounding sights without having a driver’s worry about the road ahead. At times, train travel can awaken memories of the past. “Traveling by train is a journey through memories of all types,” Su says.

“Train stations are gateways to hometowns and citadels of nostalgia. Their platforms are stages for meeting and separating. The railway channels desires and memories. Through each branch line runs a distinct emotional current,” says Su, describing the charm of TRA branch lines.                                                       

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