Language policy in Taiwan's bullet trains:

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Jan 4 18:50:17 UTC 2007

French and German train drivers are allowed to speak only English with
Taiwanese traffic controllers; plans to switch the entire system to spoken
Chinese and Chinese-language computer displays in about three years.

>>From the NYTimes, January 4, 2007
Taipei Journal

Taiwans Bullet Trains Cant Outrun Controversy


TAIPEI, Taiwan, Dec. 28 The sleek, bulbous-nosed new bullet trains here
look like they are designed to whisk passengers across wide-open spaces.
But on this congested island, they represent the start of a
180-mile-per-hour commuter train system. After a quarter century of
planning and construction, the system is scheduled to open on Jan. 5. It
will tie together cities and towns where 94 percent of Taiwans population
lives, offering an alternative to clogged highways and the air pollution
the vehicles on them produce. For some urban planners and
environmentalists, the project is an example of how Asia may be able to
control oil imports, curb fast-rising emissions of global-warming gases
and bring a higher standard of living to enormous numbers of people in an
environmentally sustainable way.

Passengers who travel on a fully loaded train will use only a sixth of the
energy they would use if they drove alone in a car and will release only
one-ninth as much carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming.
Compared with a bus ride, the figures are half the energy and a quarter of
the carbon dioxide, train system officials said. But the systems enormous
cost $15 billion, or $650 for every man, woman and child on Taiwan has
made it a subject of dispute. And a series of commercial disputes since
the project began in 1980 has produced a remarkable hodgepodge: French and
German train drivers who are allowed to speak only English with Taiwanese
traffic controllers while operating Japanese bullet trains on tracks
originally designed by British and French engineers.

The system has become so complex that the leader of Taiwans consumer
movement is calling for citizens to boycott it entirely until extensive
safety data is released. Cherish your life, dont be a guinea pig, Cheng
Jen-hung, the chairman of the Consumers Foundation, said in an interview,
repeating his groups slogan. With 900 passengers on a fully loaded train,
he warned, if there is an accident, there will be very heavy casualties.
Arthur Chiang, the vice president for administration at Taiwan High Speed
Rail, said the system was completely safe. But he acknowledged that the
project had been bedeviled by opposition.

Pandoras box has already opened and everything has come out except hope
and mutual trust, he said during a recent test run on one of the new
trains from the capital, Taipei, in the north, to the city of Taichung, in
west-central Taiwan. We just wanted to make it simple, but we failed, he
added. Politics is one of the factors. Using overhead electric lines
instead of diesel locomotives, the trains will run from Taipei down
through western Taiwan to Kaohsiung, the main industrial city in the
south. That is a distance of 215 miles, about the same as between New York
and Washington. The system will start with 19 trains in each direction
daily and eventually will be able to handle 88 trains daily in each

Planning started in 1980, when Taiwan was still under martial law. The
route was preliminarily picked in 1991, as Taiwan was starting on the path
to become the vibrant, even tempestuous, democracy that it is today. Every
large city and town along the route lobbied to have its own stop and new
railway station, and a succession of governments agreed. Three trains a
day will travel from Taipei to Kaohsiung in 90 minutes, with just one
stop, in Taichung. But most of the trains will make six intermediate
stops, lengthening travel time to two hours and seven minutes.

That is still 38 minutes faster than Amtraks Acela Express between New
York and Washington, which also has up to six intermediate stops but a
lower top speed. But flights between Taipei and Kaohsiung take just 40
minutes. Enormous stations resembling state-of-the-art airport terminals
have been built on the outskirts of each city along the route except
Taipei, where the existing main rail station is being used. The new
stations cannot be in most downtown areas because of the difficulty in
acquiring land for tracks: the high-speed trains travel almost entirely on
specially built, 60-foot-tall viaducts to avoid the need to cross roads.

Smaller trains and buses will link the new stations to downtown. Although
many urban planners see systems like this one as positive for the
environment, Lee Schipper, the research director at Embarq, an
environmental transport research group in Washington, said the system
could eventually increase the use of energy, rather than save it, if the
ease of using the trains encouraged people to move farther away from work.
The expectation in Taiwan is that the train system will attract a lot of
users at first, notwithstanding Mr. Chengs call for a boycott; the
consumer movement here is not as big or visible as it was even 10 years

A French train driver sporting a magnificent handlebar mustache, who
declined to give his name, sent Mr. Chiangs train hurtling down the tracks
on the recent test run. The driver said the trains were actually simpler
to operate than those in France. Its easier, its all automatic, he said in
French. But the requirement that all communications take place in English
is a complication, he added. The electronic displays in the cabs of each
train are also in English. The Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation is
training Taiwanese drivers to replace the European drivers and plans to
switch the entire system to spoken Chinese and Chinese-language computer
displays in about three years, Mr. Chiang said. The consortium had
expected to hire experienced Japanese drivers, but the Japanese companies
that made the trains were unable to persuade Japans rail system operators
to transfer any of their drivers to Taiwan.

Whether the train system becomes a commercial success will partly depend
on how many people use its somewhat inconveniently located stations, how
quickly the land is developed around these stations and how much the
tickets cost. The initial price for a one-way, coach ticket from Taipei to
Kaohsiung will be $44, or two-thirds the price of a typical airline
ticket. Riding the train is much like a very low-altitude flight, and very
quiet.  Chen Chi-cheng, a 5-year-old invited on the test run, watched with
fascination as the rooftops of houses flashed past. Its like a plane, he
said breathlessly.


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