The International Steam Pages

Taipei's Gorge Railway

The following article by Andrew Robinson originally appeared in the Ocean Beach Railway (New Zealand) News in September 2010 and is reproduced by the kind permission of the editors.

Taipei, Taiwan’s bustling capital, would seem an unlikely gateway to a journey that combines stunning scenery, nature and tradition. However, for a very modest outlay, we caught an eastbound train and soon left the glitzy shopping malls and frantic traffic behind. As the train gathered pace, it cut through a landscape dominated by concrete apartment blocks which gradually thinned out as the journey progressed. The route took us through long tunnels and over large bridges at speed in order to reach the edge of the city.

Our destination is Jintong (Ching Tong) on the little known Pigxi (Ping Si) branch line. There are several stations shared by both mainline and branchline trains, the final one of which is Sandialong (San Diao Ling). Finding information about the branchline train was a bit tricky and the conflicting directions given by locals had us yo-yo-ing up and down the main line until we found a helpful railway official who translated the timetable and platform number for us. This also gave us half an hour to explore a satellite town few westerners would visit and sample a freshly microwaved frozen burger.

The Korean built diesel railcar arrived right on schedule and was surprisingly well patronized with a large number of city dwellers heading for some late afternoon fresh air in the countryside. Once the train left the mainline, the adventure really began, as the boxlike train tackled the steep grades and extremely tight curves of the narrow gorge. Below the train, a sizable river is visible and at times rapids and even a waterfall can be seen. Bridges span the gorge in spectacular fashion. A number of intriguing villages are located in the gorge and in two instances, the railway runs through the narrow main street; the locals step aside to allow the train to proceed.

Many of the stations are near areas of historical interest or outstanding natural beauty. Interpretation panels provide detailed information on the various sites and a network of walkways link the villages and points of interest. The area has a proud coalmining history and it is possible to visit the old mine entrances and see some of the preserved infrastructure. On disembarking the train at Jintong, we were immediately intrigued with the small Japanese wooden station and the historic township. The town centre has several tiny stores that sell food and souvenirs without being overly commercial.

Our visit coincided with the tail end of the lantern festival at the end of the Chinese New Year period. These large colourful paper lanterns are fuelled by spirit burners and make a spectacular sight as they gradually climb higher and brighter until they are just a speck in the night sky. However, one suffered a mishap and the paper of the lantern caught fire, causing it to crash back to earth, still well alight. Fortunately it landed on an asbestos cement roof and no one seemed troubled by the localized blaze.

Train Control is by means of the Tablet System that was in use in New Zealand; the bright red machines and Bakelite black telephones will be familiar to many enthusiasts. The familiar looking bamboo sling and fibre tablet looked a little out of place in the cab of a modern railcar in this far away land. The train stopped half way down the line to exchange tablets and pass another railcar. We had a seat beside the driver's cab so had a great view of the tight curves of the railway through the gorge as we sped along through the darkness. The clearances between the lineside houses and restaurants was fairly tight too, so we could glimpse into peoples lives as we approached and departed the many stations en route.

Once we arrived back at the main line and had to change trains, things seemed a little complex as there were numerous trains on different platforms going in different directions and of different classes. Surprisingly, our laughably cheap ticket was still adequate for travel in one of the more luxurious trains, meaning that we had a swift and comfortable journey back to the bright lights of the city.

Rob Dickinson