how taiwan proves that it is possible to build HSR in an anti-environmental way

From the Hong Kong Standard

I called up Linda Arrigo, a local activist and member of Taiwan’s Green Party. I wanted an environmentalist’s take on the HSR’s impact on Taiwan. After all, anything that offers an alternative to driving has to be endorsed by Greenies, at least so I assumed.

But Arrigo told me that Taiwanese environmentalists were less enthusiastic about the train than I’d expected.

“Anytime you concrete over open space you get a negative environmental effect,” she said. “Animal migration is hindered and groundwater systems are disrupted. Personally, I don’t think environmental concerns were a priority in the building of the HSR.”

Surprisingly, Arrigo said the most negative impact of the HSR would be not to the environment, but to the socio- economic structure of the towns the train passed through. “Essentially, what you have with the HSR is a series of airports in areas that until recently were zoned for agricultural use. These areas are already magnets for heavy business and residential development. Though much has been written about how the HSR is based on the Japanese model, in Japan the lines
were built through urban centers. The Taiwan HSR bypasses them.”

Back at home, a quick glance at Google Earth showed that Arrigo was correct, at least as far as geography and population density is concerned.

The HSR track – straight in most sections – stands in sharp contrast to the smooth noodle map of Taiwan’s road system. Whereas the highways generally follow the curvature of the coast, jutting in and out of city centers, the HSR line carves a path from Banciao (on the outskirts of Taipei) to Zouying (on the outskirts of Kaoushiung) without actually passing through any major cities.

Sure enough, I discovered the next day that station names along the HSR are a bit misleading. Hsinchu’s station turned out to be in Jhubei (“North Hsinchu”), 15 minutes by taxi from the city center. And Taichung’s station was again as far from the actual city itself, in a small hamlet called Wurih. At every station along the line, the story was the same – big-city satellites in the early stages of massive development. While the HSR promises to bring prosperity and development throughout Taiwan’s west coast, it’s probable that all the trappings – traffic and urban sprawl, to name a few – will follow.

But surely a little urban sprawl, not to mention the US$15 billion (HK$117 billion) estimated price tag of the project so far, is fair trade for the speed of travel that the HSR brings to Taiwan? The answer dependends on how much one likes rice paddies versus how fast one wishes to travel.

Less subjective is the matter of speed itself. While it’s fun to throw around numbers such as “287 km/h,” the hair- raising speed the train reaches on the flat-out 28-minute burn between Hsinchu and Taichung, can the speed of the Taiwan HSR be put in easier to grasp terms?

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This segues into the most important question of all: is Taiwan’s bullet train safe? There’s something about moving so fast while still attached to the ground that gives some people the willies. Paul, a photographer friend of mine living in Taichung, says he’s dubious, and it’s more than just gut feeling.

“I’ve seen the inspectors coming by and checking out the loose rock that’s slid out from the track bed,” he tells me as we drive around the railway looking for a good place to get a shot of passing trains. “That sort of thing scares the hell out of me. If it goes five years without having a major accident, then I’ll consider taking it. Until then, I’m fine with the slow train.”

High-speed rail systems in general have a far lower rate of derailment incidents than normal trains. The problem is that when an accident does occur the results are disastrous.

On June 3, 1998, a high speed train en-route from Munich to Hamburg derailed in Lower Saxony and the results were horrific. One derailed carriage slammed into the concrete piling supporting an overhead bridge, obliterating it and causing the bridge to collapse. Of the 287 passengers onboard the ill-fated train, 101 were killed and 88 were severely injured.

For comparison’s sake, two-thirds of the 97 passengers on the iconic Hindenburg not only survived, but escaped with relatively minor injuries. Had the train not been at less than 50 percent passenger capacity, fatalities would have been far worse. Had the accident occurred just two minutes earlier, before the train bound for Munich had already passed, the results might well have been unthinkable.

Rather than mull over such grim statistics, consider instead that Japan’s Shinkansen, the world’s best-known bullet train and on which Taiwan’s HSR is based, boasts a near-impeccable safety record. In operation since 1964, the Shinkansen has recorded only one derailment, caused by an earthquake in 2004 and resulting in no fatalities. There have been bullet train-related deaths in Japan, but except for one (some poor soul whose arm became caught in a door), all were the result of people jumping in front of, or off, speeding trains. You can’t blame fatalities such as those on poor design.

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