Kaohsiung's Light Rail: The Little Engine That Couldn’t?

Kaohsiung's Light Rail: The Little Engine That Couldn’t?
Photo: Kaohsiung City Government
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Kaohsiung’s high-tech light rail has been hit by low ridership and NIMBY protests.

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The Kaohsiung Light Rail tram line is rather impressive – the city’s electric trolley is the first catenary-free tram line on the planet (yes, I had to look up the word; in short, no power lines are strung above it). Using a third-rail for power is obviously a no-go for a trolley, so the Kaohsiung Light Rail uses a creative Spanish design that fast-charges at each stop; grabbing enough juice to make it to the next.

A pollution-free, no-ugly-wires tram line that connects tourist spots to metro lines sounds awesome, and it’s possible critics will one day eat their words, but after riding it a few times, I’m inclined to side with the naysayers who predict the light rail will pretty much end up as a joyride line for tourists. Whether it will ever be finished according to plan is also less than certain.

The latest section of construction has hit a snag: while the first part of the line mostly runs along the waterfront, the next phase requires entering neighborhoods – and the protests have begun.

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Photo Credit: Eryk Smith
A digger is seen with a protest sign attached in Kaohsiung.

No official announcement was made, but residents living in the pricey apartment buildings along Mei Shu Guan Road across from the Kaohsiung Art Museum told me that light rail construction is on hold after they expressed fierce resistance. Plans had called for the trolley to run down the center of Mei Shu Guan Road, but locals contacted city council members and lined the street with banners around two months ago. No work has been attempted since. The digging you see along that street currently is a gutter expansion project, workers told me, and has nothing to do with the light rail.

Talking to local residents, I was told by some their objections relate to safety. They believe if the tram runs down the center of the road, large fire trucks would be unable to operate in the event of a high-rise blaze. Others took issue with traffic problems and foresee difficulties getting in and out of their parking basements. A rumor that the city might need to make the road one-way is only a rumor, but a deeply unpopular one with locals.

Asking commuters to swap convenience and speed for walking to and from a slow-moving tram in 30 degree weather is a hard sell.

Many said they want the tram to move over and run along land inside the art museum rather than on the street, an option that is theoretically feasible but would require adding an untold amount to the estimated NT$16.5 billion (US$550 million) cost of the line.

But beyond the protesters there are other issues facing this state-of-the-art light rail. Most notably, many in Kaohsiung just don’t see a need for it. “I can run faster than that train,” a middle-aged security guard complained as we discussed his objections. Considering the man’s physical condition, I assumed he was exaggerating, but he has a point. I’m no athlete, but I can ride a bicycle faster than the tram, which – with the exception of when traveling along a few long stretches or bridges – moves at a crawl, a feature necessitated by co-habitating with street traffic. A skilled runner could beat the tram hands-down.

In this scooter-loving city, asking commuters to swap convenience AND speed for walking to and from a slow-moving tram in 30 degree weather is a hard sell.

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The currently functioning section of the Kaohsiung Light Rail system is shown here in green.

Safety was a concern on many minds when the tram first began operating along a small section of road in 2015. But aside from a minor mishap or two, there haven’t been serious accidents. Most have stopped worrying about how Kaohsiungers will adapt to sharing the road with a tram and have turned to questioning its utility.

Riding the light rail was free from its 2015 soft opening through Nov. 1, 2017. Now, those with an iPass (Kaohsiung’s EasyCard) pay just NT$10 for any distance, while non-electronic tickets cost NT$30. Paying is based on the honor system, but sneaking a free ride is punishable by a fine of 50 times the original ticket price. Fares hikes were supposed to kick in at the end of May 2018, but the city decided at the last minute to keep current fares unchanged till the end of the year.

The government did not state why the price adjustment was being delayed but seeing as ridership dropped steeply after introducing a paltry NT$10 fare in late 2017, maybe officials decided not to push their luck again.

In 2017, the city said it hoped the Kaohsiung Light Rail would end up bringing in over NT$11 billion annually, while accepting that it would take a while to get to that goal. It now stretches less than nine kilometers, but as phase two moves forward and the line moves away from being built on top of what were formerly Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) rail lines and onto more city streets, the protests could get louder and the work slower.

My kids find the light rail great fun as they try to wrap their heads around the idea of a train that’s also, like, a car! But aside from being a cool tourist gimmick that also makes kids happy, will the line do anything to boost public transportation usage? Will it earn the city billions in annual revenue? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

Read Next: Pingtung City is Dying, Why Not Give it to Kaohsiung?

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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