TAIPEI -- Taiwan will add a new section to the south end of the high-speed railway traversing the island's western coast, its premier said Tuesday, a move likely to create opportunities for builders and newly served areas.
Four routes are under consideration for the extension from Kaohsiung to the southern county of Pingtung. Speaking at the proposed new terminus, Su Tseng-chang said the project would serve to combine the flow of people and goods and make Taiwan as a whole more competitive. The project is forecast to take at least a decade and cost at least 55.4 billion New Taiwan dollars ($1.77 billion).
The timing of the announcement has raised speculation that the government in Taipei is seeking to build support ahead of elections through promoting economic development in the island's south. The project is of particular interest to Japanese companies, who have provided shinkansen bullet-train technology, as well as all the rolling stock, for Taiwan's high-speed railway.
The least costly proposal, seen as a leading plan, involves extending the line 17.5 km to the east from its current terminus at Kaohsiung's Zuoying Station to a new station about 15 minutes' ride away. Pingtung, located on the island's southern coast, is a heavily agricultural county with a population of just over 800,000. Officials there and people related to the project intend to leverage the extension to develop tourism and attract industry to the area.
Taiwan's high-speed rail line opened in 2007 with the collaboration of Japanese and European companies. It uses a type of car called the 700T -- adapted from the 700 series shinkansen technology used in some of Japan's own bullet trains -- made by companies including Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Hitachi.
With Taiwan's ridership growing and cars aging, Japanese companies are expected to bid next year to take part in a roughly 120 billion-yen ($1.12 billion) effort to procure new rolling stock. A further growth in riders from the proposed extension would also likely spur fresh demand for cars and related equipment.
The extension's announcement comes a few months out from the January 2020 presidential election, leading some to tie it to President Tsai Ing-wen's reelection bid. The island's economic development has largely been concentrated in northern areas such as the Taipei region, while in the south, dissatisfaction is growing toward the widening disparity.
Kaohsiung, the south's largest city, is normally a bastion for Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party. But the party was defeated in the city's mayoral election last November, among a number of other losses in municipal votes. The party has been working to rebuild its base by promoting development in southern areas.
The bullet train extension project will be handled jointly by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications and the railway's government-linked operating company, Taiwan High Speed Rail. On Tuesday, the company's shares shed nearly 3% on the Taiwan Stock Exchange. Concerns remain that Pingtung's low population will create a drag on earnings.