Bullet train makes debut amid gripes
Glitches, overbookings and safety concerns mar first day
Taiwan quietly launched its long-awaited bullet train yesterday, weathering a boycott by the island's main consumer group, complaints from ticket holders and harsh criticism from opposition lawmakers.
Without an official opening ceremony, the 12 sleek, orange-and-white coaches of the 700T train - the first exported by Japan's Shinkansen Group - rolled into Panchiao (Banciao) station outside Taipei for its early morning debut.
'I am so happy. I am one of the passengers here to witness history,' said 35-year-old businessman Chen Chiu-sheng, who waited three hours earlier this week to buy a ticket for the maiden journey to Kaohsiung. Mr Chen was among 900 passengers who booked tickets for the half-price trial service expected to last until January 19.
The NT$480 billion (HK$115 billion) train takes just 90 minutes to cover 345km from Taipei to Kaohsiung, cutting rail travel time by almost three hours.
University student George Huang, 21, called the high-speed train the 'pride of Taiwan'. It is the second system in the world to use Japanese bullet-train technology and the third super-fast rail line in Asia, following Japan and South Korea.
But the project has been dogged by controversy over escalating costs, political interference and safety concerns since its conception two decades ago.
Describing the system as a hybrid - using Japan's Shinkansen core system, a European electrical system and a computerised Taiwanese ticketing system - opposition lawmakers lashed out at the government for allowing the train to operate without more tests.
'The transport ministry which gave the green light for the train's operation must take full responsibility should any accident occur,' said Kuomintang legislator Hou Tsai-feng.
Questioning Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corp (THSRC) over its rush to launch the service, the Consumers' Foundation started an island-wide campaign yesterday to boycott the train, which has a top speed of 300km/h.
'Cherish your life, don't be a guinea pig,' said Cheng Jen-hung, head of the foundation, whose workers yesterday persuaded passengers to stop taking the train at three stations in northern, central and southern Taiwan.
But some passengers, apparently supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party government, argued heatedly with the foundation workers calling them 'trash' and accusing them of 'not loving Taiwan', a statement often used by independence-leaning President Chen Shui-bian to draw support from native Taiwanese. The first day's trial service suffered a technical glitch when the sensor gates failed to open, prompting loud protests from passengers.
The THSRC was also criticised for overselling 18,000 tickets, resulting in 830 passengers having problems finding seats. Company officials apologised and sent an extra train to resolve the problem. Seven extra services are scheduled for today.
High Speed convenience
The seven stations opened so far are Panchiao (Banciao), Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan and Tsoying (Zuoying) in Kaohsiung. Taipei station will be opened at the end of this month at the earliest, with the remaining four ? Nankang (east Taipei), Miaoli (between Hsinchu and Taichung), Changhua (between Taichung and Yunlin) and Yunlin (in southwestern Taiwan between Changhua and Chiayi) ? to open by 2010.