Alishan Forest Railway - Taiwan
Taiwan's Alishan Forest Railway

The Alishan Forest Railway - Taiwan


In October 2010, we visited the island of Taiwan (formerly old Formosa) which sits directly on the Tropic of Cancer and only a short flight east of Hong Kong.

After reading reports of a ‘shay in a shed’ somewhere in the mountains of this rugged and beautiful country, we discovered a small 2’6” narrow gauge railway which in just 75 kilometres, climbs steeply with grades up to 1:16, using several spirals and zig-zags (switch backs) from the steamy coastal City of Chiayi up into the cool mountain air of Alishan at around 2200 metres above sea level.

The Railway was built around 1905, during the Japanese occupation to gain access to the rich softwood forests of the central mountains, operating about 20 Shay geared locomotives and employing North American logging techniques. Remarkably, most of the Shays survive today with three still ‘in steam’.

Ride a Shay!

In 2016, we plan to run a a series of ‘small group’ guided tours from Taipei down to the Alishan Forest Railway HQ via ‘Bullet Train’ where a special chartered train will be available for narrow gauge enthusiasts from all over the world to experience the thrill of geared locomotives working steep, scenic grades! As it will be a special train, there will be plenty of scope for photography as well as foot-plate excursions! Watch this space!

For a detailed discussion of the Railway, we have included David Momphard’s 2005 article....


A former workhorse for the lumber industry turns exclusively to tourism.

It is not yet dawn at Alishan, and the only light is an ambient blue shrouded by clouds still sleeping in the alpine forest atop Taiwan's most popular promontory. Little can be seen and still less heard, but a whistle in the distance pierces the calm and stirs excitement among passengers awaiting the first train of the day.

Greeting the sun from the summit of Alishan as it looms over the shoulder of Jade Mountain is a centuries-old ritual first enjoyed by the area's aboriginals. For the past century, however, the mountain rail that takes visitors there has been as much a part of that ritual as the sun itself. And this day's visitors have been given a special treat: a ride on one of the steam locomotives that bore their parents and grandparents on the journey decades ago.

The Alishan Forest Railway was built at the start of the last century, when Taiwan was a colony of the Japanese empire and rails were being laid to link the island's industries to the outside world. In the south were lines to carry sugarcane and in the north were lines that brought gold and silver down from the hills. But the Alishan line that reached into the island's mountainous interior bore a kind of irony: trains that went up the mountain brought tourism to this alpine resort even as trains descending the mountain carried the forest down with them.

For 83-year-old Su Hsin-yu, the trees atop Alishan and that whistle heard before dawn are among his most vivid memories. Su began work in the waning days of the Japanese empire as a logger and has seen the rail go from being the Imperial Taiwan Railway to the Alishan Forest Railway, under the administration of the Taiwan Forestry Bureau.

"I remember my first day on the job," Su says while waiting to board the early morning train. "Seeing a giant tree come crashing down on its side seemed wrong. But by the time it was cut up and carried to the train it had already started to look like lumber."

Trains trundling huge tree trunks down the mountain became a daily sight on Alishan after the rail linking the forest to the flatlands was completed. The 70-plus kilometers of track with its unique "Z" switches and spiral routes was a marvel of engineering, and the giant iron Shay locomotives that began bringing down trees in 1911 were something Taiwanese had never seen before.

The engines were named after their creator, Ephraim Shay, a logger and inventor who patented a type of steam locomotive that first transformed the logging industry in the United States before doing the same in countries around the world, including Taiwan.

In Shay's day, all logging operations were done along the sides of major rivers in order to transport the logs to sawmills downstream. When the timber supply on either immediate side of the river was exhausted, logging operations would stop until winter and a heavy snow arrived. When it did, trees once too far from the river could be felled then dragged on horse-drawn sleds.

Shay's invention was an improvement on existing locomotive technology that delivered more torque to each of the wheels on both sides of the trundle, thereby allowing heavier loads to be pulled and reducing the logging industry's reliance on ice and mountain rivers. He licensed his invention to the Lima Company of Lima, Ohio in the early 1880s and the foundry went on to produce 2,770 of the now famous locomotives.

The first of them exported to Taiwan, an 18-ton Class-A Shay capable of producing 8,330 horsepower and hauling 1,023 tons, was completed on August 10, 1910. It was built for Ed Van Nierof & Co. to run on the "Mount Arisan Railway, Formosa," according to Lima's shop records, and given the road number 11.

Over the next seven years, Lima would make a total of 20 Shays for the Alishan rail; eight 18-ton Class-A types and a dozen 28-ton Class-B engines. They were sold to US export companies that then sold the engines to the Imperial Taiwan Railway.

A story about the Alishan rail is also a story about the wood for which it was built: hinoki, in Japanese, is considered a sacred wood. It is lemon-scented and lightly colored with a long, straight grain. It is also extremely resistant to rot and was traditionally the wood of choice for building baths, temples and imperial palaces. The wood has even been used to craft caskets in which past emperors have been interred.

Not only is the wood exalted, the trees from which it comes were also considered by the loggers to possess ancient spirits. The felling of a 1,000-year-old giant was thought to bring bad luck upon the men who took a saw to it. For this reason, loggers left the oldest of the giants standing out of respect--they can be viewed today along the Trail of Divine Trees--and erected an altar to the tree spirits to atone for having taken their wood.

The wood was prized enough to be one of the main resources sought by the Japanese governors of Taiwan when they took over administration of the island in 1895. Accordingly, they laid several rail lines to harvest these giants from Taiwan's mountain promontories: the Taipingshan and Pashienshan railways and, on the east coast, the Lintienshan line, among others. But Alishan, rising to an elevation of 2,270 meters above sea level, was not only the highest rail on the island, but among the highest in the world.

It was, and still is, Taiwan's most unique rail route, starting in the subtropical swelter of Chiayi City, crossing into the crisp air of the temperate zone at 800 meters above sea level and trundling up among giant hinoki and red cypress that rise higher with the elevation. By the time they arrive at the terminal Alishan Station, visitors can be forgiven for thinking they have arrived at some European alpine destination.

And they had better have brought a warm jacket. The temperatures at the top are cool even in summertime and, in winter, flakes of snow often fall listlessly to a bed of pine needles. Clouds come to rest here in the evenings, and the start of each day is signaled by the sound of a train horn.

Even before the train can be seen and with only a whistle to warn of its arrival, Su identifies it as the No. 31. He is proven right when it finally comes into view and others on the platform applaud his keen ability to distinguish trains by the sound they make.

It is an old man's playful ruse, of course. As Su explained, only two steam engines have been reconditioned and returned to use on special occasions. And even when the Alishan routes ran nothing but steam-powered stock, the same engines routinely operated on the same lines.

"No. 31 ran on the Mianyue line [in the 1980s]," Su says. "Now it runs on the Chushan line. That's confusing to me." The Mianyue and Chushan lines are two branches of the Alishan Railway. The Mianyue line and its famous Monkey Rock were badly damaged by the earthquake of September 1999. The Chushan line still makes daily pre-dawn runs transporting people to watch the sunrise, though it is now usually pulled by a diesel locomotive.

The No. 31 that is pulling into Alishan Station on this morning left the foundry in Lima, Ohio on November 16, 1917, one of the last pair of engines to be imported to Taiwan, and began rolling on the Alishan line early the following year. It is a B-Class Shay capable of producing 12,860 horsepower and pulling 1,265 tons. Just as Su says, it last ran on the Mianyue line before being retired to the Peimen Station rail stock repair facilities in Chiayi, where it fell into disrepair.

Hwang Ching-yu, head of the repair facilities at Peimen Station, says his mechanics are only trained to work on the diesel engines now in use and that refurbishing one of the old iron horses requires a team of specialists overseeing the project.

"We rebuilt the No. 26 in 1999 and later the No. 31," Hwang says. "Those were complete reconstructions. There's really nothing of the original Shay engine that remains, except the design. They were even converted from wood-burning engines to oil-burning ones."

Su knows all of this and more. He recalls the days when attendants walked the aisles refilling patrons' glasses with water and remembers how he would always get hungry near Duolin Station, knowing that his favorite biandang, or lunchbox, was only a few kilometers away in Fenchihu.

He also recalls unpleasant memories of wrecks and derailments, the worst and most recent being the derailment in March of 2003 that killed 17 people and injured some 160.

But despite such tragedies, for many people like Su, people for whom Alishan train whistles are childhood memories and its 70 kilometers of scenery unspool in their mind like so much film, these rails that bore a destructive industry also carried them through life.

Director-General of the Forestry Bureau, Yen Jen-teh, is one of those people and says the Forestry Bureau is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Alishan Railway.

"It's important that these old engines be kept running," he says, "not just to ensure that Alishan's tourism industry flourishes, but so that they can carry the memories of Taiwan's past."

As Su alights the train at Chushan Station to greet the new day, his thoughts are of days gone by. Acres that he helped clear of trees are alive again with new growth, and the trains that had once disappeared from the tracks are back again, if only on special occasions.

"These engines carried away so much of this forest," he says. "I'm glad they've survived long enough to bring people here to see that Alishan is still a very beautiful place."

David Momphard is a journalist based in Taipei.

Copyright (c) 2005 by David Momphard.



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