The slow lane

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:00am

Taipei's on-again, off-again plans for a rail link to Chiang Kai-shek International Airport are once again on. The project has been in the pipeline for six years but has made little headway thanks to politics, bureaucracy and financing.

This time, it has taken no less than the president himself to get the train back on the rails. While Hong Kong can boast one of the fastest, most convenient rail links between its airport and the city centre, Taipei still suffers from the archaic bus-and-taxi method of ferrying people to the airport.

On a good day, the trip takes just less than an hour; on a bad day, flights are missed. Now, if everything goes to plan, the rail link will be up and running after only another six years, and will put the two points within 35 minutes of each other.

The problems to date have been plentiful, and depending on who you talk to, they were avoidable or at least solvable. Originally it was going to be a build-operate-transfer (BOT) project, an approach that is becoming increasingly popular in Taiwan.

Taiwan's high-speed rail line now under construction is the world's most expensive BOT project, while the Taipei 101 building is to be the world's tallest BOT project. The airport rail link, however, may be classified as the world's most problematic. The government dumped the contractor and took over the project itself after endless problems and delays in planning the route, raising the funds and purchasing the land. The government probably could not help noticing that, at that rate, it would complete the 300km high-speed rail line before the 35km airport link.

Now it is going to have to foot the NT$70 billion (HK$15.7 billion) bill for the main airport line by itself, and few believe it will ever show a profit. The justification that President Chen Shui-bian is using with his ministers - who have to find the money - is that Taiwan needs to help the economy recover from the Sars crisis. It is a tenuous link, but with an election less than a year away, few people will begrudge him the sales pitch, and air travellers may even buy it when it comes to election time.