Ciril van Hattum visits Taiwan’s second city to report on the first months of passenger trials on the nation’s first tramway operation.
Kaohsiung, with almost 2.8 million inhabitants, is the first recipient of a modern electric tramway system in Taiwan. Comparable in size with The Netherlands, this Asian nation has undertaken a significant industrial and technological revolution over the last 50 years, resulting in an increase of the national income – with more money also available for public transport provision.
The country’s mass transit was poor for many years, serviced primarily by diesel buses in all the major towns and cities and slow diesel-powered trains across the country operated by the TRA, the (national) Taiwan Railway Administration, on 1067mm-gauge infrastructure. Although rail electrification in the country began in 1979, with steam locomotives disappearing in 1982, the biggest improvement came in 2007 with the establishment of Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR), a private enterprise running services on entirely separate standard-gauge (1435mm) infrastructure with speeds up to 300km/h (186mph).
In urban terms, 1996 saw the opening of the first metro route in the capital Taipei, soon joined by four other lines. Kaohsiung also embarked on metro construction, with works beginning in 2001 and the opening
of a two-route network in March and September 2008 (delayed by around 15 months due to construction difficulties and political scandal from its intended 2006 opening date).
Creating a tramway
Kaohsiung is not the first Taiwanese city to promote tramway plans. In 2000, Hsinchu, a city of around 400 000 population located 80km (50 miles) south of Taipei, offered its own vision of a mass transit solution for a population not suited to a metro system. ADTranz was contacted and a mock-up of the first half of an Incentro low-floor tram was placed downtown opposite the town hall and in front of the police station – a very safe place indeed. Cars of this type were later delivered to Nottingham in the UK.
The public reacted very positively to the tramway proposals, but unfortunately the scheme was not followed through and the pretty mock-up was soon removed.
The two Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) lines – the term ‘metro’ is not used widely in Asia – of the Kaohsiung Rapid Transit Corporation (KRTC) run north to south (Red line – 28km/17.5 miles) and from west to east (Orange line – 14.4km/8.8 miles). Rolling stock came from Siemens in the form of 42 thee-car trains, with the German firm also chosen as electromechanical contractor and systems integrator. The manufacturer also diverted a Combino low-floor tram bound for Melbourne that ran as a demonstrator on a short track laid in the city’s Central Park for three months. As in Hsinchu, both inhabitants and local government reacted enthusiastically and the decision was soon made to progress a modern LRT project.
The eventual tram rolling stock contract was placed with CAF for the turnkey project to develop a circular route around the city; civil engineering was to be carried out by the Taiwanese Evergreen Construction Company. The total cost for the project was estimated at USD550m (approx. EUR490m), with 70% met by the city and 30% from national infrastructure funds.
Although on a far smaller scale, many visitors to Kaohsiung will be familiar with the city’s LRT concept as it follows a similar premise to that of modern Paris – a ring around the city, connecting with radial metro lines at all four points of the compass. The Kaohsiung route also includes key passenger generators and important attractions such as the large Dream Mall, Kaohsiung Exhibition Center and the Main Public Library. Environmental considerations are strong in this city, leading the way as Taiwan’s ‘eco-leader’, and buildings such as the Main Public Library (opened in 2014) showcase this with a focus on sustainability and the incorporation of green space; this design ethos has very much been included in the development of the LRT system.
The full circular system forsees 37 stops, provisionally prefixed C (denoting Circular) 1 to 37 – the total length when complete is to be 22.1km (13.8 miles). Stage 1, stations C1-C14 (8.7 km/5.4 miles), was the easiest to implement as the TRA alignment of a former goods railway to the harbour could be used. Negotiating the transfer of this line to the city minimised property acquisition for the project, with TRA 1067mm-gauge track removed and replaced with standard-gauge light rail infrastructure.
Work began in mid-2013 and the first of nine CAF Urbos 3 vehicles came at the end of the following year. These trams are equipped with the CAF-developed Acumulador de Carga Rapida (ACR) system that sees roof-mounted supercapacitors charged via the pantograph at intermediate stops with no overhead line inbetween. Operation and maintenance falls under the remit of metro operator KRTC. On 16 October 2015 the first tram in regular passenger service left the depot: Taiwan’s first electric tramway was a reality.
But far from a well-patronised starter line, to oblige the local population KRTC opened the first small section – around 2km (1.2 miles) from C1 to C4 – in advance to gain real-world experience of operations and gauge passenger feedback during testing. The service is fare-free, but even then only a few residents make use of it. Most of those onboard the trams are KRTC employees, while volunteers are placed at each of the four stations to give advice and answer questions.
The double-track route lies segregated in a grassbed and although the Urbos 3 trams can travel at speeds up to 70km/h (43.5mph), a limit of 50km/h (31mph) has initially been imposed. With 30-minute headways 09.00-18.30, one car is currently sufficient, although these are used in rotation. A second stands by at C1, the starting point called Lizihnei; the name of the temporary C4 terminus is Kaisyuan Jhonghua.
Riding the tram is a unique experience. When onboard, two, three or four employees are busy operating and monitoring the vehicle while at road crossings large numbers of policemen regulate the traffic. To a western perspective – accustomed to tramways that run in and around the cities – this all seems a little excessive, but remember that trams are not only brand new to Kaohsiung but also to the nation as a whole and people still look on with wonder when a rail vehicle crosses the street near them without any barriers. Signals have been installed at such crossings and the tramcar rings its bell constantly as it moves silently across the road; all these measures are considered necessary – ‘safety first’ is no false cry here.
Each station has two side platforms, 49m long and built to the same height level as the floor of the Urbos 3 trams to allow level-boarding and with wheelchair ramps for maximum accessibility. There is a fence with an overhanging roof over the platform with a power rail attached to allow recharging. Each platform features a ticket vending machine (although not currently in use), a ticket validator, emergency call facilities and seating. As no drinking, eating or smoking are allowed on the trams, an obvious omission is a waste bin. The most striking feature however is the large cabinet necessary for the power supply at the outer end of each platform; this feeds the power rail.
At the new C2 and C3 stops the tram has to stop for at least 30 seconds in which time the pantograph is raised to make contact with the overhead line – only energised at 750V dc while the trams are at the platform. Charging takes around 20 seconds, after which time there is a audible ‘thud’ that can be heard inside the vehicle that makes it clear that the pantograph has been safely lowered again. At C1 and C4 additional time is given for charging the supercapacitors, with an end-to-end journey time of eight minutes for the initial 2km section, this allows for a rather long waiting time at the current termini. The ACR equipment is also fed by the trams’ regenerative braking system.
The decoration of C3 Cianjhen Star is different from the others, currently a monotone grey, in featuring a vivid red, orange and yellow colourscheme designed to honour its location near to an early native settlement. Here there is the possibility of changing to the MRT Red line for northern journeys to Gangshan South or south to Siaogang via the airport.
Near to C1 Lizihnei is a large depot, still under construction and named Cianjhen after the quarter, that has capacity to accommodate the 28 cars required when the full route is complete. Behind is open-air stabling space and normal overhead contact lines are present throughout the depot compound, although not in the workshop where a diesel transporter is used to bring the cars in and out. Besides the workshop, the depot has a full paintshop, carwash facility and upstairs offices that also house the system’s control room. Stops 36 and 37 are situated on the depot premises. Part of the old harbour railway track lies next to the depot, still in occasional TRA use although this will cease to make way for a connection around the depot site to station C1.
The Urbos 3 as delivered is a five-section vehicle with three bogies, two of which are powered. This platform is now well-known in cities such as Bilbao, Zaragoza, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the UK’s Midland Metro with other cities choosing the design such as Utrecht and Luxembourg. The cars for Kaohsiung are bi-directional, air-conditioned, 34m long and 2.65m wide – with four 1300mm double doors on each side and space for 250 passengers, including 64 seated. The 450mm-wide seats have been specially designed for easy cleaning and replacement. Each section is numbered and current operational trams are 011-015 and 091-095. CAF is also responsible for electrification, signalling, and fare collection on the new line.
For the next stage, stations C5-C8 are ready and are in the inspection phase; trams will run on this section later in the year, and will also be free of charge. Safety checks and trials are significant again as more than one authority is involved. C8 Kaohsiung Exhibition Center is a significant stop as this modern building attracts many visitors and is a key passenger generator for the system; C9 and C10 are almost ready but then Ai Ho, the Love River, must be crossed. A dedicated bridge is 50% complete and the section to C14 is expected to open in 2017. The final station of this stage corresponds with Sizihwan station, current terminus of the Orange MRT route. TRA forms a bottleneck for stage 2. Currently the railway northwards from Kaohsiung is at surface level but works are underway to move everything underground. A large notice in the hall of Kaohsiung station says this construction will be finished in 2017 – possibly an optimistic claim as although the tramway alignment between C17 and C21 stops has been planned, trains are still running on this line. Further to the east the route will follow the broad Dashun 1st and 2nd Road until it reaches C32 where it can rejoin the former Harbour Line. Predicting when the full circular route will be complete, tested and ready for passengers is difficult, although 2020 seems possible. Kaohsiung is certainly not a small city, but it is also not a major capital either so the decision to construct a tram route that neither passes the city’s central urban core nor the main railway station remains a risky one. Only when operational and passengers are convinced to interchange from change from MRT to LRT will the tramway become a success and it will be some years before this is known.
The author thanks Chuang Ching-Chuan of the Mass Rapid Transit Bureau for the information he has given and for a tour of the facilities.