High-Speed Rail

To see high-speed rail done right, California should study Taiwan

A high-speed train coursing through the Taiwanese countryside.
A high-speed train coursing through the Taiwanese countryside. Special to The Bee

When it comes to fast trains, a California consensus has hardened: High-speed rail is beyond us.

We may be the world’s high-tech capital, but high-speed rail is just too technically challenging for us. We may have one of the planet’s richest economies, but high-speed rail is too expensive. We are a sprawling state of 40 million, but we’re too small to construct even one high-speed rail line.

But if we’re right about powerlessness to deliver high-speed rail, then how do we explain Taiwan?

My recent visits to that beautiful island, where I was running a public democracy conference, put the lie to all the excuses Californians use to justify abandoning high-speed rail.

Taiwan is a far poorer place than California — with median household income just one-fourth of our s— but still it managed to afford high-speed rail. It’s far less populous, with only 23 million people, but its fast trains attract a huge ridership.

Taiwan’s high-speed rail resembles what California’s might have been if we hadn’t lost our nerve.

Taiwan’s population, like California’s, is mostly along its west coast. So at the century’s turn, Taiwan started construction on a high-speed rail line linking Taipei City, in the north, to Kaohsiung, in the south. That’s a distance of 225 miles, about the same as California’s planned first phase of high-speed rail, from San Jose to Bakersfield.

But Taiwan began operating its line in less than seven years, at a cost of $18 billion. It’s unclear whether California’s will ever be finished, or what the costs, estimated at $68 billion, will be.

Paradoxically, Taiwan’s project was completed less expensively because it didn’t do high-speed rail on the cheap.

While California established an underfinanced government authority to lead the project, Taiwan’s biggest businesses came together to create a private corporation. The deal to establish the corporation gave the government a minority stake and created a concession: the company would operate high-speed rail for 35 years, after which it would have to give the system back to the government.

Construction difficulties that have been used as excuses in California were surmounted in Taiwan. Taiwan’s project met strict environmental requirements, protecting a beautiful-but-endangered bird: the Pheasant-tailed Jacana. While California blames earthquake faults for delays and higher costs here, seismically active Taiwan built safely to incorporate risks from earthquakes — and from hurricanes and landslides. And even as California’s high-speed rail authority was stymied by the costs of viaducts and tunneling, Taiwan created a system with even more tunneling and the world’s second-longest bridge, the 97-mile Changhua-Kaohsiung Viaduct.

Taiwan’s project was not without problems. The corporation relied on loans, and built up a high debt. In 2009, with Taiwan’s economy in free fall, the government effectively provided a bailout by assisting with refinancing the loans, taking a larger ownership stake in the corporation, and extending the concession from 35 to 70 years.

At the time, relentless critics of California’s high-speed rail used the Taiwan bailout to help turn the public against the whole concept.

But Californians never got the rest of the story. The bailout worked, and the corporation endured. As the economy recovered, Taiwan’s high-speed rail system proved reliably profitable — and popular, with 64 million riders last year.

Indeed, high-speed rail has done nothing less than transform the country, linking its once-disconnected regions together. Bus and airline service fell as Taiwanese embraced high-speed rail. Getting from Taipei to Kaohsiung once required an airplane ride or a five-hour drive. Now it can be done by 300-kilometer-per-hour high-speed rail in 90 minutes. While California cities try to steal away state high-speed rail money for their own commuter lines, Taiwan cities like Tainan and Hsinchu have instead built their own robust transit links off of the high-speed line.

I learned first-hand what a difference this can make. With high-speed rail, it took me just 40 minutes to travel between the two cities where my democracy conference was taking place — Taichung and Taipei — even though they are as far apart as San Diego and L.A. The ticket price, regulated by the government, was $22, the cost of a round-trip from Oakland’s airport to San Francisco on BART.

At 6 p.m. at the conclusion of my conference’s “democracy tour” of Taiwanese cities, our attendees took a regular train for a three-hour journey back to Taichung. But I stayed in Kaohsiung for dinner with a family friend. After a lovely meal, I took the high-speed train at 8 p.m. for a 43-minute ride to Taichung, 120 miles north. I was in bed by 9 p.m., just as the regular train with my colleagues pulled into the Taichung station.

As a Californian, it was nice finally to experience the long-promised benefits from high-speed rail. It’s maddening that I had to do so in a smaller and poorer country, rather than in California itself.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.