TAIPEI – This year marks the 130th anniversary of the start of construction of Taiwan’s first railway, back when the island was part of China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
Among the commemorative events, Taiwanese officials earlier this year celebrated two Japanese colonial-era train stations: the main station in the central industrial city of Taichung and a smaller terminal constructed north of Taipei in 1916 for visitors to Beitou’s famous hot springs.
Japan has long been credited with Taiwan’s rapid modernization during its 50-year rule of the island, when colonial planners embarked on a range of large-scale infrastructure projects including ports, irrigation and sewage systems, and communications networks.
But none contributed more to Taiwan’s prosperity than the railway system, one of the region’s most extensive when the Japanese left in 1945.
To this day, Japan-initiated rail lines, some of which have operated for over 100 years, provide essential services to Taiwanese communities. And while trains no longer dominate island transportation as they once did, the Taiwan government has acknowledged the historical importance of no less than 32 colonial-era stations and committed to an ambitious plan to upgrade and restore them.
The Japanese were not the first to build railroads in Taiwan. Chinese used trolleys drawn by water buffaloes to move raw materials like sugarcane and coal. In 1893, a line opened connecting Keelung on the north coast through Taipei to Hsinchu in northern Taiwan.
But when the island was ceded to Japan in 1895, work began almost immediately on the construction of a modern railroad system.
In time, Japanese administrators bought out privately owned railroads and integrated them with the public system, thereby improving efficiency. They also increased passenger services, first by mixing coaches with freight cars, then running trains exclusively for travelers and commuters.
The Japanese saw railways as the “pioneers of civilization” and the foundation of their colonial economy, said Tsai Lung-bao, a history professor at National Taipei University. “They connect the island from north to south, west to east, improving lives and bringing development to the island.”
Railroads benefited Taiwan in several ways, the most obvious being economic.
Steam and then diesel trains transported bulk materials like coal, sugar, timber and gravel, much of which was destined for Japan.
Where trains went, people and business followed, providing conditions necessary for early industrialization in factory towns like Yingge near Taipei, which became a center for ceramics production.
The ability to move products quickly over long distances also transformed agriculture and improved Taiwanese diets, especially during the winter when perishable southern crops could be shipped north.
Rail transport also changed Taiwan socially, first by encouraging urbanization and then by increasing mobility needed for cities to develop centralized business districts staffed by commuters from residential areas on the periphery.
But perhaps the most consequential effect of the railways was the effect on how Taiwanese perceived time, as trains required synchronization and punctuality, said Lee Shiao-feng, a professor of Taiwanese culture at National Taipei University of Education.
If time organized around the shifting phases of the moon served the needs of farmers and fishermen, railway time marked by the regularity of the clock inculcated habits essential for business and manufacturing.
“To avoid missing your train and losing your job, working people became punctual, a virtue lacking before the Japanese came,” Lee said.
The 1940s saw the first signs of decline in Taiwanese rail transport.
This was due partly to the effects of World War II, which not only destroyed equipment but forced the suspension of services in many areas.
But it was also a result of economic change. As lumber and mining declined in importance, lines serving those operations were shut down.
After the war, the newly established Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) faced competition from new transportation interests: first bus and trucking firms, then cars.
Metropolitan areas like Taipei and Kaohsiung also built their own transit systems, and soon a high-speed rail line joined major urban centers north and south.
Instead of competing with new forms of transportation, the TRA decided to work with them, said TRA Deputy Director-General Hsu Jen-tsai, providing connecting links, for example, to high-speed rail stations located in suburbs.
In time the TRA replaced diesel locomotives with electric while also improving its own intercity commuter services. It completed the last sections of the island-wide rail system in eastern and southern Taiwan, lines that rarely pay for themselves but fulfill the company mandate to provide services even in remote areas of the island.
Despite rapid modernization, train travel in Taiwan has retained key fixtures of its history, its stations in particular.
The recently refurbished Taichung Station celebrated its centennial earlier this year, six months after the TRA opened a mammoth new glass and steel terminal right beside it.
An impressive structure long identified with the city, the old station was constructed in the free-classic style of Japanese architect Kingo Tatsuno, whose other works includes Tokyo Station and the Bank of Japan, according to Liou Shuenn-ren, a professor of architecture at National Cheng Kung University.
Over the past century, Taichung Station greeted millions of visitors from all over the world, including then-Crown Prince Hirohito in 1923, who was in Taiwan to inspect the fast-growing colony.
Stations in Hsinchu, Tainan and Kaohsiung provide equally striking examples of period architecture while continuing to serve thousands of travelers daily.
Two stations were built in Taiwan’s capital during the Japanese period, the first in 1901, the second in 1941. Both were replaced as the city outgrew them. In 1989, Taipei unveiled its third station, which currently serves as a hub for TRA trains, high-speed rail and the underground mass transit system (MRT).
But if Taipei Main Station appears more Chinese than Japanese, a few kilometers to the north the Xinbeitou train station looks like a page out of colonial history.
Dismantled in 1988 to make way for an MRT station, the wooden Japanese-era building was reconstructed with new materials and reopened this spring close to its original location after decades of campaigning by local groups to have it restored.