Monday, 26 July 2010

Transport in Taiwan

2013 Update: The Taiwan Rail Pass now makes it even easier (and cheaper) to get out of Taipei, which I highly recommend doing if you'll be in Taipei for more than a couple of days. The HSR pass is only valid for the High Speed Rail service up and down the densely-populated West Coast, while the Joint Pass can be used for the HSR and local trains, including those to the stunning East Coast. Passes are for 3 or 5 days. The best information can be found here, or official but less helpful information here. If time permits I highly recommend at least a trip to Kaohsiung and Hualien, to stay at the Loving Hut B&B and visit Taroko Gorge.

For times and prices for tickets on the Taiwan Railways (conventional) trains, check here, and for the HSR, check here.

Taiwan has a brilliant public transport system, which is to be expected given the level of technological development and the population density. It is comparable but not quite as good as that of neighbouring Japan, which is not surprising given that the rail system was built while Taiwan was part of Japan (the first half of last century), and the new high speed rail system was a joint effort between Japanese and European engineers. Unlike Japan (and western Europe), however, all public transport is easily affordable to virtually everyone, including budget travellers and English teachers.

PRIVATE TRANSPORT

Scooters
Taiwan has more scooters per capita than any other country in the world; if you've spent more than an hour here, you'll have worked that out already. They are fast, convenient (for example easy to park) and fuel and cost efficient, and if you live outside of Taipei (or even if you don't) you'll probably get one before long.

However, the downsides are that they are dangerous, and accidents are really only a matter of time. Pollution is also bad (especially in Taipei, and most other cities) and sitting in a sea of scooters at the lights can be very unpleasant. For details on licenses, ownership etc (important) see websites like tealit.com or any other expat sites. In short, International Driving Licenses are allowed for a limited time (but must be stamped by an office after the first month) and it is possible to get local licenses (but most people here short term don't, at their own risk). My advice: if you're going to do it, drive very carefully, license or not. While most people have accidents, most people (locals and seasoned foreigners) also go through red lights (especially turning right), weave in and out of dangerously small gaps in the traffic, and turn left on the green light before the oncoming traffic has reached them. Law and safe driving practice requires that, at intersections marked with a line and a box, scooter riders turning right first go to that box and then go through the intersection on the next green light (it works, and is much, much safer).

Horrible as it is in busy traffic, most foreigners succumb and buy one sooner or later. Be careful on the road, and consider taking it into the mountains during weekends.

Personally I consider riding a scooter carefully to be worth the risk, but I don't think it's worth the extra few minutes possibly saved to drive like most locals and foreigners. From what I've seen, virtually all accidents, especially serious ones, occur at intersections, usually because people don't follow the road rules.

And if the risk of accidents isn't enough, breaking rules can also be expensive. I've never heard of foreigners being pulled over and fined for no license without a cause (not so say it couldn't happen) but when foreigners are pulled over for breaking the rules and fail to produce a valid local/international license, it's a 6000NT fine (plus the fine for the original offense). So an 800NT fine for going through a red light becomes a 6800 fine, and I've known people to pay it more than once.

It's possible to ride scooters between cities, and I personally loved riding mine into the mountains. Scooters (and motorbikes under 550cc) are not allowed to use it the highways, so they are limited to smaller - generally quieter, more pleasant and more interesting - local roads, though at peak times the air quality can get very bad. Roads are generally kept in very good condition, but beware that in the mountains and on the East Coast, roads can be washed away during typhoons, as was the case in Typhoon Morokat in 2009.
 
The Cross Island Highways are beautiful but perilous. I learned the hard way when I did the Central Cross Island Highway that the 'high' is in terms of elevation, not road classification. Check with other websites as the the feasibility of doing these routes.

Private Cars
Driving in Taipei is not recommended, as public transport is so efficient, driving is a little hairy and parking difficult to find and expensive. That said, many expatriates (and locals) do have cars, often for exploring the countryside, or for transporting a family around. It's possible to get a local drivers license, or to use an international one. If travelling as a family or group, it would be a good idea to hire a car (or scooter - below) to travel through the countryside, especially southern Taiwan and the West Coast, including the amazing Taroko Gorge (see my post here). Taiwan has an excellent (tolled) highway system, which usually flows quite well but can get a little jammed at rush our and gets terrible traffic jams during Chinese New Year (when it is not recommended to come to Taiwan, and most expatriates without local family commitments leave - if they can get tickets in time).


Bicycles
Bicycles used to be an unpopular reminder of Taiwan's poorer past, but are having a revival, with the government introducing cycle paths and encouraging cycling as a means of boosting local and international tourism; cycling around the island (huan diao) is becoming increasingly popular among both locals and tourists. Plenty of info is available on cycling websites. However, I would suggest that for a vegan cyclist, Taiwan would be an especially good destination due to the friendliness of people and availability of vegan food. I hope to cycle around the island one day.

Taipei has an excellent bicycle rental scheme, called YouBike, which allows commuters to rent bicycles at one location and drop them off at another. While it has recently been a victim of its own success, with many racks running out of bicycles at busy times, or filling up with bicycles so customers are unable to return their rented bikes, the system is really taking off. I wouldn't recommend cycling Taipei to short-term visitors, but the system is great for people who live in the city and need to make short commutes around, and is a promising sign of Taipei moving towards more environmentally sustainable public transport.

YouBike stand in the Da'an shopping district, Taipei

Walking
Taipei and Kaohsiung are blessed with footpaths in most areas, perhaps a gift from their former Japanese rulers, though it's often more of a scooter path/park. Outside of Taipei, however, footpaths are few and far between, and walking can be quite unpleasant and dangerous, as there is often very little distance between parked vehicles and scooters, which flow through every gap they can fit into, sometimes in both directions on both sides of the road. I often wonder whether it's safer to be on a scooter than on foot. Keep alert!

Where does one walk? Lack of footpaths in most of Taiwan make walking an unpleasant and very dangerous way to get from A to B.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN CITIES
MRT
Taipei has a good, if limited but growing, MRT (Mass Rapid Transport; subway). It is very English-friendly, well signposted and colour-coded, and should one get lost, an English speaker could never be more than a few meters away. For getting around the majority of Taipei which it serves, this is by far the best option.

MRT Wenshan Line from Technology Building Station (Taipei)


Most fares cost less than 1€.

A train rolls into a taipei MRT station.

Kaohsiung's new MRT is an an important part of Kaohsiung's recent transformation from what should be expected of the city at the heart of the country's petrochemical industry to a very pleasant city to live in.
An entrance to Formosa Boulevard Station, Kaohsiung MRT Station. The station (and it's impressive glasswork, of which this is just one entrance) is named after the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979, when members of the pro-democracy Formosa Magazine clashed with police of the Chinese Nationalist Party (then holding the country under martial law as a one-party dictatorship) during an event to mark Human Rights Day. The incident was used an an excuse to arrest and detail most of the party's political opponents.

Kaohsiung MRT: modern, fast and efficient

City Buses
Taipei also has an excellent bus system, and it's usually possible to take a bus from virtually anywhere to virtually anywhere in Taipei fairly directly. However, few bus stops have English signage (this is changing) and so using the bus system can be a little daunting for a newbie to Taipei. In reality, if you're new to Taiwan it's probably not practical to take the bus unless a local or resident shows you where to get on and off, and which numbers you can take (common routes are usuallly served by several bus lines).

Note that buses do not give change, so always have a few 10NT and 5NT coins available.

The downsides of buses are that they can get very crowded, and as they stop to pick people up in strange places (sometimes convenient but dangerous if you need to get on between bus stops) they can be a bit of a roller coaster ride, so hold on tight, seriously. It's rumoured that drivers are paid according to how many passengers they pick up, so they compete with other buses on the same route, which are never far away, and possibly right behind. I believe it.

I expect that buses in Taichung and Kaohsiung are comparable to Taipei relative to the size of the city, but smaller towns and cities generally have limited buses available as virtually everyone has a scooter (or a car). Hsinchu in particular has a very limited public bus system, and one very rarely sees a taxi (so they need to be ordered).

For both the MRT and buses in Taipei, a smart card is available, which acts as electronic cash and saves the hassles of having the right change for buses. It also offers discounts for taking the bus and then the MRT, taking two buses in succession (effectively a transfer) etc. 
On buses and the MRT, always offer your seat to elderly. It's very important in this culture, and helps to reinforce the good reputation us "waiguorens" (literally 'foreigners') enjoy. And please never sit in the priority seats which are reserved for elderly, disabled, pregnant women etc. Foreigners sometimes don't notice the signs, and it gives us all a bad name.

Taxis
Most Taiwanese cities have an excellent meter-taxi system. I will compare it to Thailand and Japan (not that one would usually have any reason to take a taxi in Japan with such a great public transport system) since they are the countries I know best, and travellers here are likely to have been to either or both of these countries.

Taxis are fast (sometimes dangerously so, especially if they think you are using them because they are faster than the bus), cheap, easy to use, and generally very honest; in over three years in the country I have only ever once suspected a taxi driver of taking me the 'long way' to run up a bigger bill, and even then it was merely a suspicion and the difference it might have made would have been under a dollar. Taiwanese are generally honest with small amounts of money (unfortunately I can't say the same about large sums, such as paycheques from English schools or agents thereof, or bonds from landlords.

Also, as I understand it (can anyone confirm?) because the flag-fall, which is 70NT in Taipei and more in smaller cities, is generally more than the cost for the distance covered, and unlike Bangkok Taipei isn't saturated with taxis, so there is little incentive for drivers to take a long route. For example, flag-fall in Hsinchu (my city) is 100NT, and to drop me hope from the train station is usually 120NT, and takes about five minutes. A driver could take me a very long way and run it up to 150NT, but s/he'd be better off to get me home the fastest and cheapest route and go back to the train station to wait for another passenger. In Bangkok, by comparison, flag-fall is 35NT, and one in four cars in the city is a taxi, usually on the road round the clock and usually empty, so it's in their interests to take the longest and slowest route they can get away with.

There is one important note about taxis in Taiwan, which is different to both Japan and Thailand: Do not get in a taxi in Taiwan without the address written in Chinese, or a Chinese speaker ready to talk to them (on the phone if necessary). Because Chinese is tonal, and the consonants are so different to English, chances are, if someone who doesn't speak Chinese tries to, a Chinese speaker won't even realise they are trying to speak Chinese, and, confused, will probably just apologise for their lack of English. Without any understanding of the language, one could read (romanised) Japanese and probably be understood with a bit of effort, and with a short introduction to the language, one could be understood quite easily. In Thailand, there are so many tourists, mostly going to a limited number of places, most taxi drivers will be familiar with how foreigners say common destinations, even though they will probably sound nothing at all like their real Thai names. In Taiwan, however, most taxi drivers will virtually never take foreigners, so apart from perhaps 'Taipei 101', will probably not understand any English, except possibly the odd younger one (and there aren't many of them).

Also, unlike their Chinese cousins, Taiwanese do not learn to read and write Chinese characters using a phonetic Roman script; they use an older Chinese phonetic alphabet called Zhuyin. Also, there is little consistency in the Romanisation of Chinese in Taiwan, and as it's a political issue it's unlikely to improve any time soon. (The ruling pro-unification-with-China Chinese Nationalist party favour using Chinese romanisation (pinyin) and the opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party favour a system which more accurately reflects Taiwanese pronunciation and assigns different romanisation to syllables from all languages spoken in Taiwan.) It's not uncommon to see a road name written two different ways at the same intersection. So most Taiwanese will not recognise any but perhaps the most common street names in English, nor will they have any idea how to pronounce the Chinese from an address written in English. Beware also that main roads often have the same names in each city (for example, most towns and cities seem to have a Zhong Zheng Rd / Jhongjeng Road running to the train station. Main roads are often long, and are usually divided up into sections (pronounced "duan" in Chinese). Roads can are also be numbered. For example, Chung Siao 2nd Road is not the same as Chung Siao Road Section 2; these are occasionally confused on the HappyCow site. An address written in Chinese, while short and succinct, will have all this vital info included with no ambiguity.

While this all sounds difficult, it really is easy to solve. I suggest carrying business cards for places one works and eats, and/or a guidebook with addresses in Chinese. Also, don't be afraid to walk into a 7-11, buy your next bottle of water, and ask them to write down the address of that 7-11 in Chinese so you can get back to the point. Also, keep contacts of people who offer to help (such as that person you met at the vegetarian restaurant you went to soon after you landed, who gave you their business card in case you ever needed help) and take them up on it if necessary. And, failing all that, there will probably always be an English speaker not too far away, at least in major cities.

Taiwan has many 'private' taxi firms, and these are usually the ones staff at convenience stores will (quite happily) call for you if you ask them. Most don't have meters, so it's probably best to agree on the price first, though they will probably have set prices for given distances (which are generally slightly cheaper than the regular taxis so there's no need to bargain as you would in, say, Bangkok, though of course if you think it's too expensive you can always refuse to go with them, but I've never heard of this happening to anyone). I think these taxis are technically illegal, perhaps because they don't pay the same insurance. So if you are unfortunate enough to be in an accident in one, it may be complicated. In practice, however, most foreigners use private taxi companies regularly, and I've never heard of any issues with them whatsoever.


INTER-CITY PUBLIC TRANSPORT

High Speed Rail 
The best means of getting between cities is the new "Gao Tie", the high-speed train down the west coast. It's basically a Japanese Shinkansen, however Europeans built the tracks, which had to be especially designed for Taiwan's exceptionally mountainous and terrain. With top speeds of about 300km/hr, it does the trip from Taipei to Kaohsiung in 96 minutes direct (a few a day) or about two hours if it stops at all the stations (as the rest do). As the inter-city transport of the future here, English signage is very good (and even gramatically correct), and tickets can be purchased online here.

Hsinchu HSR Station

However, the HSR has its downsides. Firstly, its, not surprisingly, the most expensive way to get between cities. Prices are discounted during off peak hours, and occasionally during holiday seasons, but a ticket from Taipei to Kaohsiung generally runs to about 1500NT (~35€). Another problem is that it's built for the cities of the future, which is no doubt intelligent planning, but for now, the stations are usually several kilometres out from the main city centres, which are generally centred around the (conventional) train stations. While shuttle buses run to the old train stations, the extra time taken often makes this hardly worthwhile. For example, from where I live in Hsinchu City, it takes ten minutes to get to the conventional train station and 1 - 1.5 hours to get to Taipei on the train, for about 100-180NT. Alternatively, I can spend half an hour getting to Jhubei - the 'new Hsinchu' on my scooter, or take the new train there, and then catch the high speed train for up to 290NT, which takes half an hour. It isn't usually worth it unless I know that when I'll be returning the conventional trains will be overfull, which happens most Sunday evenings.

Taiwan HSR Ticket

Tickets rarely sell out on the high speed train, but beware that during the weekends they don't sell unreserved seats, so should they sell out, you won't be allowed on. This possible problem aside, the shuttle bus from the Taoyuan station to the airport makes the high speed train a fast, comfortable and otherwise very reliable way to get to the airport (also hope there isn't an earthquake, which understandably results in the immediate suspension of the system until safety checks are performed on all the tracks.) It's now also possible to check in bags for EVA Air and China Airlines (the two local carriers) at the Taoyuan HSR station, and then take the shuttle to the airport and go straight to the boarding gate.

Ticket prices and train times can be found and reservations can be made here

HSR Trains at Taipei Main Station

Conventional Trains
 Taiwan has a very good, if aging, conventional train system, courtesy of the Japanese (they had to pay them to build the new high speed train, but the conventional train came as part of a packaged deal known as colonisation).

 Most places around the perimeter of the island, especially on the west coast and top half of the east coast, are easily reachable by train. However, since the high speed train is clearly the face of Taiwan for tourists and businesspeople, English on the conventional trains is somewhat limited, with Chinglish signage usually present and comprehensible. Clerks should officially speak English - and one window often has a sign up advertising that that clerk speaks English - but in reality this may not always be the case. Worse still, the tickets don't say what platform the train leaves from, though directions down to platforms usually say where trains departing from there go, so the only way to tell often is to look at the signs announcing the departure times; it's unlikely that two trains will be scheduled to depart from different platforms at the same minute. If trains are delayed (as they often are), the signposted time will still be the 'official' one (which will match the tickets), with the estimated delay usually announced in a small box on the right. Signs generally provide all this information in English, but it's still very confusing the first few times. If taking the train, allow extra time - especially for purchasing the tickets, as there are often queues - and finding the right platform. Train conductors, though they rarely speak any English, are always helpful, and a glance at your ticket and a point at the platform to go to or train to board is usually sufficient.

Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, and train stations can be hive of activity. Here Taiwanese silently protest the treatment of imprisoned former president Chen Shui-bian, the use of nuclear power and for a Republic of Taiwan, to replace the absurd "Republic of China" which still claims to be the legitimate government of China (and Taiwan). And a group of high school students collect receipts (which can win money) for charitable causes.

There are three types of trains: the Tze Chiang (express) is fastest and most comfortable (and most expensive), so when going between major stations, these are the best bet. Seats are ticketed, though if there are no seats (as is often the case if you don't purchase a ticket in advance) you can buy a standing ticket, though you sometimes have to ask for it as the clerk's often assume foreigners won't want one. So if in a hurry, it's best to ask for the fastest ticket and say a standing ticket is ok. Tze Chiangs only stop at the major stations.

The next fastest is the Chu Kuang, which is similar but slightly slower and stops at a few more stations; seating is also allocated.

The third type, the local trains, stop at every station and are usually very slow, but some new faster ones with English displays are now running. While there is no allocated seating and only one row of seats along each side of the train, they are generally quiet except for the few stops before or after a major city (like local trains in Japan). When going to a faraway station in a small town where only the local trains stop, it is best to purchase a Tze Chiang to the nearest major station and then transfer to a local train, but in reality this is unlikely to be the case for a traveller in Taiwan, and probably not worth the effort or confusion for a one-off journey. It's also worth noting that because local trains are less popular and have more standing room, and Tze Chiangs can get overcrowded, it can be more pleasant to spend two hours sitting on a local train reading a book than one an a half hours standing in the crowded aisle or the gangway of a Tze Chiang.

A return ticket to Chiayi for the 2010 lantern festival, and an open return ticket since there were no seats available for the return leg at the time of purchase. 

It's often a good idea to purchase a a return ticket at the same time, as it brings a slight discount, and a greater likelihood of a seat for the return leg. Tickets bought at the counter can be changed or refunded if you can't use the return one as planned.
There are two types of ticket machines. The older style aren't especially complicated, but they can't give tickets with allocated seating (a ticket with a seat is the same price at the counter or other machine below), so are really only worth bothering with for short hops on the local train, as there are rarely queues at them. They don't take notes, but a change machine is usually nearby.

Most stations have a wall of these older machines, which can't issue a ticket with a seat number and are really only good for small hops on he local train. There are really queues for these machines.

Most main stations also have newer, bilingual, computerised machines, which are much more newbie-friendly. However, you need to state which type of train you want to take (generally start with Tze Chaing (the fastest), then try Chu Guang, and then the Local Train, unless you are going to a small station where only the local train stops). The other downside of these machines is that you can't refund or change the tickets at the the counter. Should you miss the train, you can still get on a different train, but you won't get a seat. Another downside is that they don't say when the trains arrive, so while you can choose the fastest train, there's no way of knowing whether a slower train departing earlier will arrive earlier. Ticket clerks will usually sell the tickets with the earliest arrival at the destination.

These newer, bilingal machines dispense all types of tickets, but queues can be as long as the (staffed) ticket counters, and tickets bought at these machines cannot be changed or refunded.
Times and ticket prices can be checked here. It's also possible to reserve tickets and collect them at the station, but I rarely bother with it.

Intercity Buses
 Taiwan also has a thriving and quickly-developing intercity bus network. Taipei has a new, large bus station opposite Taipei Main Station, and another new one connected to Taipei City Hall MRT Station (near Taipei 101). These buses are generally run by private companies, and their standards of the buses are generally very high. Prices are usually lower than even the conventional train, and are more environmentally friendly, because trains are over-engineered and therefore very heavy, and because buses stop less frequently than trains and are more likely to be full.

Intercity bus stations are generally bilingual (at least in Taipei) and navigating the intercity bus systems should be fairly straightforward, even without speaking or reading any Chinese.
The downside of buses is that because the stations are generally located in city centres, they can get stuck in traffic jams while getting into or out of cities during rush hour, so a one hour trip can easily become two hours. And there are sometimes queues to get onto buses too, though they seem to generally schedule enough that these aren't a major problem. So when travelling at rush hour it's often a choice of sitting on a bus in a traffic jam, or being squeezed onto a public train. The best option then is to purchase tickets for the tze-chang train in advance, or take the High Speed Train.

I hope to get back to this to update it soon. In the meantime, more information (and some of the same) is on my new (commercial, non-vegan related) travel guide to Taiwan.

11 comments:

  1. 河水永遠是相同的,可是每一剎那又都是新的。. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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  2. i was very amazed to learn that the subway and skytrain stations here in Bangkok dont have *toilets*. how about Taiwan ?

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  3. 唯有用熱情、用智慧去觀察事物,這事物才會把他的秘密,洩漏給我們......................................................................

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  4. 怡禹玄禹玄君 - thank you.
    Herwin - yes it amazed me that the flash new subway and skytrain didn't have public toilets! Yes here every station has a toilet. Some of them are outside (free to the public) and others are inside the gates, but either way they have them...

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