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How Taipei got its Mass Rapid Transit
Author’s note: If you want to watch the video first, you can watch it below:
This is an old one but still quite fun. With the recent unveiling of the Taipei MRT Yellow Line, I am amazed with the speed with which they built the thing. They built these massive concrete structures for the trains to drive on. Single layer and sometimes double-stacked lines! It boggles the mind. Considering that the Bay Area’s BART is still working on its San Jose extension over 15 years after I first moved there, I think it’s pretty amazing.
The big question that has repeatedly come into my mind is: “How?” What is it about here that makes it so much easier to build such a network of trains? This is not an infrastructure blog - there are better ones out there - but I think a sentiment that has stuck with me is the notion of practice makes perfect. Taiwan has been building MRTs and LRTs (Tainan, Taichung, Taoyuan, Tamsui, and Kaohsiung are all getting one or another) for a long time. They don’t build something out and then stop. And the more practice the crews get, the better they are at estimating and executing as according to plan.
If you want to support the channel, I highly recommend checking out the Patreon. There’s a great deal of content in Early Access waiting to be released to the public. It would help keep the lights on too. One recent video I posted to Early Access was about the Soviet Union’s economy and their growth models. It’s pretty cool and worth checking out.
One of the great pleasures of living in Taipei is to be able to travel its mass rapid transit system — the Taipei MRT. This valuable piece of infrastructure been around for as long as I have been here but it was only after a recent trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles that I appreciated just how big of a deal its convenience and ease of use actually is for daily life.
So I looked into it and did some reading (much to the boredom of my friends and family). This is my big case study writeup of the political, financial and economic forces behind the infrastructure development of today’s Taipei MRT.
The Politics Behind Taipei Rapid Transit
Taipei MRT is Taiwan’s largest rapid transit line system with 81.5 total miles of track. As of 2019 it consists of 5 lines connecting a total of 117 stations.
The idea first began in 1968 when Minister of Transportation and Communications Sun Yuan-suan looked into a mass transit system to deal with Taipei’s burgeoning traffic congestion problems. The project at the time though was shelved because like with all complicated infrastructure systems the undertaking would have been really hard. There would be conflicts of interests between all sorts of various agencies at a central, municipal and county level. It would also cost an inane amount of money to boot — the government determined that it would take years to raise the money for a fully fledged rapid transit system.
The government finally approved the transit project in 1986 with a budget of 441.7 billion NTD (~$14 billion) — and opened an entire transit department for doing so. The reason the government finally approved and went forward with the project was because the sheer number of cars on the Taipei streets had started to create crippling traffic conditions — growing from 150,000 cars in 1971 to nearly a million by then in 1986. The smog and the gridlock led to an outcry for a developed transit solution.
At the same time, the Taiwan government was enjoying the benefits of a booming export-driven economy and decided that it could afford the cost of this infrastructure. It is noted that around this same time, the Taiwan government was in the midst of an investment spree — revamping its health care system to provide universal health coverage. After growing wealthy from its export economy, it wanted ways to improve the well-being of its citizens.
## Geographic Challenges of Developing the Taipei MRT
The first construction stage of Taipei’s MRT system consisted of 6 lines with 88 km of track and 77 stations. Half of them would have to be underground with the rest sitting on Taipei’s soft lakebed ground. Many of these stations are rather complex with multiple levels above and below ground. Da-an for example has five levels though not all of them are underground. The project would require the crews to dig as deep as 120 feet into Taipei’s geology (this was for a ventilation shaft for Banqiao station).
Taipei sits within a large geographic basin called the Taipei Basin, a triangle shaped region in between a number of mountain ranges including the massive Yangmingshan mountain to the north. Being a former lake bed, Taipei’s natural ground is rather soft — leading to unique challenges for those stations sitting above-ground.
The land under the Taipei city area has six layers with the east mostly characterized as silty clay and the west as silty sand with seams of clay. Under that silt is a layer of gravel which acts as Taipei’s water reservoir. It also caused lots of water flooding for the machines digging the MRT tunnels. Several times steel fragments would choke the screw and slow progress. When this happened, the screw would need to be cleared by hand — forcing the team to pump water out of the tunnel so that a person can go in there and remove the fragments. Don’t envy that job.
Thousands of years ago, Taipei city’s ground used to be a lake bed surrounded by a large forest. Fallen trees would be encased and entombed in the layers of sand, unable to decompose due to the lack of oxygen. Thus the drilling team found massive tree trunks 5-6 feet across and 15-20 feet tall as far down as 60 feet underneath the surface. For the most part, the tunnel machine drilled right through the trunks but in one noticeable incident during the construction of the now-Orange line the drill hit a titanic tree trunk that the drill could not push through but instead pushed forward for over 300 feet. The trunk created a vacuum into which soil, sand and water all rushed in, clogging the tunnels and forcing a delay.
Overall though, the hardest challenges the team had to deal with was to properly managing the groundwater levels and the structural integrity of the tunnel walls. The team learned from its early mistakes and gained familiarity with the geography of Taipei’s landscape. Their underground and aboveground work quickened and gained efficiency.
Who Built Taipei’s Rapid Transit System?
The complexity of the Taipei MRT construction project — the first of its kind — meant that Taiwan needed outside expertise. Some of the things the construction crews would need to do — including a massive underground tunnel — were fantastically complex. The local Taiwanese construction companies did not have the knowledge and experience in building something like this.
The Taiwan government saw this as an opportunity for local companies to learn from the experience brought in by the foreigners. Over time, the local contractors could then take over future construction efforts. So the government held a number of fairs and conferences in various countries to try and attract interest in the project.
253 local and 106 international contractors would participate in the Taipei MRT’s first stage construction. Most of these international contractors were Japanese as the Japanese had long term working relationships with Taiwan with offices there since the 1950s. As Japan was running a trade deficit with Taiwan at the time, this project would also help with that. Few European and American companies got involved. The local contractors were mostly government-owned — few private Taiwanese construction companies had the wherewithal and the professionalism to handle a project on par with the Taipei MRT.
Over time, the builders received enough experience to eventually take over from the Japanese. Today, the builders and operators of the Taipei Metro are consulted for metro projects in other areas.
The Fruits of Effort
It would take 10 years for the first lines to be opened to public — a single line (“Brown Line”) from Zhongshan High School to the Taipei Zoo in March 1996. A second line (the “Red Line”) from Zhongshan to the port area of Tamsui (which revitalized the area as a tourist destination after decades of stagnation) began service in March 1997.
Three years later in 1999, the third line (the “Blue Line”) opened in the heart of Taipei’s downtown. That first Brown Line received an extension to Taipei’s northern neighborhoods in 2000. Two more lines (the “Green Line” and the “Orange Line”) were added over the subsequent 14 years. With the opening of the Taoyuan Airport MRT connecting Taipei with the Taoyuan airport, the metro system has begun to expand out of Taipei itself into the neighboring city of Taoyuan.
The time it took from the time when the government gave the okay to completion was about 10 years. The budget of the Taipei MRT project quoted in US dollars ballooned from $4 billion to $17 billion, not necessarily because of delays and cost overruns but because the Taiwanese currency got stronger as the export-driven economy developed over the years.
A key point about the Taipei MRT system’s expansions over the years has to do with the fact that — unlike with how it often is in the United States — the MRT company running the trains does not actually pay the cost of building the train’s infrastructure. The money for that came from the central and city governments — and while that might sound like a handout, doing it that way allowed the corporation to operate efficiently and on budget. Previous experiences in Japan and Malaysia found that burdening the train operating companies with the complete debt of infrastructure tends to cripple even the best running companies operating in the densest of areas. Government needs to be there in some way or form.
In paying for the Taipei Metro, the Taiwan government was distributing a favor to its flagship city and capital, one that millions in the area enjoy every day. This has always been a point of contention for other cities especially in Taiwan’s more agricultural south. But new line expansions into New Taipei City and Taoyuan as well as light rail networks in Taichung and Kaoshiung bode well for the future of mass transit in Taiwan.