Century-old Alishan Forest Railway faces uncertain future

The Alishan Forest Railway, an alpine railway that was built during the Japanese colonial era, could be suspended after running yearly losses of up to NT$300 million (US$9.3 million) in recent years, a local daily reported Tuesday.

The United Daily News said the Forestry Bureau turned over the operation of the alpine rail line to the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) after a fatal accident in which a broken tree hit the train that resulted in the deaths of five people in April 2010.

Later, the railway was operated by the TRA with the Forestry Bureau providing the funding.

The original plan was to have the bureau help the TRA during a transitional phase until the TRA could take over the rail line in 2016. But Typhoon Dujuan, which battered Taiwan in September 2015, disrupted that plan.

The TRA said it costs a lot to operate an alpine railway, noting that repairs after mudslides, which happen frequently, often cost more than a million Taiwan dollars apiece.

Although the TRA raised ticket prices last May, boosting revenues by about 25 percent in 2016, the line likely lost about NT$300 million for the year, similar to the losses posted the previous two years.

The line's performance in 2016 was hurt by the drop in Chinese visitors to Taiwan in the second half of the year, contributing to a decline in ridership to 1.6 million in 2016 from 1.94 million the previous year, the TRA said.

The TRA said during the past three years, funding for the maintenance of slopes, tracks and trains and the phasing out of old trains has come from a public fund, which is said to be running low.

The Forestry Bureau acknowledged that the railway has lost money but denied reports that the public fund would soon be depleted.

The bureau said it would continue to work with the TRA to finalize the complete handover of the rail line's operations to the TRA by the end of the year.

Some bureau officials were more optimistic about the Alishan Railway's prospects, noting that the government and the private sector have tried to drum up support in recent years for the idea of listing the alpine railway as a world heritage site because of its unique historical, cultural and natural attributes.

They believe that if the line does run into financial trouble, the government "certainly will not sit by idly" and will come to the rescue.

The 71.4-kilometer Alishan Forest Railway, which has been in operation since 1912, was constructed initially to transport timber from the mountains, but is now used for recreational purposes, carrying passengers to the popular Alishan scenic area.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel