When its was finally opened in May 1994, Eurotunnel or better known simply as Chunnel was hailed as a miracle that would bring prosperity to the Old Continent and the United Kingdom it links and billions of dollars to its 800,000 small shareholders in dividends.
It took five years to build two main tunnels for transportation and one service tunnel for maintenance running 34 kilometers between Folkestone, England and Sangatte, France. The project was completed one year behind schedule with a cost overrun of US$3.6 billion.The price tag attached to Chunnel was NT$15 billion.
Eurotunnel made rose-tinted projections of demand for Eurostar, the London-Paris train service that uses the tunnel.Traffic forecasts were not just out by a little bit.They predicted at least 21 million passengers a year, but the actual figure was only one third of the forecast number.
Flawed forecasts, management mistakes and bad luck turned the Eurotunnel dream into a financial nightmare for the investors and banks who funded the project entirely from private money. Heavy losses – US$900 million in 2005 and double that in the year before – have meant Eurotunnel could not meet even its interest bills, much less repay capital.It is a white elephant nobody wants.
Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation opened Taiwan’s first bullet train service on Friday with fanfare.Ticketing failures marred the opening, and a train was delayed for eight minutes on Saturday to violate its never-behind-time promise for all runs.Despite cost overruns, delayed opening and not very satisfactory service, the public almost enthusiastically hailed the 300-kilometer-an hour train as a link that would bring prosperity to the major cities it serves.
If Eurotunnel is a guide, all enthusiasts will be miserably dissatisfied.
It took 16 years to complete Taiwan’s first BOT project, priced at NT$480 billion including cost overruns or US$15 billion, which is on a par with Chunnel.When opened to traffic, the high speed railroad was much more than a year behind schedule.The railroad, constructed on a build-operate-transfer basis, shortens the time of travel between Taipei and Kaohsiung to a mere two hours, but an increasingly keen competition is expected against domestic airlines and highway bus companies.
A private company, THSRC received a franchise from the Ministry of Transportation and Communications to finance, design, construct and operate the high speed railroad for 35 years, after which ownership will be transferred to the public sector.The government, on the other hand, has already ploughed in millions of dollars to bail out the once cash-starved project proponent company, which finally got the job done.
No one is sure THSRC passenger forecasts may turn out to be embarrassingly aggressive. On an average, the bullet trains were about 60 percent full on the first three days of operation.Consumer advocates are calling for a boycott, claiming the new train service is unsafe. Tickets are expensive.Passengers have difficulty going to or coming away from THSRC stations for lack of sufficient train or bus connections.
That will meet with a robust response from air and bus services.Airlines will offer rock-bottom prices for domestic flights, while bus companies, which bullet train operators think would fade away, may cash in on the lack of station-to-destination connections, which offsets the time gained by high speed rail travel.When the novelty wears off, the bullet train is likely to face a shortage of passengers.
Management has to be better.Traffic controllers and train staff, including engineers and conductors, have a hard time communicating efficiently with each other.They speak different languages, and in time of emergency, voice communication difficulty may lead to accidents, which may be disastrous, given the high speed of the train.
When he approved the BOT project, President Lee Teng-hui wanted it first and foremost to serve as a catalyst to develop the areas where the high speed railroad would pass.Land development would surge, new industries mushroom, and the entire populace benefit from the railroad that would provide fast inter-city service.
Chunnel has failed to deliver common prosperity to Europe and the British isles.Taiwan’s high speed railroad may not do any better.In fact, the Taipei-Yilan freeway, with its vaunted Mount Snow tunnel, reduces a car trip between the two cities to a 30-munite outing.The county of Yilan has not benefited, however.Land prices went up, because wealthy Taipiites want to have a second or holiday home on the other side of Mountain Snow, but no new industries have developed, while more people in the rural county swarm to Taipei for employment.Japan’s Shinkansen, which joined THSRC in building the high speed railroad, shortens the travel time greatly between Tokyo and Osaka.Nagoya, a city in between the two metropolises, wished the bullet train would contribute to its economic prosperity, but their wish never came true.Many of its businesses and industries have moved to either Tokyo or Osaka.
The fact is that Taiwan should not have spent so much money building so short a high speed railroad.To cover a little more than 300 kilometers between Taipei and Kaohsiung, it makes little difference whether a train runs at 200 or 300 kilometers an hour.The time saved will be only half an hour or much less, if the train has to make so many stops on the way.The United Kingdom has trains traveling at 180 kilometers an hour for inter-city service.Italy has a similar service. The beautiful thing they do is that they both share the same rails with locals.They all share the same stations.There was no wasteful investment.Taiwan should have followed their examples, saving a great deal of money by providing a slower high speed train service.
All VIPs took their first rides on the bullet train.Conspicuously absent was President Lee, who initiated the BOT project.Was he not invited to take the first ride free?Maybe he did not want to take part in any opening ceremony for the much hyped high speed rail service, which may prove to be a white mammoth Taiwan cannot afford.