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Asia: In Taiwan, change comes speedily



TAIPEI--The introduction of bullet train services here a year or so ago has transformed the traveling options of the Taiwanese public.

When the bullet train made its debut in February 2007, people initially were wary. Many wondered whether the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) was safe as it relies on two different technologies--those of the Japanese Shinkansen and high-speed European rail systems.

So far, however, there have been no serious glitches. Trains run on time, and passenger numbers are rising rapidly.

The 345-kilometer-long THSR connects the northern and southern parts of the island in 90 minutes.

The impact on the traveling public has been enormous.

"It has changed the face of Taiwan," is a common refrain.

Like many besuited company employees who throng THSR stations daily, Liang Chiachang, 47, says the train service has triggered a major change in the way he approaches his travel schedule.

Liang, a resident of Taichung in central Taiwan, works for a branch office of food and softdrink maker Nestle Taiwan Ltd. The company is based in Taipei in northern Taiwan.

Before THSR services began, it used to take Liang more than two hours to reach Taipei, driving or going by bus on business trips. Getting to Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan regularly took more than three hours.

Then, there was also the hassle of finding a hotel in which to spend the night.

But now, it takes him less than one hour to go to Taipei or Kaohsiung, which means he doesn't have to stay in hotels overnight any longer as he can easily get home the same day.

Huang Chungche, a researcher with the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, said: "The Taiwanese economic zone had been divided into northern, central and southern parts mainly due to the inconvenience of transportation. But thanks to the introduction of the bullet train system, Taiwan as a whole has become a single economic zone for the first time."

According to Huang, it has become easier for employees of prosperous information technology companies to travel between their head offices in northern Taiwan and their factories in the south.

In Taipei, professionals, such as lawyers and public accountants, are also expanding their business activities to southern areas.

Airlines, on the other hand, are reeling from the impact of faster, more direct train services. Passenger numbers have fallen by 60 percent from their peak, say airline officials.

The airlines have been forced to suspend flights between Taipei and Taichung and those between Taipei and Chiayi one after another.

In addition, they have had to reduce their fares between Taipei and Kaohsiung to the levels close to those of bullet trains.

UNI Air, based in Kaohsiung, has said it will suspend flights between the two cities.

In 2007, 15.55 million passengers used THSR services. This corresponded to two-thirds of the population of Taiwan. In December, the monthly number of passengers exceeded 2 million for the first time.

When THSR operations started last year, the number of daily round trips stood at 19. It is now at 63. Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp., which operates the train services, is still in the red, however.

"We hope to balance our revenues and expenditures by the end of this year by increasing the daily number of round trips to our target of 88," said spokesman Ted Chia.

Still, problems remain. The biggest problem is securing drivers for the increase in services.

At present, there are 54 Taiwanese drivers and 35 from overseas, many of them French nationals. To increase the number of daily round trips, the THSR operator says it will need 100 Taiwanese drivers.

However, it takes an average of eight months to train someone to drive the train. For this reason, THSR will have difficulty reaching its target this year.(IHT/Asahi: March 13,2008)

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