The success of the Korean soap opera "Winter Sonata" prompted many Japanese to converge on the sites where the shows were shot, including Myeong-dong in Chuncheon City and Sorakasan National Park. When Shintaro Ishihara, mayor of Tokyo and a friend of Taiwan, came to attend the presidential inauguration on May 20, 2004, he raised this phenomenon with the then premier, Yu Shyi-kun. Since the eastern part of Taiwan is even more scenic than Korea, Ishihara expressed the hope that he would one day be able to tour the Hualian-Taitung region by train. Ishihara further promised that when he did so he would bring along with him Japanese television writers who could turn the region into the setting for a Japanese soap opera. In this way, Taiwan could be introduced to Japan, which would surely attract large crowds of Japanese tourists.
Because of that spark, in late October of that year the Formosa Star, the premier train service of the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), was launched. As promised, Mayor Ishihara was present at the train's debut journey and served as the Formosa Star's spokesman, spreading the news to his countrymen in Japan, who have traditionally been strong supporters of Taiwanese tourism.
After its first journey in October 2004, the Formosa Star ran once a week, its five cars carrying 120 passengers. Seats on the train were difficult to come by, and reservations had to be made three months in advance. The TRA, seeking to capitalize on its success, has since the beginning of this year expanded service to a twice-weekly schedule. Through providing warm and meticulous service, the TRA hopes to bring Taiwan into the age of luxury tourism.
It's 6:30 a.m. at Sungshan Station in Taipei. The Formosa Star slowly pulls into the station, its carriages painted with various well-known scenic spots of Taiwan. Youthful workers move swiftly to load onto the train food items and juices in packages large and small. They then busy themselves with last-minute preparations, boiling water, pouring soy milk and ice-cold juice, heating up breakfast, and laying out the day's newspapers.
At 8:00 a.m. the train pulls into Taipei Station. Female attendants wearing sweet smiles and modified versions of the traditional garb of the Amis Aborigines welcome travelers as they board their cars. Passengers awaiting other trains on the platform cannot help pointing at the Formosa Star out of curiosity and casting envious glances its way.
At 8:15, the Formosa Star begins to move and the stationmaster, who has been waiting for quite a while, gives a friendly wave to the passengers inside, wishing them a wonderful journey as he sends off the slowly departing train with his gaze. Just this moment of departure suffices to demonstrate the way in which this exclusive set of travelers is being pampered.
The royal treatment
The Formosa Star departs Taipei. Its seats, made to custom specifications, resemble an airliner's business class seats. While an ordinary train car will have 52 seats, the Formosa Star's expanded legroom means that each of its cars has only 33. In addition, what used to be rows of four seats are now rows of three seats. Each seat can swivel 360 degrees and includes such features as a hidden meal tray as well as a stereo headrest. Out of five carriages, aside from the three deluxe passenger carriages, there is a dining car as well as a karaoke car.
The four-hour trip from Taipei to Hualien winds along a beautiful coastal route where sea and sky meet. From Hualien to Taitung, the train passes through steep canyons. All of the windows in the Formosa Star have been enlarged so that passengers can lose themselves in the beauty of the surrounding scenery. Some even swivel their seats to face the windows, reveling in the magnificent mountain- and seascapes set to the accompaniment of clacking rails.
According to Hsiao Kuan-chun, product manager for ezTravel, which has been responsible for designing the Formosa Star's itinerary, the ticket price includes four days and three nights of food, lodging, and transportation. Passengers do not have to spend any extra money during the journey, and may enjoy such amenities as unlimited fine wines, drinks, and Starbucks coffee in the dining car.
Since the train leaves at such an early hour, as soon as the passengers are settled, attendants bring out steaming-hot soy milk, rice balls, pork buns, steamed buns, and other foods. For lunch on the first day, passengers are treated to the pleasure of retro-style railway lunchboxes. The lunchboxes, which would cost NT$300 elsewhere, are an essential part of the experience. Passengers are invited to keep these round lunchboxes as souvenirs. Such thoughtful touches delight Japanese passengers, who are aficionados of Taiwan's railways.
Sampling local wares
It was originally thought that since at just past eight in the morning one's singing voice is generally not opened up, there would not be any passengers congregating in the karaoke car. Unexpectedly, a group of 60- and 70-year old passengers gathers in the car, happily singing the Taiwanese and Japanese songs they knew so well.
Among the passengers is Lin Hsien-chi, CEO of Tung Ho Steel Enterprise Corporation. He good-humoredly relates that he was born in 1930. When he found out about the Formosa Star on the Internet, he called together a group of friends and their spouses to come along on this journey. Lin, who has been to 40-some countries, feels that Taiwan has the most enchanting scenery anywhere. To him, even the scenery of South Africa's Cape of Good Hope cannot compare to that of Taiwan's northeastern coast, which now lies before his eyes.
Among the travelers can also be found quite a few foreigners, most of whom are married to Taiwanese, trying to fit in some travel time while on trips back in Taiwan. Wen Pei-yu is the spouse of one of them. She had already heard of the Formosa Star while abroad, and on this holiday trip back home wanted to acquaint her British husband with Taiwan. Her husband stands shyly to one side, nodding and praising the train, exclaiming that the service here is much better than can be found in Great Britain.
Mr. Chen, a Taiwanese living in Japan, has also brought his lovely Japanese wife on a trip back to Taiwan. Though they interact with a Japanese-style reserve, they are inseparable throughout the trip, happily snapping photographic souvenirs. Both express satisfaction with the way the trip has been arranged.
Mr Hsiao of a major Travel Agency says that fine cuisine is one of the main draws of the Formosa Star. On the trip, passengers are provided not only with main meals, but depending on the leg of the journey might enjoy their own portions of "cow tongue" biscuits from Ilan, preserved fruits, mochi and sweet potato snacks from Hualien, apple custard cookies from Taitung, tea biscuits from Luyeh, square cakes from Chiayi, sun cakes from Taichung, and other local specialties designed to create memorable impressions for the palate.
Championing luxury travel
TRA director-general Hsu Ta-wen personally oversees every aspect of the service's operation, and has been praised as the guiding force behind the Formosa Star. As Taiwan's railways undergo transformation, Hsu hopes that they can not only realize their potential for transportation, but give domestic and foreign passengers a way to fully enjoy the beauty of Taiwan through a superior travel experience. Thus, since the Formosa Star's debut, from in-car service, itinerary arrangement, and pricing, to alliances with domestic travel agencies, Hsu has spared no effort in his quest to delight the TRA, travel professionals, and travelers.
In a little more than three months, the Formosa Star has successfully built up a glowing reputation. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Hsu has shouldered considerable pressures and anxieties. While at first there was no budget for the renovation of the rail cars, Hsu gathered together various experts from within the TRA to redo the interiors, and was personally involved in selecting the illustrations that adorn the train's exteriors. He hoped that a vibrant image would appeal to a broad range of travelers and give the Formosa Star a sparkling debut.
Later, when Hsu invited Mayor Ishihara, along with Japanese media and television writers to participate in the Formosa Star's maiden journey, it just so happened that Typhoon Nock-ten also descended upon the island. Roads collapsed, power went out, and all trains were halted. It appeared as if the Formosa Star would not be able to make this journey.
Hsu recalls, "This was a prime opportunity to promote the Formosa Star and Taiwanese tourism. How could I let it slip away just like that!" Girding himself for the challenge, Hsu asked all of his employees to brave the rain and rush to complete the needed repair work, asking them to at least restore one train line. Early the next morning, before departure, a crossing 40 minutes away on the Fulung section of the line was still not repaired. Based on his experience, Hsu reckoned that it could be repaired on time and decided to let the Formosa Star depart on schedule, slowing down for the first part of the journey to buy time. Hsu was calm as he directed affairs in the presence of his superiors, VIPs, and the media. It was not until the train had reached Juifang and he received word that the repairs were done that his burden was finally lifted from him. Unexpectedly, Hsu later came under attack by a portion of the Taiwanese media for what it considered preferential treatment of the Formosa Star. Hsu even had to appear before the legislature and submit to questioning.
The Formosa Star rolls on
The Formosa Star is the hottest ticket in Taiwanese travel right now. However, since the events surrounding that first journey in the typhoon, the service has landed in the headlines again due to squabbles between the Travel Agency and fellow members of an alliance composed of over 30 travel agents that sell railway tour packages around Taiwan. The dispute has centered around an attempt to dislodge alliance member Travel Agent as the sole authorized online vendor for the Formosa Star. One can only attribute such disputes to the competitive culture arising in sluggish economic times.
Lu Chieh-shen, deputy director of the TRA's Transportation Department, responds that the Formosa Star had from the beginning been defined within the luxury segment of the travel industry. He says that Travel Agent won the rights to the route that includes Yuanlai in Hualien, Chihpen in Taitung, and The Lalu at Sun Moon Lake after an impartial evaluation process, so there was nothing improper about that. Other routes such as the Hualien Tourist Train, Hot Spring Princess, Kending Star and South Link Star were taken up by other members of the alliance. These travel agencies would be responsible for their own profits or losses, with the TRA supplying only the transportation infrastructure. This initial agreement, however, was modified at the end of last year, with the TRA taking back a number of the seats on these routes so that travelers who did not want to purchase the entire package would still be able to ride the trains.
As for the Formosa Star, the TRA is responsible not only for transport, but also retains full management rights. Its working relationship with ezTravel is one in which the agency designs travel packages to fit market demands and serves as the Formosa Star's ticket window to the public.
This whole dispute between Travel Agency and the alliance has caused quite a few prospective travelers who had wanted to take the Formosa Star during the Chinese New Year holidays to fear that their tickets might be in jeopardy. To calm its customers, Travel Agency has offered up to NT$100 million as part of the Travel Insurance Fund for New Year's Rail Travel under the auspices of the Travel Quality Assurance Association, ROC. If any passengers are unable to make their journeys because of this dispute, Travel Agency is contractually obligated to reimburse them for double their losses. The TRA, for its part, has promised that passengers' right to travel will not be affected, and that the Formosa Star will continue to run, in cooperation with Travel Agency.
Not just a mode of transportation
The success of the Formosa Star has also led to its being open to attacks. But what people do not realize is all of the effort that has been put forth behind the scenes. Hsu, who traveled all over Taiwan to plan out the Formosa Star's itinerary, says that routes will vary depending on seasonal factors. In the summer, for example, one can view lilies that cover the mountains near Taimali station in Taitung, while in the fall rape flower fields adorn the mountains. As the train heads down the South Link Railway and pulls into Fangliao station in Pingtung, passengers are treated to the enchanting views of a seaside fishing village. Whether it might be possible, without affecting other trains, to make short stops in these scenic spots for passengers to enjoy a cup of coffee, is something that is being carefully considered.
Hsu continually ponders, "How can we promote the scenic beauty of Taiwan? How can we attract international tourists to Taiwan in such a competitive world market?" He points out that after the TRA's recent transformation, the rails should not be seen as simply a transportation device, but as full of potential for travel and tourism. Whether speaking of Taiwan or the TRA, visibility is key, for if there is not continual innovation and improvement Taiwan will be left by the wayside.
The Formosa Star has brilliantly and successfully driven Taiwanese tourism to new heights. Whether it can navigate its current crises is a challenge not only to an idealistic and ambitious TRA, but also one that affects the very future of Taiwanese tourism.
Itinerary Around the Island in Four Days (departs Saturdays)
Day One: Taipei Station - North Link Railway - Luotung - National Center for Traditional Arts - Taroko National Park - Hualien - Hualien Bellevista (overnight)
Day Two: Hualien - Hualien-Taitung Rift Valley - Taitung Bunun tribal village - Chihpen Hot Springs - Hotel Royal Chihpen (overnight)
Day Three: Chihpen - South Link Railway - Tainan City - Changhua - The Lalu at Sun Moon Lake (overnight)
Day Four: Sun Moon Lake excursion - Taichung - Taipei
Price: AUD$TBA per person
Around the Island in Three Days (departs Mondays)
Day One: Taipei Main Station - North Link Railway - Luotung - National Center for Traditional Arts - Taroko National Park - Hualien - Hualien Bellevista (overnight)
Day Two: Hualien - Hualien-Taitung Rift Valley - Taitung Bunun tribal village - Chihpen Hot Springs - Hotel Royal Chihpen (overnight)
Ilha Formosa, which means Beautiful Island, was the name that Portuguese sailors gave to Taiwan when they passed by this island in 1517. No surprise there, as this land, which is only 394 km long and 144 km wide, boasts magnificent scenery that varies from lush mountain ranges flourishing with flora and fauna to the nearly desolate coastline.
For those like me who have the travel bug and who have been stuck in the city too long, it's easy to forget the unaffected beauty that is innate to this country. So when the prospect of joining the Formosa Star tour emerged, I jumped at the opportunity.
A CONVENIENT AND STYLISH EXPERIENCE
A Train for the VIP Traveler
The Formosa Star (å¯¶å³¶ä¹æ) is a luxury train used on a tour that is the first of its kind in Taiwan. The train consists of a total of 5 cars – 3 passenger cars, 1 dining car, 1 entertainment car – and the locomotive. There are a total of 120 seats available on the train, with 33 seats in each of the passenger cars. The tour was specially developed by the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) to provide an experience that couldn't be more convenient and stylish. The tour serves up food, service, accommodations, and tourist spots that meet the highest international standards while incorporating a Taiwanese theme that is central to its uniqueness.
The tour was formally launched on October 30, 2004, the Star running during the weekends. You can choose either a 4-day/3-night tour that circles the island clockwise or a 3-day/2-night tour that takes you down the east coast with a flight back to Taipei. On its way the train makes stops to allow visits to places such as the National Center for Traditional Arts (åç«å³çµ±èè¡ä¸å¿) in Yilan County (å®èç¸£), Taroko National Park (å¤ªé¯é£åå®¶å ¬å) in Hualien County (è±è®ç¸£), Bunun Aboriginal Village (å¸è¾²é¨è½) and the hot-spring resort of Jhihben (ç¥æ¬) in Taitung County (å°æ±ç¸£), the old city of Tainan (å°å) on the southwest coast, and charming Sun Moon Lake (æ¥ææ½) in central Taiwan.
Depending on whether you join the 3-day or the 4-day tour, your trip will either end at the beautiful coastal town of Taitung (which marks the end of the 3-day tour), before you fly back to Taipei, or you will continue your train journey to the southern city of Kaohsiung before following the west coast back north. Along the way you will also visit the old city of Tainan, and make a side trip to Sun Moon Lake, where you will stay in one of the finest hotels in Taiwan, before returning to Taipei.
Traveling in Style
Before I hopped aboard the train, ready for launch on the 3-day tour, the first thing that struck me was the painted design on the train’s exterior. Sunny skies, Chinese temples, and picturesque landscapes decorate the sides. The next thing that caught my eye was the smiling, friendly faces of the staff in their bright, aboriginal costumes. I smiled back at them as they came and greeted each passenger.
I found the passenger cars extremely comfortable. The chairs are quite wide and are very well padded. There is ample legroom in the cars, as chairs are evenly spaced and are limited to three seats a row. In addition, the chairs can turn 360 degrees so that passengers have the option of turning to face friends, family, or passing scenery.
Wandering into the dining car, I discovered that drinks and refreshments are served to passengers at all times. The car is stocked with a variety of drinks. Passengers can choose from a selection of red and white wine, champagne, beer, bottled water, an assortment of fruit juices, tea and coffee. All drinks and snacks are included in the tour fee, so you can freely quench your thirst and partake of the assorted nuts and snacks that are readily available on the train.
And should you get bored, you can always head to the entertainment car. There, you will find a fully outfitted karaoke bar at your disposal for you to sing your heart out. However, if singing is not your thing, then you may also grab one of the many magazines that are available at the counter. There are also cards and some board games available for you and your fellow travelers to pass the time.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
A traditional Chinese breakfast of steamed buns and soybean milk was served on the first day of the tour. Our tour guide laughingly explained that they have already taken into consideration that some travelers might not have had breakfast yet and that this was out of gratitude for everyone's huge sacrifice of getting up early in the morning.
Despite having eaten already, I couldn't pass up the chance to try out their special breakfast and so I gave in to the tantalizing aroma of the food as the staff wheeled the cart by each passenger. I am happy to say that the food was as good as it smelled and I was very satisfied.
It seemed that I had just managed to finish my second breakfast when the staff came by once more to serve Taiwanese traditional delicacies. I learned that as part of the tour, the staff would be handing out snacks that can only be found in particular cities of Taiwan. Delicacies such as "ox tongue" biscuits (çèé¤ ), different kinds of dried prunes, sweet-potato pastries, "mochi" (a kind of sticky rice sweet) and more were offered at different parts of the trip.
From "train lunchboxes" that are reminiscent of what locals normally had during times past to authentic aboriginal feasts, with fresh seafood spreads and local Chinese dishes – all the meals offered during the tour have been well planned to give your tastebuds a true Taiwanese-style culinary encounter.
Mentally groaning, I ruefully waved goodbye to the diet that I had just started and decided to immerse myself to the gastronomic experience that is part and parcel of the tour.
The National Center for Traditional Arts – this 24-hectare area incorporates bona fide Chinese buildings that were transported brick by brick and stone by stone, mixed with modern structures that have combined Eastern and Western influences. One can see the vibrant craftsmanship that can be found in this country in the dizzying array of Chinese handicrafts that range from leatherwork, Chinese calligraphy, glassware, pottery, woodwork, puppets, Chinese lanterns and more made available in this center.
Taroko National Park – famous for Taroko Gorge (å¤ªé¯åå³½è°·), which is a spectacular 19 km marble-walled cleft that runs through the mountains, this place is widely regarded as one of Taiwan's premier tourist spots. Walking through the gorge, one can see a rushing white-water river that works its way beside the sheer cliffs and the marble formations that are the main attractions of the park.
Bunun Aboriginal Village – provides a glimpse of the traditions and lifestyles of the Bunun aboriginal tribe (å¸è¾²æ). The Bunun people live in the mountainous regions of central Taiwan and are known for their close family ties. The society is patrilineal in nature. They are known to have strong musical traditions, which travelers can get a glimpse of as the tour will also feature several live traditional dance and song performances.
Jhihben Hot Springs – a lot of locals like to go to hot springs, as hot-spring bathing is not just relaxing but also has various therapeutic effects on your body. The hot springs of Jhihben are among the most popular in Taiwan, being one of the top three choices that domestic travelers like to visit.
Taitung Coast – The eastern coast is an isolated, unspoiled region where development has been strictly regulated by the government so as to preserve the area's natural beauty.It is here that you will find stunning rock formations and sandy beaches that stretch for miles.
Fellow travelers all affirmed that they were extremely satisfied with the service and organization. Kai and Hugo Persijn, who hail from Luxemburg and Belgium, respectively, said they found the tour "fantastic." Kai added that one of the many positive things was that they didn't have to worry about all the trivial details. "From the time you get on the train to the time you get off, you don't need to worry about where you'll put your luggage, how the luggage will be transferred, and what not. "Everything is taken care of, so that all you really need to do is sit back, relax and enjoy the ride." Thus, if you are under time constraints but would still like to tour the island in full, this tour is the perfect solution. By going on the Formosa Star tour, travelers are able to enjoy a hasslefree glimpse of the sights and traditions of Taiwan.
As mentioned earlier, there are 3-day and 4-day tours available. The 3-day tour costs AUD$900 and the 4-day tour costs AUD$1200. The costs are on a twin sharing basis. Prices are inclusive of entrance tickets, all meals during the duration of the trip (including drinks and snacks!), transportation fees (bus, train and airplane), plus accommodation in 5-star hotels.
Taiwan's Formosa Express takes the Taiwan Railway
The Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) announced yesterday that it has worked with a major travel company in Taiwan to reintroduce the “Formosa Express” (ç°å³¶ä¹æ).
Various tours will be offered, from one-day trips to Taroko Gorge to seven-day round-island packages, the TRA said.
The travel agency will also provide package tours for two, three and four day tours.
The two parties first joined forces to launch the Formosa Star. Having asked Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara to promote it, the Formosa Star soon became a hit with Japanese tourists as well as Taiwanese travelers but seat sales slumped during the global economic downturn.
After the contract expired last April the TRA held four unsuccessful bidding sessions to find a new partner. The current travel agency renewed their contract with the TRA after further negotiations.
The colorfully painted Formosa Express has business-class cars and a lounge car. The lounge car is equipped with dining tables and a karaoke bar.
Two Formosa Express trains will depart daily at 6:12am and 8:15am from Taipei, one heading to the east coast and the other operating along the west coast.
The TRA said passengers will be served snacks including red bean cakes from the Grand Hotel, cupcakes with longan fruit from Changhwa’s Bao Zhen Xian Pastry Store and Donghe steamed buns from Taitung.
(Source date: Oct 2010)
Getting on Track
The opening of the South Link Line in 1992 completed Taiwan’s ’round-island rail system. (File Photo)
While taking a railway tour may be fun for tourists, those in the business have been struggling to make ends meet.
For 120-some years, Taiwan’s railway stations have seen a lot of laughter and tears. While the trains bring in joyful passengers who are about to meet their loved ones, they also take away those who have just said farewell to their families and hometowns. In the past decade or so, however, more departures have become joyful, as railway tourism is once again growing in popularity in Taiwan.
The history of railroads in Taiwan dates back to 1887, when governor Liu Ming-chuan’s (1836–1896) administration began work on a section of track in the northern part of the island. By the time Liu resigned from his post in 1891, he had overseen the completion of 78 kilometers of tracks connecting Keelung and Hsinchu. Subsequently, the Japanese took over the construction of Taiwan’s railway during Japan’s colonial rule over the island between 1895 and 1945. During those years, the Japanese extended the railway to Kaohsiung, completed several branch lines and part of the route in eastern Taiwan. A number of the tracks used the narrow gauge system that was also used by the Taiwan Sugar Corp. for transporting raw materials and products. According to the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), which has managed the island’s railroads exclusively for more than a century, the total track length, excluding those lines operated by Taisugar, was 911 kilometers by the time the Japanese left Taiwan.
Hung Chih-wen, a railfan and an assistant professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of Geography, points out in his book One Century of Railways in Taiwan that railways have been important to the Taiwanese, both in modernizing the island and in shaping a sense of cultural separateness from China. He notes that, before the line to Kaohsiung was built, land travel between northern and southern Taiwan was inconvenient and people felt more connected to mainland China as the most important trade relationships were between the harbors of Taiwan’s coastal cities and the mainland. The construction of the railway system allowed different parts of the island to feel connected to one another, and people started to think of Taiwan as one island, Hung writes.
Although the Japanese built the railways mainly for transporting passengers and cargo, there was a small amount of rail tourism during the Japanese period. Gao Chuan-chi, a consultant for the Cultural Affairs Bureau of the Taipei County Government, points out that the Danshui Line was one of the most popular tourist lines at the time. The line, constructed in 1901, was Taiwan’s first railway branch line, with the main function of connecting Taipei and Danshui, which was then a major port. “The railway was a main reason for the development of Danshui’s economy and tourism,” Gao says.
Gao notes that a train trip to Danshui was so popular that the small town was selected as one of Taiwan’s eight greatest scenic areas in 1927. Gao recently organized the Danshui Historic Sites exhibition, which showcased many of the photos and films shot there in the 1930s. By the 1940s, however, the enthusiasm for touring Danshui was gone as wartime pressures increased. In the years that followed, as the harbor was losing its importance, the Danshui Line’s main function became transporting students of Tamkang Junior College of English (now Tamkang University) and other passengers to and from Taipei. Operation of the branch line was terminated in 1988, to pave the way for the Danshui Line of Taipei’s Mass Rapid Transit system, which was constructed mostly along the old railway line.
After the Kuomintang government relocated to Taiwan in 1949, it continued to modernize existing lines through measures such as the electrification of railways, as well as filling in the “missing links” in the system.
The Hualien Tourist Train currently operated by the TRA. Without the financing of the private sector, most of the “upgrades” seen in previous tourist trains are gone. (Photo by Hao Chen-tai)
The last link of a ’round-island rail network, the South Link Line connecting Taitung and Pingtung, on the east coast, was completed in 1992. In 2007, Taiwan’s high-speed rail system commenced commercial operation, a move that shortened travel time between Taipei and Kaohsiung from four hours to 90 minutes. Currently, Taiwan’s rail systems total about 1,100 kilometers, providing services between more than 200 stations.
Railway tourism from 1949 to the early 1990s, meanwhile, remained relatively undeveloped. It was not until former Republic of China (ROC) President Lee Teng Hui took a ’round-island train trip on the completed network that the TRA was instructed to work on organizing and promoting railway tourism.
By law, however, the TRA, as a state enterprise, can only sell train tickets, meaning it cannot be involved in any part of the tourism business such as booking accommodations or selling packaged tours. As an alternative, the TRA worked with 30-some travel agencies to set up the Railway Travel Consortium (RTC) in 1993—just two months after Lee’s ’round-island trip.
The main functions of the consortium were to research the tourism resources along the lines, work with accommodation and local transportation operators and design package tours. Combining with land transportation services, RTC organized several railway tours to popular destinations like Hualien, Taitung, Kenting and Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County. In addition to using the trunk lines, the group also designed tours on the Alishan Forest Railway as well as three branch lines: the Pingxi Line, the Neiwan Line and the Jiji Line. “When the RTC was first set up, railway tourism was a totally uncultivated market in Taiwan,” says William Chen, President of Olé Travel Service Co. “The RTC didn’t turn it into a hot item, but it’s fair to say that it made some waves and got the trend started.”
Olé was one of the earliest travel agencies that saw the potential of railway tours. Chen thinks that in addition to the cozy ride, the biggest advantage for railway tours is that the travelers can go pretty much whenever they feel like it. “You need to wait ’til a travel agency gets a few dozen people for a bus tour package, because the cost of renting a bus is the same whether there are four or 40 people on it,” Chen says. “But train schedules are fixed and it runs even if you’re the only person on it.”
Also in on the cultivation and promotion of the railway tour market was the Taiwan Railway Travel Association (TRTA). Established in 1998, the organization’s members included not only travel agencies but also railway fans and enthusiasts of railway culture and history. Shortly after its establishment, it chartered the TRA’s lounge car and piloted a one-day tour from Taipei to Taichung. Staffed with service personnel and tour guides introducing must-see attractions along the route, the trip received accolades from the public. The most popular promotional events, according to Chen, who is the secretary-general of the organization, have been trips riding one of the restored old steam locomotives.
Service along the Jiji Line includes one of the TRA’s “cruise trains,” which allow passengers longer stays at stations to enjoy the local scenery. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)
The cooperation of the TRA, local governments and the private sector resulted in package tours that made more people willing to give railway travel a try, while other factors were also contributing to the popularity of this type of getaway. Chen thinks that Taiwan’s opening of the cable television market in the mid-1990s was influential as it allowed local operators to bring in large numbers of Japanese programs on railway tours. Taiwan’s implementation of the five-day workweek since 2001 (from 1998 to 2000 there were alternating five- and six-day workweeks) also allowed more leisure time and thus increased the options for people’s weekend activities.
In fact, 2001, which saw the launch of the daily Hualien Tourist Train, the Spring Princess Express and the Kenting Star Express, was a year of major “upgrading” for Taiwan’s railway tours. Chen explains that prior to these trains, packaged railway tours were using regular TRA trains. “Both the TRA and the private sector, after a couple of years, saw that it could be profitable to operate trains exclusively for tourists,” Chen says. “Chartered lines made things easier both for the TRA and the private sector.” For the TRA, it meant an annual income of between NT$100 million and $200 million (US$3 and $6 million) without worrying about ticket sales. For travel agencies, fixed train schedules and a control on available seats helped in designing different tours and marketing.
Consumers also welcomed the chartered tourist trains. To distinguish the tourist carriages from ordinary TRA cars, the travel agencies, under TRA permission and assistance, refurbished train carriages and offered improved service. The exteriors of the trains were painted with images representing Taiwan and inside each tourist carriage had fewer seats than regular cars, which allowed more space between seats and along aisles. They were also hooked up to dining and lounge cars, as well as karaoke cars.
Private Sector Support
Since the TRA continually suffers a multi-billion dollar annual deficit, all the money for the upgrades came from the private sector.
Several other tourist expresses, such as the South Link Star, were launched as the popularity of the three lines increased. Then in 2004, ezTravel—Taiwan’s largest online travel agency—won the right to be the sole agent for the Formosa Star tour. The four-day, three-night Formosa Star tour was designed as a luxury trip. In addition to services found on other tourist trains and even more spacious seats, passengers could also enjoy amenities similar to those available when flying business class, such as free champagne or wine. Accommodations in each of the Formosa Star’s stops, of course, were the best hotels available. “Everything about the Formosa Star was five-star,” Chen says. “It was the pinnacle of Taiwan’s railway tours.”
What comes after reaching the pinnacle, unfortunately, is usually a downhill trip. Most of the tours did not last too long for lack of passengers and were either cancelled or combined. Excluding branch lines, there are only two chartered tourist trains currently in operation: the Hualien Tourist Train and the ’round-island Formosa Express, which “evolved” from the Formosa Star in 2008. Since travel agencies are no longer interested in chartering the trains, both lines are now operated by the TRA, which means that the “upgrades” such as the colorful exterior paintings, service people dressed in aboriginal costumes and chefs from five-star restaurants on the dining car—services that were originally made possible by investment from the private sector—are all gone. Chen suggests that a major reason for the two lines being able to hang in there is that they both make a stop at Hualien—a place where flight availability is limited and cars are required to take the arduous and sometimes dangerous Suhua Highway, which is the only automobile access from Yilan to Hualien.
The launch of the luxurious Formosa Star in 2004 marked the pinnacle of Taiwan’s railway tourism, but the tourist train business started to go south soon after. (Photo by Chuang Kun-ju)
Neither the RTC nor the TRTA—the two organizations formed to promote railway tourism—are still in operation, and the number of travel agencies selling railway tour packages has also dropped from 30-some to about a dozen, with Olé being the only one that still focuses on such services. “The five-day workweek was a major reason for the growth of tourism,” Chen says. “For people in the railway tourism sector, however, it seems that we’ve been having five-day rest weeks in the past several years.”
Chen explains that railway tours have their weaknesses compared to other types of domestic tourism. “They’re expensive,” he says. “And when the economy is not good, travel expenses are among the first things people cut.” Currently, a ’round-island five-day rail tour is priced at approximately NT$30,000 (US$909), which is enough for a five-day trip to resorts in Japan, mainland China or most other Asian destinations. The reason for railway tours being expensive is the train fare, as TRA is required by law to sell tickets at a fixed price. A roundtrip journey on a Tzu-chiang, or express, train between Taipei and Hualien, for example, is NT$1,522 (US$46), while the daily rent for a 45-seat bus can be as low as NT$10,000 (US$300) and is usually subsidized by “souvenir shops” at the tour destinations provided that the buses make stops at these shops.
One strategy travel agencies use to gain a competitive edge is to create different classes of the same package deal. A ’round-island package on weekdays, for instance, is available from Olé for between NT$14,600 and $23,000 (US$442 and $696), depending mainly on the accommodations. Chen also finds that single-day trips to Hualien are gaining more popularity. These packages, priced between NT$1,790 and $2,490 (US$54 and $75), include train fare and a choice of one of the popular local activities such as whale watching or a visit to the Hualien Ocean Park. Most of the packages can be customized to meet consumer demands, such as combining trains with airplanes and the high-speed rail to shorten travel time. Much to his surprise, Chen has found that, while local consumers are not as enthusiastic for such trips as they were several years ago, the market for inbound tourists has seen some growth. At present, half of his business is from overseas Taiwanese.
While the private sector has been struggling to make ends meet, the TRA has also been taking measures to keep tourists on the rails. One of the more successful projects is the “cruise trains” launched in summer 2008. Instead of stopping for a few minutes at stations, the cruise trains stop at selected stations for a longer time to allow passengers to go sightseeing at designated scenic spots, taste some of the local food and get back on board on the same train to move on to the next stop. Cruise runs of several lines in all parts of the island have been launched. According to TRA spokesman Chang Ying-hui, the tickets have all been sold literally in seconds and the TRA is considering making cruise trains part of its regular schedule.
Another project is the Old Mountain Line—a 15.9-kilometer railway between Sanyi in Miaoli County and Houli in Taichung County. The Old Mountain Line, with rich tourism resources including several scenic spots and old stations that have been designated as historic sites along the line, ended its regular service in 1998. The TRA is now repairing it and planning to outsource operation of the line to the private sector by the end of the year.
The TRA is also planning to revive the Hualien Port Line from Hualien Port to the old Hualien Station into Taiwan’s first integrated rail-line cycling path, where cyclists will be able to enjoy scenes of old steam locomotives hauling yellow passenger carriages alongside the coastal tourist bike path. Rebuilding of the old narrow-gauge rail has started, and the TRA will restore one of the steam locomotives currently on display in Hualien Railway Cultural Park so that it can once again haul passengers on the narrow-gauge railway it used to serve.
If everything goes as planned, the projects are anticipated to bring some light to the local railway tourism industry as well as some help to the TRA in filling its financial black hole. It is still premature to tell the effectiveness of the projects, but it is likely that with the operation of more tourist lines, there will once more be platforms full of laughter, for the tourists will be either heading for fun or heading home.
A Taiwan Railway Fan Evokes Memories of Taiwan's Old Trains
A new photo book of Loren Aandahl, a railway enthusiast living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, may evoke precious memories of Taiwan’s old trains in the sixties and seventies.
In his book, a tea ceremony on the Kuan Kuang Hao express in the 1960s was described as incredible. The crew prepared to pour tea for passengers after the train departed from a station. One stewardess distributed black, green or oolong tea in packets. Another steward opened a tea packet and put some leaves in glasses. Holding a glass with one hand and opening the glass lid with a finger, he poured scalding hot water into the glass from a hot water pot held with his other hand. Without dripping or burning his hand, he finished his job quickly.
Aandahl, now 59, always sees Taiwan, especially Hsinchu City, as his second hometown because he had spent 16 years on this island from 1955 to 1970.
On March 24, 2011, he returned to his hometown to self-publish his first book titled “The Taiwan Railway 1966-1970,” which includes more than 200 color and black-and-white photographs.
Aandahl’s pictures of a Taiwanese railway in the past can bring back memories, said Hung Chih-wen, Taiwan’s leading rail historian.
"I’ve known Hung for many years. He encouraged me to write articles on Taiwan’s railway and helped me with many details of my book,” Aandahl said. “My dream finally came true. Now, I want to share my pictures with Taiwanese people and hope they will enjoy this book as much as I do because it is my gift to Taiwan.”
This book is not only about an important era in the development of Taiwan’s railways, but also about the history of Taiwan during the Martial Law period between 1949 and 1987.
Aandahl said he was very lucky to take pictures of the Taiwan rail system under Martial Law because local people were not allowed to do so. Most pictures in this book were taken in his teens.
When he left Taiwan for the U.S. in August 1970, he brought 1,000 photos with him and has kept them very well in his Minneapolis house for four decades.
On January 10, 1954, Aandahl’s parents Elliot and Ruth took two of their three daughters and their youngest son to Taiwan. They arrived at the northern Taiwan port of Keelung after a winter voyage across the Pacific Ocean aboard an American ship.
They traveled by a round nose railcar to their new hometown of Hsinchu. Captivated by this wonderful experience, Aandahl became a Taiwan railway enthusiast at eighteen months of age.
As his parents began their Lutheran missionary work in Hsinchu, they hired Ms. Chou to look after their son.
"Ms. Chou had a very sad story. Her husband worked in the R.O.C. (Republic of China) army. They left China for Taiwan very quickly in 1949 and their four children were left behind there,” Aandahl said. “I was kind of like her new son and she took very good care of me. I called her ‘Ms. Haha’ because she was always laughing.”
Ms. Haha soon knew that he was fascinated by watching trains at a major railway crossing near their home, located near the intersection of Gongyuan Rd. and Guangfu Rd. It became their happy routine to spend several hours each morning and afternoon at “the tracks.” Even as he attended Chinese kindergarten for two years, Ms. Chou managed to regularly take him to the “the tracks.”
I could just watch trains passing about six hours a day. This created a very deep appreciation of Taiwan’s railway,” Aandahl said.
In September 1959, he started attending boarding school at Morrison Academy in Taichung, central Taiwan, for the next eleven years until he graduated from high school in May 1970.
Despite his difficult boarding school life, Aandahl had a good time taking the train between Taichung and Hsinchu every second weekend. Immersed in this 90-kilometer trip, he wanted to capture images of the railroads because he liked trains so much. As a freshman in high school beginning in September 1966, he started to take pictures of the railway.
Photography of all military and transportation subjects was strictly prohibited and enforced by railway police in train stations and by army troops guarding all major bridges and tunnels.
"When I saw the police or soldiers, I always put down my camera, saying hi to them. Sometimes they would question me and I knew what they’re saying: ‘What are you doing here? You can’t be here or take photos here.’ I often pretended I couldn’t speak Chinese or understand what they’re talking,” Aandahl said. “I just answered: ‘Oh, sorry, only English please.’ And then they would get frustrated and let me go.”
If he were Taiwanese, Aandahl would certainly have gotten into big trouble.
In September 1969, the Hsinchu station police got so upset that they came to his house and demanded that his father give them all his pictures. His father said no, but they came back after a couple of days. The third time, they raised their voices, insisting to confiscate his photos.
"My father just said: ‘No, we will not give them to you. He’s not a spy, but just a boy. Taking pictures is just his hobby and leave him alone,’” Aandahl said, adding that his father helped him a lot because he saved these pictures by hiding them somewhere in Taiwan.
Aandahl’s parents encouraged his interest in the railways, people and island of Taiwan. They took him on many trips around Taiwan where he took most photographs in this book.
The photo on the front cover, for example, shows the R25 locomotive pulling its Ping Kuai express to Taipei and crossing a very famous bridge on the Mountain Line in western Taiwan. One of the most scenic locations on the Taiwan railway, the Neishihchuan Bridge in Miaoli was situated between Tunnel No. 6 and No. 7. The train was going from the Taian station to the Shenghsing station.
Along this area from Tunnel No. 3 to No. 7, many soldiers guarded the tunnels and bridges, he said. But the terrain between Tunnel No. 6 and No. 7 was so rough and there were no soldiers there.
Aandahl climbed up the steep cliff to the south entrance of Tunnel No. 6 and then took this picture on March 15, 1969 when he was in high school.
"I knew good locations for taking photos and how to avoid the army troops because I’d had many traveling experiences between Hsinchu and Taichung for many years.”
The top photo on the back cover shows the GA2301 railcar of the Fei Kuai Che express service leaving the Hsinchu station and heading south to Taichung. This picture was taken by Aandahl’s father from an overhead bridge between Platform 1 and 2 in 1955 when his sister went to school on that single diesel railcar. At that time, Hsinchu was a small town and only had one-story houses.
The bottom photo on the back cover, taken by Aandahl in Hsinchu in 1970, shows one locomotive pulling a brand new Chu Kuang Hao Express. The Taiwan Railway Administration had started to introduce modern locomotives and trains.
"I put these two pictures together on the back cover because I wanted to present my beautiful childhood days in Taiwan from the beginning in 1955 to the end in 1970,” Aandahl said. “I hope this photographic gift evokes many personal memories of trips taken on these trains. Enjoy your railway adventures and cherish your memories.”
(Date: 27 April 2011)
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