Although democracy has offered many environmental benefits, it has at times promoted environmentally damaging policies that are now very difficult to overturn.
On my most recent visit to Taiwan, one of the most common subjects of conversation was serious air pollution. Once again it took me back to my first visit to Taiwan as a teenager in 1989-90. I had never really thought about air pollution before, but living in Taiwan that year made me conscious of just how polluted urban and rural Taiwan had become. Linda Arrigo rightly described it as the “environmental nightmare of the economic miracle.” At the time I found it hard to understand why this was not a more salient issue.
Over the last three decades, Taiwan’s civil and political society have contributed to transforming environmental consciousness by creating impressive environmental legislation and institutions. Since one of the main sources of pollution is private road vehicles, it should be clear that the development of efficient metro systems in Taipei and Kaohsiung, together with forthcoming networks elsewhere, should have a positive environmental impact. Taiwan’s High Speed Railway has also had a similar effect, as once opened it soon put the more polluting domestic airlines out of business on the West coast routes. Politicians have often used such transport schemes as a means to attract votes in election campaigns. In a previous Taiwan Sentinel article I was critical of railway planning policy, but it cannot be denied that electoral forces have played an important role in promoting a more environmentally friendly public transport infrastructure.
One area where the trend has been much less positive has been in freight transportation. In many European countries, promotion of rail freight is often couched in terms of its environmental benefits. Politicians talk of how many lorries are being removed from the roads due to a new rail freight project. In contrast, this does not seem to have been part of the environmental debate in Taiwan. Here I would argue that Taiwan’s politics have actually had a detrimental impact on the environment by facilitating greater use of road freight transport. I will try to elaborate this using a number of case studies.
Taiwan’s politics have actually had a detrimental impact on the environment by facilitating greater use of road freight transport
Taiwan railway historians love to talk about the Taiwan Sugar Corp’s (TSC) North South Line. This 262 km narrow gauge line linked Taichung to Kaohsiung and Pingtung. We can see the importance of this railway line from the strength of a recent social movement in Tainan that has sought to prevent a road project from demolishing a former station building at Hsikang. The North South Line played a key role in transporting sugar products between various sugar refineries but also in transporting sugar to Kaohsiung harbor for export. If we consider how important sugar exports were to Taiwan’s economy, we can then appreciate the significance of this route. Use of the route gradually declined and the southern section ceased to function in 1989, while the final end would come in 1998 following changes in TSC’s internal transport policies. Even towards the end of the line’s operation it still was quite active. For instance, a 1986 TV news report and a newspaper report in November 1988 both talked of 50 journeys a day. The latter piece was written just months before the line would close.
The most commonly heard explanations for the North South Line’s demise are economic or related to natural disasters. It is undeniable that the competition from road transport as well as the declining competitiveness of Taiwan produced sugar played a role. Similarly, typhoon damage to bridges led to the abandonment of the northernmost section in 1959 and the loss of the Pingtung River Bridge in 1989 is also cited as the final nail in the line’s coffin.
Nevertheless, the more I look into the question, the more it becomes clear that politics played an important role both in this case and in the trend away from the use of rail freight in Taiwan.
The first place we can see the role of politics in undermining the viability of this railway line is in the 1960s. This was during the martial law era, so democratic pressures were largely nonexistent. Instead, it was the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) that attempted to shackle the prospects of the North South Line. Archives show the TRA repeatedly tried to exert pressure on TSC by lobbying the Provincial Government to limit the amount of sugar it transported and to prevent it using the line to transport other types of cargo, even where these were directly related to the sugar industry such as fertilizers or limestone. As late as the mid 1970s, TSC proposed extending its railway tracks a short distance from its North South Line Kaohsiung warehouse to its special export piers. It was argued that this would reduce transfer costs and allow it to raise its exports of sugar. However, resistance from the TRA eventually led the project to be stalled. In other words, it was the TRA’s fear of losing its freight monopoly that limited the North South Line from becoming a fully commercial operation.
Under martial law the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) dominated local politics through its allies, the local factions. In exchange for political support, the KMT gave its allies economic incentives. A key feature that local factions used to create profits was manipulation of the land planning system. For instance, development was often permitted next to railway land, in some cases in order to enter premises it was necessary to cross TSC railway tracks!
As Taiwan entered the 1980s there was a shift from hard to soft authoritarianism. This would lead to new types of political pressures on the line. We see this in 1985 where local politicians pressured TSC to close part of original route in Tainan where commercial and residential use had invaded its track bed and instead it built a brand new section avoiding the area. At this stage, though, the political pressure was still under the surface and not yet the subject of media attention.
Their dream to turn the tracks into extra parking lots had been achieved. The ultimate outcome of this process has been that all this freight shifted to road transport, increasing air pollution as well as the potential for road accidents.
As Taiwan moved into the democratic transition era, political pressure became open and for the next decade and a half there were repeated news items of politicians pressuring TSC. In a TV news report from 1986, local KMT politicians demanded the removal of the North South Line tracks through residential areas of Kaohsiung. Similarly, when the track was lifted from Fengshan to Kaohsiung port in 1989, it was clear that this was due to pressure from the county government and local elected politicians. Their dream to turn the tracks into extra parking lots had been achieved. The ultimate outcome of this process has been that all this freight shifted to road transport, increasing air pollution as well as the potential for road accidents.
A similar case is that of the Kaohsiung harbor railway, a legacy of the Japanese colonial era. You can get a sense of the former scale of operation by visiting the old railway yard at Siziwan in Kaohsiung. The yard and its related Pier 2 have become a prime tourist attraction. When I first visited Kaohsiung this was still one of the most important rail freight centers on Taiwan. This line not only served the piers for what is Taiwan’s busiest commercial harbor, but also many factories in the harbor region. Today much has been converted to cycle tracks and a light rail tram line. This has of course helped transform Kaohsiung into a more tourist-friendly city and politicians have used the transformation of the harbor line as a means of appealing to voters. In fact, we see an image of the Kaohsiung light rail in Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 Walking with the Children TV election ad. However, as a consequence of the line’s closure now all the port traffic goes through Kaohsiung city by road, not only contributing to increased air pollution also the volume of port traffic travelling on city roads has clear safety implications. Naturally, part of the problem was that TRA was not competitive enough in winning harbour freight contracts. But we should regard this as a political decision partly in response to the pressure coming from local political elites to remove urban railways.
A related practice that seems especially common in Taiwan is for existing railways to be shifted either underground or on to elevated tracks. Political pressure has again been a critical driving force in such developments. Such projects, however, are extremely expensive. Often it would have been cheaper to build brand new routes to serve areas excluded from the railway network. Such practices have further eroded the possibilities for freight transport as we can see in sections where tracks were taken underground or elevated the original freight terminals have been disconnected. In other words, political pressures have pushed Taiwan’s railway ever closer to becoming essentially a passenger only network.
Even if there was an environmental call for greater freight transport by rail, the trends over the last three decades mean that this will increasingly not be feasible. Thus, though democracy has offered many environmental benefits, it has at times promoted environmentally damaging policies.