Monday, July 15, 2013

Riding Transit in Taiwan, Part 1: Trains

This isn't the right blog for this information, but I wanted to put this up because I have gained pretty extensive experience riding all sorts of transport in Taiwan, and I haven't seen an English-language guide like this available, either on the Intertubes or in the various travel guides. (My Kafkaesque Life has these tips on Taiwanese transport, but it's pretty Taipei-centric, and doesn't get in to all the nuances of riding the TRA or far-flung buses that I want to get to.) So here we go!

Headline tips:

  1. Get an EasyCard. Called a 悠遊卡, yōuyóu kǎ in Chinese, the web site will have you thinking that these are only useful in Taipei. Don't be fooled! The EasyCard is accepted throughout the Taiwan Railways system, on the High-Speed Rail for unreserved (read: standing-the-whole-time) journeys, and on every bus to every out-of-the-way mountain town I've yet gone to. Every 7-11 and most other convenience stores and western-style fast-food places also take them, although there appears to be a 30NT or so minimum at 7-11. The one place that you may not be able to use it is Kaohsiung (高雄, Gāoxióng), where they do have a different card for their subway system, but it wouldn't surprise me if they're compatible as well. I don't know for sure, I haven't been down that far south.
    When I go to Taiwan, the first thing I do after I land is plunk NT$1,000 on my EasyCard (around US$30), because I know I'll use it. On my last trip, I was able to skip a room-spanning line for HSR shuttle tickets at the airport and walk straight on to the bus.
  2. If you're ever unsure if your EasyCard will work, just ask the bus driver or ticket counter "悠遊卡好嗎?" (yōuyóu kǎ hǎo ma, Is EasyCard OK?) They'll generally point you to the card reader.
  3. If you're a student, and you're going to be traveling further afield then Taipei, strongly consider Taiwan Railways' TR-PASS. TRA trains are already a steal, but the TR-PASS is stupid cheap. Unlimited rides, 5 days for NT$599, 7 for NT$799, and 10 for N$1098-- that's US$19, US$26, and US$36 respectively. It does come with two major caveats-- one, that you don't get a reserved seat on express trains. Sometimes these trains fill up, and if you're asked to move by somebody holding a reserved ticket for your seat, you'd better get up. Second, you cannot ride the very fastest TRA trains, the Taroko Express. (Note: Rough Guides and several other tourist blogs say that you can't ride the Tze-Chiang [自強, zìchiǎng] trains, but I've never seen an official source that says this, and I've spent weeks riding Tze-Chiang trains all over the island with a TR-PASS and never been bothered.)

Types of Taiwanese Transport

High-speed Rail (台灣高鐵, táiwān gāotiě)

The Taiwan High-Speed Rail is just fantastic, and probably the most foreigner-friendly of any transport on the island, with the possible exception of the Taipei MRT. It will also likely be one of the first you ride, as it's the best connection between Taoyuan Airport and the cities of the west coast, including Taipei. THSR trains are comfortable, with 3-2 seating in coach and 2-2 seating in business class, and they are fast. They operate up to 290km/h (180mph), and express trains make the run from Taipei to Kaohsiung-- nearly the entire length of the island-- in just under 90 minutes.

That said, THSR has its drawbacks. First of all, with the exception of the Taipei and Banqiao stations, the THSR station is usually not downtown. The line was built on greenfield sites further inland from Taiwan's population centers. Dani happens to live next to a THSR station, so it's often useful to us, but you should generally plan on adding ~30 minutes' transfer time from the downtown railway station to the THSR station. Note, also, that these transfers range in quality. In Hsinchu, Taichung, and Tainan, there's a TRA-operated rail transfer, in Chiayi there's a BRT system, and in Taoyuan there's a shuttle bus. (A metro is being constructed in Taoyuan at the time of writing.)

Second, THSR is expensive. It's not really that expensive in US terms-- US$40 will get you end-to-end one way-- but when you get used to paying US$2.50 for lunch, that starts to look like a lot of money. There are plenty of cheaper ways to get around the island.

If you are taking the HSR, though, you'll find it very easy to use. All signage is bilingual, Chinese and English. Ticketing machines are plentiful and have an English option (in the bottom left corner). You can purchase reserved tickets up to several weeks in advance, as well as unreserved tickets for that day, from machines. THSR stations will all have an ATM, clean restrooms with Western toilets, at least two 7-11s (one before and one after fare control) and a restaurant of some kind. There's also a bill exchanger, which will turn those pesky NT$1,000 bills into more spendable denominations. (This is useful in Taiwan's mostly cash-based society.) Note that THSR machines only take chip-and-PIN credit cards, so most Americans are out of luck.

My best advice for THSR is to always get a reserved seat. It's something like NT$20 more for most trips, or around US$1, and it keeps you from having to stand packed like a sardine in the unreserved coaches at the back. The only time I've ever gotten an unreserved ticket was when there were earthquake-related multi-hour delays on the system, and it was the only way to catch the next train home.

If you need to tell somebody that you're trying to get to the HSR in Chinese, just tell them "高鐵" (gāotiě).

THSR trains have vending machines, snack carts, and western toilets. Announcements are in English and Chinese, and are always spot on.

Taiwan Railways (台灣鐵路, Táiwān tiělù)

The TRA is where I spend most of my time in Taiwan. They operate a network of almost-completely electrified railways, mostly on three main lines: the Western Main Line, the Eastern Main Line, and the South Link Line. There are also a series of branch lines, serving either THSR stations or a few rural spots. All TRA trains are fast, and most are frequent, with even the poorest branch line seeing at least hourly service, every day, until at least 22:00. The TRA is also much more complicated than the THSR, with several classes of train, each of which has several stopping patterns, so be careful to make sure that your train stops at the station you're going to. The train classes are:
  • Taroko Express. Technically these are a type of Tze-chiang (自強, zìchiǎng) train, and that's how they're indicated on station boards, but they're operated with very different fare rules. Fares are slightly higher than normal Tze-chiang trains, and more importantly, everyone must have a reserved seat to board these trains. This means that TR-PASS holders, among many others, are not permitted to ride these trains. They're run with beautiful white TEMU-1000 tilting trains, and I've never actually ridden one. These are the fastest and most limited-stop trains on the TRA main lines. Hsinchu-Hualien is a common itinerary, although they're found all over. There's only a handful of these a day, maybe one every three hours or so.
  • Tze-chiang (自強, zìchiǎng). These are the second-fastest and most common kind of express train on the main lines. Reserved seats are available, but probably only half of the people on the train have a reserved seat, and if you don't (eg. if you're riding on a TR-PASS), it's totally OK to sit in any unoccupied seat unless and until you're asked to move. If somebody comes up to you and shows you a ticket, and maybe mumbles something in Chinese, they're probably asking you to move-- just grab your stuff, say "對不起" (duìbùqǐ, sorry), and be on your way. You won't offend anyone. These trains stop at all major stations, so unless you're going somewhere very off the beaten track, these are usually the best choice for long-distance travel. These are probably the most popular class of train on the TRA, and if you're on a TR-PASS, you are more likely to end up standing on one of these than any other class. Tze-chiang trains have comfortable, reclining 2-2 seating with luggage racks, usually western toilets (but no toilet paper), and snack trolley service. They are occasionally run by TEMU-1000 equipment, but mostly by silver-and-orange EMU-1000 trains. The Western Main Line sees Tze-chiang trains roughly half-hourly. Chinese and English announcements, usually reliable.
  • Chu-kuang (莒光, jǔguāng). These are the slowest express train, and are also fairly uncommon. Reserved seats are also available, but likely most people on board don't have them (although the if-you're-asked-to-move advice above still applies). These trains stop at all major stations and a good chunk of minor ones, and are slower than Tze-chiangs for any journey over an hour or so. (That is to say, if you have the choice of getting on a Chu-kuang now or a Tze-chiang in 20 minutes, and you'll be on it more than an hour, take the Tze-chiang.) They are also operated by older, locomotive-hauled passenger coaches, and the difference in ride quality is apparent. You will notice a lot more bouncing and swaying, and a noticeable "clunk" on deceleration towards the rear of the train. Also, be aware that most of these cars are equipped with squat toilets. The one reason you might choose to ride one of these is that they are relatively uncrowded, so you're likely to be able to sit down most of the way. Also, these coaches have passenger-operated doors, which you have to manually open at your stop. This means you can open them a little early, indulge your action-hero fantasies, and jump from a moving train. Snack trolley service is available. You'll see a Chu-kuang roughly once every hour and a half on the Western Main Line. Chinese and English announcements, voice only, often broken.
  • Fuxing Semi-Express. I mention them because they're mentioned by the TR-PASS jacket, but these are basically extinct, at least on the west coast. I've seen one on a station board, once. As far as I can tell, you can lump them in with local trains-- see below.
  • Local trains (區間車, qūjiānchē). These trains serve a role something like a local subway, stopping roughly every km or two. They stop at all stations. You do not know how many stations TRA has until you've ridden a local for a few hours. Branch line trains also fall into this category. Seating is first-come first-served, and mostly in benches along the side. You can usually find a seat, but the equipment is obviously designed for crush-load crowding, which does happen from time to time. Restrooms, with western toilets, are available. No snack service. These are often run with the lovely blue EMU700 trainsets. Don't ride one of these further than the next station with express service, it's not worth your time. They do run frequently though-- every 10 to 15 minutes on the main lines. (Branch line service varies.) Chinese and English announcements, usually pretty reliable.
Buying train tickets on the TRA is simple. There are two types of machines, one with a slightly bewildering array of buttons, and a newer type with touch screens. Both have English options. Note that, and this apparently changed in the last few months, you can only buy reserved seats from the touch-screen machines.

Buying a TR-PASS or any more complicated sort of ticket (I understand monthly commuter passes are available) is a more involved affair, and will require talking to a ticket agent. Most ticket agents don't speak English, although major stations may have a window with English service available. For a TR-PASS, you'll need your student ID and a foreign passport. Having an International Student Identity Card or a Taiwan-issued Youth Travel Card may also help with the process. I don't think that many people use this pass, because whenever I've bought one (admittedly at Hsinchu station, which isn't really on the tourist trail), it's taken a while and involved a gaggle of ticket clerks trying to figure out how to put my information into the computer. Note that ticket clerks also have the ability to issue tickets for the entire system, while the older ticket machines will only issue tickets for the station and line that they're on. (Not sure about the touch screen ones.)

If you're just taking a local or branch line train, use your EasyCard! Tap it on the turnstile where it says "IC Card" and enjoy 10% off the fare, plus no waiting in line. Smaller stations without turnstiles will have EasyCard validators-- remember to tap on and off.

TRA stations vary from simple wayside platforms in the rural areas to the bustling underground rabbit warren that is Taipei Main Station. Most stations that you'll be using will be central city stations, and all of these have automated ticket machines and ticket clerks, at least one convenience store, and several options for quick snacks. They will also have restrooms, although cleanliness varies, and squat toilets are the rule. Note that restrooms are often found only outside of the fare-paid area. Major rail stations and major bus stations also tend to be co-located, although this rule holds less in rural areas. (Zhudong, for example, has its rail station on one side of town, and its bus station-- a major transfer point for Hsinchu County buses-- on the other.) Many major stations will have purified drinking water, and most of those will offer cold water. (Changhua would only provide hot and warm water...)

Mass Rapid Transit (MRT, 捷運, jié yùn)

The Taipei MRT rivals the HSR in foreigner-friendliness. Maps, signs, ticket machines, and automated announcements are all bi-lingual. (Spoken announcements are quadra-lingual: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English.) EasyCard is from here, and you can buy a card, re-load one, and use one at every MRT station. Many stations have restrooms, and the MRT is conveniently connected to HSR at Taipei Main and Banqiao, and to TRA at Taipei Main, Banqiao, and Nangang. If you happen to be flying in to Songshan Airport (for most domestic flights and a handful of international ones, mostly to Tokyo's Haneda Airport), there's an MRT station right outside. MRT stations are also important transfer points for Taipei's bus system.

Many MRT stations will have restrooms.

Kaohsiung also has an MRT system, which I am not familiar with.

Fares on the MRT are distance-based, with a NT$20 minimum. You get a 20% discount with an EasyCard, but single fares are handled on these adorable plastic RFID-enabled chips, roughly the size of two US quarters stacked on top of each other. I bought one just as a souvenir (but if you do, you can't tag in with it-- the turnstiles eat them on the way out).

Next up, I'll be discussing the bewildering variety of bus services in Taiwan, and how each is useful to the typical independent traveler.


  1. Hi JN,

    if u have TR Pass, do you need to go to clerk to get the ticket or just board the train and later show the pass along with your ID to the official in the train ?

    I also confused whether TzeChiang class is permitted. I find this official source :
    says cannot upgrade to tze chiang ticket


  2. Sorry to be late getting back to you. If you have a TR Pass, you flash it at the ticket gates (there's always at least one staffed gate) and simply board your train. No need to grab a separate ticket at the window.

    I have seen sources, like the one you mention, say that you can't use the Tze Chiang trains, but I've also been all over Taiwan on a TR Pass, using Tze Chiang trains, and it's never been a problem. Admittedly, this could be a case of busy conductors not wanting to try to explain to the white guy why he's on the wrong train, but if it is a rule, it's rarely enforced.

    I have, however, been unceremoniously tossed off of Taroko Expresses at Taipei Main a couple of times.

    I hope that, if you've already made your trip to Taiwan, it was excellent, and you didn't get thrown off a train on my account.