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What, No Lunchbox?

It was surely one of the most hyped things of early 2007. It made the world press the globe over, turned the spotlight however briefly again onto Taiwan and its ongoing modernisation. But now the reporters have largely moved on to newer and fresher stories. The novelty is wearing off. So what are we left with in the aftermath?

In order to write this article I took a train from Tainan to Banqiao. It cost 1,300NT (USD $45), set off and arrived at precisely the time promised on the ticket and, true to the much talked about slashing of travel times, took a mere one hour forty minutes to essentially traverse the country.

From the pure, brilliant sunshine of Tainan to the overcast skies of Taipei county took roughly the same time it might take to get from Danshui to the Xin Yi district on the MRT or perhaps from the north to south of London on a bad day.

It must be said – it does somewhat force a change in your conceptions of distance. The south really isn’t that far away any more.

Allow me to describe the trip a little for you. Or I would, if there were much to describe.

The fact of the matter is that the new HSR is ultra-modern and thus ultra-bland, suffering from the same lack of imagination that can be found in virtually any new system. The station feels like just another faceless airport that could be anywhere in the world and it’s stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

The inside of the train is boring in the extreme. Clean, bright, exact. In the same way as the ICEs in Europe, the only way to gauge the speed of the machine is to glance out of the window or check the overhead display from time to time.

The train is silent, the ride is entirely smooth. There is really no feeling of the speed you are travelling at. And, I suppose, that’s the whole point. It really is a piece of cutting edge technology and quietly demonstrates what modern engineering is capable of. It doesn’t need to show off. It just does exactly what it says on the packaging.

There are, of course, teething problems and I’m not quite sure why I seem to be the only one who isn’t particularly surprised by this. Cut those responsible some slack. Yes, the Banqiao to Taipei part of the line failed its inspection and will thus remain closed until after Chinese New Year.

Yes, they are losing huge amounts of money every day. Yes, it’s true what they say about the ticketing system – it really is quite simply horrendous. Selecting a day you want to travel on and a time you want to have set off by, it gives you a list of the available trains.

You must then proceed to check each and every train to see that, no, there aren’t any seats available, at which point you must manually go back to check the next. So on, and so forth, until your blood begins to boil. Oh, and, yes, sales are way, way below what they’d previously hoped.

On the train I took, I counted a grand total of six people occupying the first three cars. The next few were slightly less than a quarter full, including business class. Car five’s air conditioning was obviously broken as it felt like a furnace and therefore was also empty.

Only in the final four cars did it seem like any other self-respecting train with perhaps an 80% occupancy rate.

I’ve covered the boring bits. Now to go a little deeper.

Let’s pause and look for a moment at what an incredible feat of engineering this was. A 345km line across land with one of the highest levels of seismic activity in the world.

The designer of the line itself, Faber Maunsell, describes the particular difficulties of creating a way of dealing with what in practice becomes “soil liquefaction” in river plains during an earthquake.

Some of the bedrock is apparently over 100m below ground level and a good portion of what’s above it will basically turn to something like jelly if things get really wobbly. So hats off to the boys and girls stuck in their offices getting this all together.

Slightly more interesting, perhaps, is the longer term view of what this means for Taiwan. Something that has recurred is an idea that came across in the reports somewhere of Taiwan the country now becoming “Taiwan city”.

As I mentioned a moment ago, travelling from north to south in so short a time really does make you rethink your preconceptions of the difference between country and city. If you have in the back of your mind that from central Taipei you could be in Kaoshiung in something like two hours, it does bring the south psychologically that much closer.

Short breaks of a an overnight stay in Tainan and hopping back the next day begin to spring to mind.

Haven’t had a walk by Love River in a while? Well, it’s not that far away really.

Miss Kenting? Go on, you’ll be there in time to catch the sunset.

In my mind at least, getting from Taipei to the south has changed from a journey to more of an inconvenience. The only thing that would stop me from a day trip now and again is price. 2,800NT return?

Er… I think I’ll just visit Danshui instead. But they might be forced to change that anyway if sales don’t improve soon.

A larger question to deal with is one of implications. What’s going on here on a larger scale?

Something that struck me while I was staring out of the window of the train was a sudden respect for this tough little nation that hadn’t really occurred before. In the face of it all, Taiwan has once again showed its determination to haul itself up to global standards.

Despite its minute size and political insignificance, Taiwan has raised its proverbial middle finger and taken another scoop in the process of carving out a place for itself in this world. In fact, parallels with Japan’s history came increasingly to mind.

A country with few natural resources using foresight, taking advantage of technology to push itself forward. Creating a niche in the global market as a springboard towards modernity.

And what does it mean to be a modern nation? There appears to be a checklist.

World class companies? OK, check.

A well-educated and healthy populace? OK, check.

A 21st century transportation system? OK, check.

Then what? What comes one, two, three decades down the line?

One interesting piece I found reported the purchase of 48 tilting trains by the Taiwan Rail Authority despite it being heavily debt-laden as it now faces previously unknown competition.

The high speed rail is demanding that other forms of transportation be modernised. Another interesting point came from Chen Lee-in, a research fellow at the Cheng-Hua Institute for Economic Research.

He stated quite plainly the fact that stares us all in the face every day, namely that, “the nation’s urban and rural landscapes are ugly” and called for the government to now begin to change the country’s skylines to reflect its new, developed status.

“Fifth Avenue in New York, Avenue des Champs Elysees in Paris and the pencil-shaped skyscrapers in Chicago reflect the characteristics of the different stages of economic and cultural development in which they were built and have a beauty that has stood the test of time”.

Taiwan’s buildings occasionally reflect the sun and that’s about it.

The point, though, is that calls such as this are being made. Now that another box on the list of modernity has been ticked off, it’s becoming increasingly likely that they will no longer fall on deaf ears.

Taiwan’s transportation system is now world class.

So what next?

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2008

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