OPINION: Extend the HSR to Pingtung? Let’s Talk After the Election

OPINION: Extend the HSR to Pingtung? Let’s Talk After the Election
Credit: Reuters / TPG
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Major transport projects have long been presented as a potential boon to Taiwan's south around election time.

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Taiwan's Minister of Transportation and Communications Wu Hong-mo (吳宏謀) made the news after telling a committee his office was reconsidering an idea to extend the High-Speed Rail (THSR/HSR) to Pingtung, a campaign pledge made by now-President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) during her first unsuccessful bid in 2012.

Former assessments accurately – in my view – essentially concluded that while it is technically ‘doable,’ the money spent on such a branch HSR line would be disproportionate to the benefits created. A 2017 report estimated about 5,000 people would use the line daily, but it would incur as much as NT$200 million (US$6.4 million) in annual losses.

One can take a Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) commuter train from New Zuoying or the Main Kaohsiung Station and arrive at the newly-constructed, elevated Pingtung Station in about 30-40 minutes. The line is also now electrified and by 2020, the line from Pingtung over to the east coast should also be, as all of Taiwan’s TRA lines convert.

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Credit: Wikipedia
Pingtung's Taiwan Railways Administration station is about 40 minutes by train away from the High Speed Rail terminus at Zuoying.

Minister Wu’s talking points put the new guesstimate on the Pingtung HSR extension price tag at between roughly NT$62 and NT$75 billion (US$2 billion or so), but the same report that offered two possible routes and two price tags noted that the line would not pay for itself within 30 years and leave the HSR with a NT$10 billion (US$322 million) debt to work off.

Wu now says he thinks an HSR Pingtung extension would benefit not only Pingtung but also travelers heading to the east coast. He is right that it would cut a nice little chunk out of a trip to Taitung for a few folks and take, if one can be extremely optimistic, 40 minutes off a Kenting trip for those traveling from the north, but it’s not worth the bill.

During major elections, the ‘rural-urban’ divide often gets a moment in the sun, and transport options to Pingtung have cropped up over the last few cycles.

As it stands, Pingtung is connected to Kaohsiung via the Kaoping Bridge (Taiwan Highway/Route Number One), a TRA link, Expressway 88 for a southeast approach, a bridge over Taiwan Highway 22 further north, and National Freeway Number Three, accessible from Freeway Number 10.

While none of these roads are perfect, they seem to work for most of Pingtung County’s roughly 840,000 residents, especially considering that the train and roads mostly lead to Pingtung City, home to over 200,000 of those 840,000. Pingtung City, in case any aren’t familiar with the geography, is almost directly due east from Kaohsiung, not south and certainly not “near Kenting,” which is still about 100 kilometers south of Pingtung’s largest city.

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Credit: Wikipedia
Pingtung City nestles close to Kaohsiung's eastern edge.

To the cynical observer, election year “reassessments” of ideas that could benefit south Taiwan could be seen as near-transparent attempts to shore up votes. Even Pingtung Legislator Chuang Ruei-hsiung (莊瑞雄) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) isn’t sold, noting that Taiwan’s HSR is now profitable, but should they sink billions into a Pingtung branch line and go into the red, Pingtung could be seen as the ‘bad guy.’

It’s unlikely the ruling party is all that concerned about its standing in Pingtung alone. But the greater Tainan-Kaohsiung-Pingtung area largely favors the DPP, helping the party win presidential elections, for example. Many in the south appreciate any and all efforts to boost the region. But have we swung the pendulum too far?

For decades, many southerners felt Taipei was a haughty land that occasionally threw scraps to the south. A ‘Manhattan’ to south Taiwan’s industrial New Jersey. Since the first swap of power in 2000, however, successive governments have bent themselves into pretzels trying to win our hearts.

The results are a mixed bag. Chiayi boasts a nice Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum, but it’s not exactly well-attended. We have a Tainan Science Park for IT companies which made more money than it did last year, but is dwarfed by locations in the north, notably Hsinchu. Further south, we have Taiwan’s only electric light rail system, which is so far mostly unloved by Kaohsiung residents. In some positive news, the MRT system in Kaohsiung has finally stopped hemorrhaging financially, and TRA lines going underground on Oct. 14 will make a real difference for Kaohsiung motorists and construction developers.

New Kaohsiung TRA underground commuter stations should be a boon for some, but putting the lines underground was a well-planned project decided on many years ago, and which took about a decade to complete.

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Credit: Kaohsiung City Government
A new underground commuter TRA station is inspected prior to its Oct. 14 opening.

Recent attempts to “balance the divide” between urban and rural have, at least in the south, also left us with a host of “Mosquito Halls,” un- or underused government centers or buildings and more than one “Cultural Park” that hosts few visitors. And yet the thumps from jackhammers sound on.

Tainan is constructing a new, huge business convention center next to the Tainan HSR station, itself located a distance from downtown Tainan in an area “with room to grow.”

Considering there is already a new, huge convention center not far away in Kaohsiung City and considering the last few international trade shows I visited in Tainan were underattended and far from “international,” is sinking billions into floorspace for some hoped for Tainan trade show renaissance really in the best interests of the people of Tainan or the south in general?

In short, many agree that the central government once paid scant attention to the south, but I wonder if we aren’t now being smothered by “love” – and debt – as the DPP’s top ranks fill with folks such as former 12-year mayor of Kaohsiung Chen Chu (陳菊), and now-Premier and former Tainan mayor William Lai (賴清德).

The Red Line extension might help put things into focus. The North-South line in Kaohsiung’s two-line MRT system, the Red Line, now goes as far north as South Gangshan. Approval was granted in 2016 to extend the line and the plan called for phase one to be done by 2020. As I see little current construction in the area, I’m going to assume the timeline will be delayed – but, deadlines notwithstanding, the first part of the extension plan makes sense.

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Credit: Wikipedia
Visitors leaving Gangshan South station in 2017.

Gangshan District is growing in population and developing at a decent rate. Pushing the MRT into the center of Gangshan and connecting it to the TRA rail line there would make life easier, and we’re only talking about building a new station and adding 1.46 kilometers of new MRT track.

Still, that’s reportedly going to cost Kaohsiung some NT$3 billion, while the central government chips in NT$1.54 billion more.

But the Red Line extension phase two adds over 11 kilometers more, with seven more stations that terminate in Hunei District on the border with Tainan County. Sure, it would be nice to get more stations into rural areas, but for over NT$27 billion?

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Credit: Kaohsiung City Government
Artist concept of future main KHH station (coming in 2023) with new underground stations earmarked to open Oct. 14.

Wouldn’t a well-designed feeder bus system to Gangshan Main Station be as or more convenient for local residents, most of whom are in farming or industry and spend most of their time farming or working and not a lot of time hopping down to Kaohsiung for a concert or cruise?

Rural north Kaohsiung could use better medical care facilities. Elderly care is a huge need that could benefit from a few billion. Hiring more inspectors to patrol Lujhu’s industrial areas might keep unscrupulous actors from dumping toxic chemicals into streams or other polluting acts.

I see so many things that the phase two Red Line’s NT$27 billion or the Pingtung HSR branch line’s US$2 billion could be spent on that would genuinely improve life for rural Kaohsiung/Pingtung residents. Of course, they don’t look as sexy as spanking new train lines.

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TNL Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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