Japan's bullet train reaches Taiwan at a cost of £7.7bn

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The Independent Online

The bullet train's journey from Japan to Taiwan has taken a quarter of a century. Today, after seemingly endless political and commercial wrangles, the nationalist Chinese island unveiled its super-fast and environment-friendly rail service borrowed from its island neighbour across Taiwan Strait.

From today the Taiwanese will be able to make the 215-mile trip from the capital Taipei to Kaohsiung, the main industrial city in the south, in as little as 90 minutes - and in the knowledge they are helping to limit carbon emissions. That compares with five hours on the conventional railway and a lot longer on the hugely polluting road system.

This will be the first railway based on the Shinkansen technology outside Japan. The next in line in 2009 is expected to be the new 140mph commuter service from Kent to London, which will use part of the Channel tunnel rail link (CTRL). The Taiwanese bullet trains will be running at around 186mph, a similar speed to their counterparts in Japan, the French TGV and the Franco-British Eurostars, which operate on the CTRL between London and the Continent.

The Taiwanese point out that passengers who travel on a fully-loaded bullet train will use only one-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. The trains, known as Shinkansen in Japan, will use up half the energy of a bus ride and produce a quarter of the carbon dioxide, according to officials at Taiwan High Speed Rail.

Environmentalists believe it could provide a beacon of good ecological sense for the rest of Asia. They argue that the service - linking towns and cities where 94 per cent of Taiwan's population live - will help sustainable economic growth while curbing oil imports and limiting fast-rising emissions.

The project's critics, however, point to its enormous cost - $15bn (£7.7bn) or $650 for every man, woman and child.

And the commercial disputes since the project began in 1980 have produced a system of such complexity that it borders on the bizarre. Drivers of the Japanese bullet trains will be French or German, but they will only be allowed to speak English to Taiwanese traffic controllers who oversee tracks designed by British and French engineers.

The organisation has become so complex that the leader of Taiwan's consumer movement is urging a boycott until safety data is released. "Cherish your life, don't be a guinea pig," says Cheng Jen-hung, chairman of the Consumers' Foundation. With 900 passengers on a fully-loaded train casualties could be "very heavy" he believes.

Arthur Chiang, a vice-president of Taiwain High Speed Rail, acknowledged that the project had been bedevilled by opposition, but insisted that it was completely safe.