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May 23, 2017

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Tracks and other traces of Taiwan's sugar railways

In this era of high-speed trains, it seems odd to recall that a rail network originally built to haul sugarcane used to be one of Taiwan's major transportation systems.

Sugar has been grown in Taiwan for at least 300 years. For decades it was Taiwan's No. 1 export; Japan was the principal market. However, the industry has been declining gradually since the 1950s, and almost all of Taiwan's sugar-refining plants have closed down. The state-run Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC) has diversified into floriculture, biotechnology, and retailing.

To move cane from fields to mills, TSC operated its own trains, tracks, and stations. At one point, the company was responsible for more than 900 kilometers of 762-milimeter-gauge tracks, dozens of diesel locomotives, and hundreds of pieces of rolling stock.

Until 1982, TSC railways also offered passenger services. Most people used these mini-trains to get to a Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) station where they could board a conventional north-south train. At its peak, TSC operated more passenger stations than TRA does now.

A handful of sugar trains still carry tourists. Suantou Sugar Mill (蒜頭糖廠) in Chiayi County (嘉義縣) is one place where they run; Huwei (虎尾) in Yunlin County (雲林縣) is another.

Many of the quaint little stations where people would wait for TSC passenger trains are still standing, and recently I visited three of them.

One, in Sinying City (新營市) in Tainan County (台南縣), is a fairly modern building of little interest. Another, in nearby Yanshuei (鹽水), has been preserved and turned into a cultural landmark. The third, a short distance to the north in Chiayi County's Yijhu Township (嘉義縣義竹鄉), is dilapidated yet picturesque.

If you take a TRA train to Sinying from points in the south, you will see dozens of rusting freight cars in the TSC marshalling yards on the right. You can also see the disused TSC passenger station, an unremarkable single-story building. The platform is now used for parking motorcycles and bicycles.

Nearby, a short stretch of TSC railroad has been turned into a small park. The tracks have been preserved, which railway buffs will appreciate. A great deal of the TSC railroad network has been ripped up, concreted over, or overgrown.

Yanshuei's old TSC passenger station is on the corner of Jhihshuei Road (治水路) and Wenwu Street (文武街), a few minutes walk from the center of this historic town.

The main building is not open to the public, but peering in through the window, it looks as though it may soon be the venue for an exhibition. The original cement benches where passengers would wait, and two roofless warehouses, are still in place.

Visitors do not get much of a sense of history, unfortunately; it would be better if a locomotive and some old TSC passenger cars were parked here for people to see.

The station in Yijhu, which is just across the Bajhang River (八掌溪) from Yanshuei, can be found if you drive out of the town toward Lucao (鹿草) on Road 163.

It is very small — the whole building is no bigger than my combined living room-dining room-kitchen — and easy to miss. Half of the Chinese characters on the front have fallen off; the tracks and much of the platform are covered with foliage; the levers used to change the switches are heavily rusted.

At the time of my visit, the stationmaster's office was serving as someone's home. The occupant had boarded up the old ticket window, and taped plastic bags over the broken windows. Looking at this old station, I got the feeling that it might not be around for much longer.

If you'd like to learn more about Taiwan's sugar trains — and also the island's logging, mining, and salt railways — visit http://www.citycat.hdud.idv.tw, a bilingual site with dozens of recent and historical photos. Another site, www.taiwanrailways.com, is entirely in English.

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