How to Get Around Taiwan by Train

How to Get Around Taiwan by Train

Not sure if you should take the TRA or the THSR? Bell shares a few tips that will help you out if you’re confused about the different train and rail types in Taiwan.

Contributed by Bell Yeo

So… I’ve been itching to write this down since I returned from Taiwan because it stands out as one of the most memorable things I’ve experienced.

The whole process of booking train tickets across different counties in Taiwan was definitely a challenging one as my partner, Eugene, and I had to familiarize ourselves with the different types of rail transportation available. We also had to research and consider the different classes of trains, prices, ride durations as well as which stations to stop at. Typing that out makes me tired already but I’m pleased to say that now Eugene and I are now reasonable experts after having tried all three types of rail transport during our 14-day trip to Taiwan!

Triumphant and happy because we were reaching Hualien, with a lunch bento in hand

Initially, Eugene and I had planned to hire a private driver to take us through all 14 days of our Taiwan travels, but too many drivers were already booked out due to our bad planning. Yup, we had started asking for quotations too late. Who asks for quotations two weeks before their flight during the holiday season? US! And when we found someone, we were quoted NT$7000 (which was ~S$333 at the time of writing), an exorbitant sum just for a one-way drive (three hours) from Taichung to Hualien…After that, we decided that it was fate that we had to storm Taiwan entirely by train instead. This also meant that we had to conquer our fear of not being able to read those traditional Chinese characters on the signboards at the train stations.

If you want to do it like how the locals do, read on and discover, as we did, how taking the train in Taiwan is actually cheap and convenient – and not that intimidating!

Firstly, let me tell you a side story about the time when the train engine died halfway through our five-hour journey on Christmas Eve:

Us after boarding that fateful train on 24 Dec 2017 & gearing up for a five-hour ride

So, Eugene and I were on our five-hour TRA ride from Taichung to Hualien, when out of the blue, the train engine died on everyone at Zhongli station. I woke up from my two-hour nap to hear locals complaining in Hokkien…Apparently, the train engine had died because it was too cold (10 degrees Celsius that day), and there was no broadcast to inform us of what to do next, because there was also no electricity on the train, i.e. no lights and no broadcast function. The next thing I knew was that EVERYONE started clambering off the train with their suitcases; leaving only Eugene and me on the train! Completely stressed out by the chaos and the sea of angry people, we of course, decided to follow suit and managed to quickly get off the train as well.

By this time, a dilapidated-looking train (think oily rusty hinges around the train doors and smears of black oil on the carriages) had pulled into the station and everyone was dashing to get onto it. We understood from a Taiwanese couple our age who was also heading to Hualien for Christmas, that this was a sudden transfer train activated to head to Taipei, also known as a 區間車 (Qūjiānchē). The problem was that this transfer train was already packed to the brim, and people were already standing on the steps on the carriage doors. There was also the problem of having to buy new tickets to Hualien if we took the transfer train back to Taipei – it was the festive season and train tickets were bound to be sold out on Christmas Eve. Plus, we would have to find a way to get a refund for these tickets we had already bought to Hualien.

Eventually, we decided not to get on the transfer train because it looked like a replica from Train to Busan after the zombies were already done with it. At this point, the train we were initially on suddenly started up again. The lights came on and so, being part of the few people left on the platform who didn’t board the transfer train, we managed to be the first ones to get back on the TRA to Hualien. I cannot begin to explain how relieved we were that we did not have to deal with buying new train tickets because we already had accommodation and a hiking guide booked in Hualien, with no refund option available. So that’s our little train story from Christmas Eve 2017!

Back to the train guide.

There are three types of rail transport in Taiwan, which I have summarised below:

1. MRT (Taipei Metro)

taiwan train and rail system

Image credit: subscriptshoe9

The MRT only exists in Taipei, which is the commercial and business hub of Taiwan. It is just like the MRT in Singapore. All you need to do is purchase an EasyCard aka 悠遊卡 (yōuyóu ka) from any service counter in a station, add value to it, and voila! It works just like an EZ-link card! In Taiwan, they also have maps at every station platform, just like in Singapore. Each train ride can cost between NT$20 to NT$30 for about 4-5 stops, which is about ~S$0.90-S$1.50. They also have station names in English everywhere, so it’s very easy to navigate and won’t cause much stress. You can find the detailed Taipei MRT map here.

2. THSR aka Taiwan High Speed Rail (高铁)

taiwan train and rail system

Image credit: Taiwan Tourism

THSR is the option you need to take if you want to travel to other major tourist cities in Taiwan, like Taichung (for the Sun Moon Lake), Chiayi (for Alishan) and Kaohsiung. Eugene and I took the HSR from Taipei to Taichung right away after landing in Taoyuan International Airport, and it was a swift one-hour ride that cost us only NT$660, which is ~S$31.

Things to note for THSR:

  • You can book HSR tickets online here, just click ‘24HR Online Booking’.
  • Tickets can be bought up to one month in advance, and there are usually early bird discounts! Don’t miss out.
  • After you book online, you can collect your HSR tickets at the station itself from a self-service kiosk or from a counter with service staff, like we did. I had some problems with the kiosk, luckily the counter staff present were able to help.
  • You can also collect your tickets at any FamilyMart or 7-11 outlet – just pop in and use their train ticket collection machines! You only have to pay NT$8, which is ~S$0.40, for a printout of your tickets.
  • You can eat bentos on the train or on the platform seating area while waiting. Bentos usually go for NT$60/80 (~S$2).
  • There are toilets on the train.

3. TRA aka Taiwan Railway Administration (火車 or 台铁)

taiwan train and rail system

Image credit: Lexcie

The TRA travels to literally every county in Taiwan, and is the oldest and most expansive type of rail network in Taiwan. The TRA is the one you need to take if you are travelling to Hualien (for Taroko Gorge and yummy scallion pancakes) or Shifen/Jiufen (for setting off sky lanterns and walking down the street that inspired the famous Japanese anime, Spirited Away). We took the TRA from Taichung to Hualien (NT$815, ~S$38), and from Hualien back to Taipei (NT420, ~S$19.80).

This is the view from the platform of the Taichung TRA Station, and that is a TRA train. Note that it is NOT the same address as the Taichung HSR station, don’t go to the wrong station type and miss your train! This is unlike in Taipei, where the TRA and HSR stations are all in the same mega building called Taipei Main Station (台北車站).

Inside the train

Some random serene stream I spotted when I was briefly awake. Your ride will be peppered with tons of nice views like these, especially along the coastline!

The Puyuma train we took from Hualien back to Taipei – the most modern type!

The quintessential train bento aka 鐵路便當 that they sell on all HSR and TRA trains, usually consisting of a braised egg, a pork cutlet, beancurd and some braised cabbage. This one even had ham and a beancurd skin roll!

Things to note for the TRA:

  • You can book reserved seating TRA tickets here, choose Express to save travelling time.
  • For optimum comfort, only book the Taroko or Puyuma trains under the TzeChiang Express. These are the most modern trains, and also the cleanest. This advice was given to us by our Airbnb host in Taipei! #travellocal
  • When you book your tickets and get your confirmation screen, you will likely see that your train type is TzeChiang Express, and not Taroko/Puyuma, but fret not – TzeChiang is just reflected as they are the main operator. The train that you take will still be Taroko/Puyuma.
  • You can book your TRA tickets up to 14-16 days in advance from your intended travel date. I recommend booking as soon as the window opens – we didn’t get our choice of train from Taichung to Hualien because I booked on the afternoon of the day the window opened, instead of in the morning!
  • Take note of the train ride duration when you book. For eg. a ride from Taichung to Hualien can either be two hours OR five hours, and the shorter the ride duration, the faster the tickets sell out. That’s how we ended up with a five-hour ride.
  • You can collect your tickets at any FamilyMart or 7-11 outlet – just pop in and use their train ticket collection machines. You only have to pay NT$8, which is ~S$0.40, for a printout of your tickets.
  • You can use the EasyCard (used for Taipei MRT) to take the TRA as well, but take note that using this card means you won’t get to reserve your seats. Things might get really messy and your schedule could be disrupted if you are unable to board a packed train. Hence I definitely recommend buying your tickets online beforehand.
  • You can eat bentos on the train or on the platform seating area while waiting. Bentos are usually priced at NT$60/80(~S$2).
  • There are toilets on the train.

That’s all! I feel nostalgic already. On hindsight, it’s actually not that difficult to travel around Taiwan via the different types of trains. I often marvel at how Taiwan manages to maintain their complex railway system – the THSR and MRT always arrive on time, and the TRA is never late for more than 15 minutes (at least while we were there). If you run into a problem like the one we faced at Zhongli – when the train engine died abruptly – just ask around for help! Taiwanese are generally very friendly. I hope you found this mini guide to the different railway systems in Taiwan useful!

About Author

Bell Yeo
Bell Yeo

Bell enjoys reading, food photography, writing and running. Her meals are filed under #wunderbelly on Instagram, and her favourite author is Khaled Hosseini. She also makes a mean potato salad, and will share if you ask nicely. As for travel, she has a particular penchant for Australia and only has the state of South Australia and the Northern Territory left to conquer in this lifetime! She blogs at wunderbell.wordpress.com

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