Inter-City Transport in Taiwan

As expected for a modern country with a very high population density, Taiwan has an excellent public transport system. Getting between cities in Taiwan is fast, safe and convenient, and usually surprisingly inexpensive. Quality of services is almost comparable with Japan, while prices are comparable with much less-developed countries. 

Video Overview

Taipei Main Station 

Taipei Main Station

Taipei Main Station is the hub of Taiwan's transport, however the most of the infrastructure, including the conventional and high speed trains, and the MRT (subway) now lies in a complex web of tunnels and platforms beneath the iconic building. As shown in the video above, most Intercity buses depart from the main Taipei Bus Station Station which is just connected to it by underground passages, but there is also a separate bus station run by the Kuo Kuang bus company just outside the East Exit of Taipei Main Station. Buses to the airport leave from the Kuo Kuang station, but for most travellers the Taoyuan Airport MRT (subway) is a more efficient way to reach the airport. I only recommend buses during the night (when the MRT isn't running) or emergencies. 

High Speed Rail

An HSR train rolls into Taipei Main Station

The fastest way to travel between distant cities along the populated west coast is to ride the high speed trains. The trains are basically Japanese Shinkansens (high speed trains, sometimes called 'Bullet Trains' in English), however French engineers built the tracks, which had to be especially designed for Taiwan's exceptionally mountainous and terrain. With top speeds of about 300km/hr, the fastest express trains make the trip from Taipei to Kaohsiung in 96 minutes, while most (which stop at all stations) take about two hours. As the inter-city transport of the future here, English signage is very good (and even grammatically correct), and tickets can be purchased online here. Discounts of up to 35% are offered for advanced reservations on selected trains.

HSR stations are clean, spacious and have free wifi, and very much resemble public transport anywhere in the developed world.

However, the HSR has its downsides. Firstly, its, not surprisingly, the most expensive way to get between cities. Prices are discounted during off peak hours, and occasionally during holiday seasons, but a ticket from Taipei to Kaohsiung generally runs to about NT$1,600. While this is little over half the price of travelling the same distance on the same train in Japan it's still considerably more expensive than other means of inter-city transport in Taiwan, and considering the commutes to and from the stations (see immediately below) it's not always faster.

View from HSR Hsinchu Station platform. Like many HSR stations, it was built several kilometres from the nearest centre (Zhubei), but high-rises are sprouting up all around it, and in the time since I wrote this article the area around the station has become the "New Hsinchu". Taxis are cashing in on its remote location.

Another problem is that it's built for the cities of the future, which is no doubt intelligent planning, but for now, the stations are usually several kilometres out from the main city centres, which are generally centred around the (conventional) train stations. While shuttle buses run to the old train stations, the extra time taken often makes using the HSR not worthwhile. For example a journey from Taipei to Hsinchu takes half an hour on the high speed train or an hour on the (fastest) conventional train, but it takes most of the half hour saved to get from the Hsinchu HSR station (in neighbouring Zhubei) to downtown Hsinchu. So if going to downtown Hsinchu it's usually faster and cheaper to purchase conventional train tickets in advance, especially if you can get a seat on a Taroko or Puyuma Train.

The HSR can occasionally sell out, in which case passengers are forced to stand in very crowded non-reserved cars, and onto the gangways, but (coming from Taipei) It is usually much quieter after Taoyuan (for the international airport) and especially after Hsinchu. Another concern is that after a major earthquake the HSR is required to stop for track inspections, so if you are on your way to the airport in this unlikely event then you may well miss your flight.

Ticket prices and train times can be found and reservations can be made here.

Conventional Trains (TRA)

Taiwan Railways Administration Website for train times and ticket fares.

Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, and train stations can be hive of political and social activity. Outside the old Taichung Station activists silently protest the treatment of imprisoned former president Chen Shui-bian, the use of nuclear power and call for the establishment of a new Republic of Taiwan. High school students collect shopping receipts (which can win money) for charitable causes. Taichung Station as shown here has been restored to its style during the Japanese Era (when it was built) and a large, new station has been built beside it.

Taiwan has a very good, if ageing, conventional train system, much of which was built when Taiwan was part of Japan prior to World War II. Most places around the perimeter of the island, especially on the west coast and top half of the east coast, are easily reachable by conventional trains. However, since the high speed train is clearly the face of Taiwan for tourists and business people, English on the conventional trains is somewhat limited, with 'Chinglish' signs usually present and comprehensible.

Tickets don't say what platform the train leaves from, so often the easiest way to tell is to look at the signs announcing the departure times; it's unlikely that two trains will be scheduled to depart from different platforms at the same time. If trains are delayed (as they often are), the signposted time will still be the 'official' one (which will match the tickets), with the estimated delay usually announced in a small box on the right. Signs generally provide all this information in English, but it's still very confusing the first few times. If taking the train, allow extra time - especially for purchasing the tickets, as there are often queues - and finding the right platform. Train conductors, though they rarely speak any English, are always helpful, and a glance at your ticket and a point at the platform to go to or train to board is usually sufficient.

Tze-Chiang (Express) & Chu Kuang (Semi-Express) Trains 

A Tze-chiang (express) train. Chu-kuang trains look similar, but stop more often.

Tze Chiang (express) trains are the fastest and most comfortable (and most expensive), so when going between major stations, these are the best bet. Seats are reserved, though if there are no seats (as is often the case if you don't purchase a ticket in advance) you can buy a standing ticket, though you sometimes have to ask for it as the clerk's often assume foreigners won't want one. So if in a hurry, it's best to ask for the fastest ticket and say a ticket without a seat is ok. These trains only stop at the major stations. Standing on these can be very unpleasant, as they have little standing room and are generally over-crowded with people trying to get to their destination as fast as possible, with people spilling out into the gangways and squeezing past each other in the aisle as they wander the aisles looking for a spare seat.

The next fastest is the Chu Kuang class train, which is similar but slightly slower and stops at a few more stations. These are definitely not worth riding without a reserved seat.

Empty Seats?

Taiwan has a pragmatic policy to empty seats. If you find an empty sit, you can sit in it. But if someone with a ticket for it comes along you must vacate it for them immediately. Likewise don't feel embarrassed to show your ticket to someone sitting in it - they know that's the policy. Obvious exceptions would of course be if the person was very old or disabled, but chances are they would have purchased seats in advance anyway. 

There are two special classes of Tze-Chiang trains called Taroko and Puyuma. These trains are faster, more comfortable, and they only stop at major stations. Most significantly, passengers are not allowed to stand on Taroko and Puyuma; everyone must have a reserved seat ticket. Google doesn't know this, and often recommends these trains for intercity travel (and calls them a Tze-Chiang), but in reality by the time of departure most tickets have sold out, so passengers cannot board them. 

Local Trains (No Reserved Seating)

A local train in Taoyuan.

 The third type, the local trains, stop at every station. They range in quality from very old to sparkling new, and speeds also vary. While there is no allocated seating and only one row of seats along each side of the train, they are generally quiet except for the few stops before or after a major city. So if you are not in a hurry a local train can be a peaceful, relaxing (and very inexpensive) way to travel between cities, especially if you haven't reserved tickets in advance. I'd much prefer to spend two hours sitting on a mostly-empty local train reading a book than crammed into the gangway of a Tze-Chiang train unable to even turn around (which is often the case).

Train Tickets

Tickets are fairly self-explanatory, and can be purchased from the clerk, old (simple machines) or newer computerised machines. They do not say which platform the train leaves from, but this is usually easily identified by the time.

Discounts are no longer offered on return trips. 

Ticket Clerks

I recommend foreign travellers (or anyone else who can't read or speak Chinese) to go to the counter and purchase a ticket from a 'real person'. Unless it's Taipei, I strongly recommend having the name of your destination written down in Chinese. I always list Chinese names in my guidebooks (as do most other guidebooks) and they can also be found on cities' Wikipedia pages. One window often has a sign up advertising that that clerk speaks English - but in reality this may not always be the case. 

Ticket Machines


These aren't especially complicated, but they can't give tickets with allocated seating (a ticket with a seat is the same price at the counter or other machine below), so are really only worth bothering with for short hops on the local train, as there are rarely queues at them. They don't take notes, but there is usually a change machine nearby.

1. Enter coins (start with around NT100)
2. Select train type (these work best for local trains as they can't allocate seats).
3. Select fare type (full fare unless you are a student or elderly).
Buttons for stations will light up if you have entered enough money for them. Add more if necessary.
4. Select destination.
Your ticket and change will appear.



Newer (Computerised) Machines

These newer, bilingual machines dispense all types of tickets, but queues can be as long as the (staffed) ticket counters, and tickets bought at these machines cannot be changed or refunded.

Most main stations also have newer, bilingual, computerised machines. The downside of these machines is that you can't refund or change their tickets. Should you miss the train, you can still board a different train, but you won't get a seat.

See Also: A One-page Comparison of Train Types in Taiwan.

Taiwan Rail Passes

Taiwan has recently introduced its equivalent of the Japan Rail Pass, but with more flexibility. With such an extensive and affordable range of public transport, however, and so much to see and do around Taipei, the rail pass isn't for everyone. There are four versions, which vary according to whether or not the three days of HSR travel must be used on consecutive days or across a week, and on whether or not they include travel on conventional trains. They are only available to foreign visitors on a tourist visa, and must be purchased outside  Taiwan. Main Article: Taiwan Rail Passes

Intercity Buses

Inter-city buses in Taiwan are very comfortable (unlike local buses).

 Taiwan also has a thriving and quickly-developing intercity bus network. These buses are generally run by private companies, and their standards of the buses are generally very high, and of course you are guaranteed a seat, usually a very comfortable one. Many buses have only three seats abreast, so it's possible to have your own seat if desired (and if you're early enough).

These Kuo Guang buses have aeroplane-style entertainment, including a (limited) English touch-screen interface.

Prices are comparable to conventional train, and are more environmentally friendly, because trains are over-engineered and therefore very heavy, and because buses stop less frequently than trains and are more likely to be full. Also, buses to major destinations seem to often leave when full (which never takes long) so you can generally get a seat without needing to book in advance wait very long. Intercity bus stations are generally bilingual (at least in Taipei) and navigating the intercity bus systems should be fairly straightforward, even without speaking or reading any Chinese. It can sometimes be difficult to work out where a bus leaves from, however, so I suggest asking at the ticket counter where your bus leaves from when you purchase your ticket. Allow several minutes to find the floor and departure bay, and, if in doubt, show someone your ticket and ask them where to go. 

Taipei Bus Station

The most useful bus station for most people is the main Taipei Bus Station, which is opposite (and just north of) Taipei Main Station and connected through the underground passages (follow directions to Taipei Bus Station or Q Square, the inevitable shopping mall on the lower floors). Tickets are sold on the 1st floor, and buses depart from the upper floors. It's not always clear which buses leave for where and when, but the information counter staff speak English and are very helpful.

Taipei Bus Station ticket counter (1st floor).

Satellite Bus Stations

For such a densely-populated city Taipei has good traffic management and infrastructure, but traffic jams are still a problem at rush hour, and they can easily add half an hour to get out of Taipei and another half hour at your destination. There are bus stations at Taipei City Hall (close to Taipei 101), Xindian Station (the southern end of the MRT). Some buses also stop at Yuanshan Station (red line) before heading south.  If these are close to your hotels it's well worth taking a bus to or from these stations for Taoyuan Airport.

Comparison: Taipei to Hsinchu

Time (h:m) Cost (NT) Advantages Disadvantages
High Speed Rail 0:30 (+ commuting) 315 Fast, comfortable Stops in Zhubei, 30 mins by train or shuttle from Hsinchu. Little time saving for extra cost.
Tze-Chiang (Express) 1:00-1:10 180 Can reserve a seat in advance. Very uncomfortable journey if no seat. Book these tickets well in advance, especially to/from Taipei at peak times.
Chu Kuang (semi-express) 1:20-1:40 140
Local Train 1:30-1:40 115 Generally quiet with free seats outside main cities. Can't reserve a seat. Stops at all stations.
Bus 1:20 (in good traffic) 130 Guaranteed a comfortable seat without a booking ahead. Least comfortable ride.  Can take much longer in rush hour traffic.

Is something out of date? Please let me know.