Taipei, Jan. 13 (CNA) Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) on Tuesday announced that the government has decided to extend the high-speed rail line to Pingtung County in response to long standing calls from local lawmakers wanting to boost travel to Taiwan's southernmost county.
Su made the announcement during an inspection tour in Pingtung, saying the High Speed Rail (HSR) will go beyond its current terminus of Zuoying Station in Kaohsiung to serve Pingtung.
For years, Pingtung-elected lawmakers had urged the government to extend the HSR to their county to boost travel and business.
However, scholars have questioned the business logic of such an extension due to relatively low demand in Pingtung.
Su said the decision will improve the islandwide transportation network and further boost the nation's competitiveness.
Facing criticism that the announcement is an election campaign giveaway, Su said the decision had nothing to do with the presidential and legislative elections in January.
President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) echoed Su's statement at a separate press event, saying the extension of the HSR to Pingtung is part of a comprehensive development plan for the country to create an integrated transportation network around the island.
As the majority shareholder in the HSR, Taiwan's government has the ability to "guide" company decisions.
Meanwhile, Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) said the ministry is scheduled to review four possible extension routes at upcoming meeting later this month.
The ministry previously conducted feasibility studies on two possible high-speed rail routes to Pingtung, with one beginning at the HSR train depot in Kaohsiung's Yanchao District and the other at its Zuoying station, both involving an elevated railway.
The estimated cost of the routes was NT$56.1 billion (US$1.78 billion) and NT$55.4 billion, respectively.
The ministry proposed another two new routes in July, both passing through Kaohsiung, with one going from Zuoying to Taiwan Railway Administration's (TRA's) Pingtung Station via TRA Kaohsiung Station.
The other goes from Zuoying to Pingtung's Chaozhou Station via Kaohsiung International Airport, both by underground railway.
High Speed Rail will go beyond its current terminus of Zuoying Station in Kaohsiung to serve Pingtung
Both routes would cost much more with estimates of around NT$121.7 billion and over NT$150 billion, respectively, as the constructions would be underground, the ministry said.
Asked about his preferred route, Su, who previously served one term as Pingtung County magistrate from 1989-1993, said he preferred the elevated railways from Zuoying to Pingtung as it costs less and fewer houses would have to be razed or relocated.
Most local lawmakers in Pingtung also support that option.
If the government chooses that route, it will take 10 years to build. Once completed, the fastest express HSR train would take 109 minutes to travel from Taipei to Pingtung, the ministry said.
Currently, the fastest HSR express train from Taipei to Kaohsiung takes 95 minutes. It takes another 30-plus minutes from HSR's Zuoying station to Pingtung City by the fastest TRA train.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Su Jain-rong (蘇建榮) said the extension project will be paid for by HSR as it is a profit making company. The project will not impose any financial burden on the government, he contended.