The TRA in Transition

An Aesthetic Renaissance Gets on Track

2020 / June

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Whether riding the refurbished tourist trains that launched at the end of last year, or passing through innovative stations in Eastern Taiwan that are fruits of the “Hualien‡Taitung new train station movement,” travelers can see that change is afoot: The “railroad scenery” that people encounter as they commute, leave their hometowns, or go on vacation has been getting a fresh new look.

Railways were once a vital means of transportation for people on the island of Taiwan, with even remote towns having a train station. They were the backdrop for many a poignant moment on journeys from home. Today the conventional railroad has been outpaced by other modes of transportation, but rail travel still offers unique opportunities: Here we invite you to enjoy some “slow travel” with the trains of the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA), as you savor your surroundings and the experiences they provide.

Xincheng Taroko: A train station as an art museum

Architect Chiang Leching, a Taichung native, designed the magnificent Xincheng Taroko Station, which serves as an important gateway to northern Hualien. When submitting her proposal, Chiang used precisely that image of a gateway: “It’s the gateway through which residents of Xincheng leave or return home. It’s the gateway to Hualien. And it’s also the gateway to all of Taroko National Park.”

The scenery of Hualien and Taitung is a masterpiece of Mother Nature, and Chiang’s conception was for a station that resembles a fine art museum. Her design suggests both the V-shaped riverbed carved out by the Liwu River, and Taroko Gorge. For the entrance, she has created a magnificently jagged steel structure that echoes the Central Mountain Range, whose ridgelines are visible behind the station. When skies are clear, it sets off beautifully against the blue sky. Xincheng’s magnificent gateway resembles some work of art pulled up out of the ground.

Referencing images of stations from Europe and the Americas, Chiang believes that train stations “are landmarks and sacred and important places.” For this train station that resembles an art museum, she suggested the TRA increase the amount of public art installed there. Consequently, there is a stained-glass version of the ink-wash painting The Beauty of Taroko National Park by the late Ma Baishui. Changing with the day’s light, it sings the praises of Taroko—from dawn to dusk and through all four seasons.

The station also features Elug Tminun (Woven Path), created by the weaving artist Labay Eyong of the Truku people and a group of Aboriginal women weavers, who together unraveled old sweaters into balls of yarn before reweaving them into a “path” that expresses the weavers’ love for their homeland. People often stop to admire the piece’s vibrant artistry. Both works won awards for creativity and environmental integration from the Ministry of Culture.

Fuli: “Second glance” green architecture

Yilan-based husband-and-wife architects Chang Kuangyi and Chang Chengyu designed Fuli Station. With a simple, light-yellow exterior and a barn-like shape, it is a new landmark for Fuli.

“Hualien and Taitung’s strong suit is in fact the natural environment, so we always feel that the first thing people should see is a locale’s beautiful scenery,” says Chang Chengyu. “The architecture should come second.” She likes to joke that their design is “second glance architecture.”

From the beginning, the couple decided to set the tone of the station with color. “In our imagination,” Chengyu says, “it had a light yellow that provided a sense of the land.” The color recalls the area’s famous day lilies and ripe ears of rice. Consequently, they selected yellow granite for the outside of the station. The natural stone material “breathes” and takes on different shades with the weather, as if whispering back and forth with nature.

“Simplicity” is the second hallmark of the design—a characteristic that arose from a deep understanding of labor shortages in the area and the current situation of the construction industry there. Chuang Kuangyi also considered how to reduce energy consumption and maintenance at this small train station. The choice of reinforced concrete for the structure arose out of considerations of cost, safety and construction technology. Dry stone material, he explains, was attached as the outer layer, and between the reinforced concrete and the stone they left an 18-centimeter air gap, which serves as insula­tion, thus reducing energy consumption. The result­ing façade is richly expressive.

As the building gradually took shape during ­construction, residents noticed that it resembled the local barns that serve as rice granaries and thus reflected the importance of rice production to the area. It was then that people started to call it “the barn.” The compact and elegant station has earned the love of locals. In 2017, it also won recognition from fellow architects in the form of a silver Cross-Strait Architectural Design Award in the category of transport and infrastructure from the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (the gold was not awarded).

Chishang: A barn of light

Crossing into Taitung, we arrive at Chishang, whose station is used by hikers bound for Jia­ming Lake and by the waves of tourists attending the Chishang Autumn Harvest Festival, an annual arts festival. As well as being a point of arrival for tourists, the station also features prominently in residents’ memories of home. Peter Kan of D.Z. Architects and Associates, who designed the station, says, “In addition to their functions to support travel, train stations also are places of poignant partings, where people say goodbye to family members.”

After listening to locals and understanding what they had to say, Kan used a simple and fitting element common to their lives: “I suggested building a station around the concept of a barn.”

Because the original Chishang Station included a generator room that could not practically be relocated, it meant that the site was too small. This inherent limitation caused TRA to plan to build a new station farther north. But Kan understood that with something so central to the life of a small town you couldn’t simply pull it up by the roots and set it down in an entirely new place. That would be far too harmful. Engaging in conversations with the TRA and locals, he achieved an understanding, allowing the station to remain in its current location and resolving the station’s positioning problems with design.

The generator room was covered over, but its placement meant the platforms needed to be lengthened, so Kan provided for a ramp to overcome the height difference of nearly two meters between the station building and the platforms.   

“Wooden structures can more readily convey warmth and a cultural atmosphere,” says Kan. But he took a different approach to convey the idea: The underlying structure is constructed of wide-span arches made from glued laminated timber. The interplay of lines from those arches overhead creates its own sense of rhythm. The walls are glass, and the light inside the station building changes and dances as the sun moves across the sky.

When night falls, Chishang Station is lit up via indirect lighting, giving it a certain magical quality. In this small rice-producing town, the fairytale atmosphere provided by the train station gives both mornings and evenings their own enchanting character.

Slow travel on a tourist train

Johnny Chiu, the founder of J.C. Architecture, has clear memories of February 11, 2019. On that day, the news broke about TRA’s revamped tourist trains, whose design was promptly attacked from all quarters for its dated aesthetics.

A winner of numerous design awards both in Taiwan and overseas who returned from living abroad more than a decade ago, Chiu says that designing trains was a childhood dream of his. Seeing TRA’s predicament, he wrote a letter to members of Taiwan’s design community asking them to lend support. Wu Han-chung, who is known as the “CEO of aesthetics” and is now one of TRA’s design consultants, responded. Two weeks later Chiu was invited to present a proposal about updating the look of the tourist trains that circum­navigate the island.

The trains were unveiled again with an entirely new appearance. On the outside, they have a black and ­orange color scheme. The black creates a mysteriously distinguished air, while the orange is the traditional color of Taiwan’s Chu-Kuang express trains.

The inside of the cars has also been given a complete makeover. In earlier days, TRA emphasized functionality, with the focus put on sturdiness, safety and fire prevention. To this utilitarian foundation, Chiu applied a robust design ethos, reconsidering even the smallest of details. For instance, the metal grips were upgraded by covering them with artificial leather. The lighting, so often neglected, was originally cold, white and fluor­escent. It gave riders the impression that they hadn’t escaped their offices. Chiu changed the color temperature of the lighting to create a warmer, more comfortable atmosphere.

The interior signage was also redesigned to create a uniform look, and messy contrasting lines were streamlined. Take the dining car: Where there had been an unattractive array of appliances of different heights and a tangle of cords, Chiu put all the power cords together into one line, and redesigned the kitchen island as a display case, which is convenient for displaying the fine food on offer, thus encouraging purchases. They even installed a lamp on the counter to create a warmer feel and make the space more inviting.

Chiu shows us a design sketch. “The inspiration came from my recollection of the colors I experienced on a trip on the Alishan Forest Railway.It was like a gust of fall wind blowing through the car, and then time just seemed to stand still, and that sense lingered in the car. So I called it ‘Autumn Breeze.’”

“This is a moving platform without walls that brings the outdoor scenery inside, helping us to rediscover Taiwan.” With Chiu’s design, the interiors of the cars reflect the scenery outside. The window shades, which feature stacks of different colored geometric shapes suggesting mountain ranges, reference the works of the Atayal indigenous textile artist Yuma Taru. The upholstery alternates between blue and gray, echoing the colors of Taiwan’s blue seas and rocky coastlines. “The truth is we ­haven’t done anything in particular—we’ve simply brought four seasons of scenery ­inside.” 

“With its outside-the-box design approach, the project is reimagining slow travel,” says Chiu. As you move slowly through the land, you reconsider the meaning of travel and diligently experience the scenery, reacquainting yourself with the people around you. “It has turned what had been a negative into something of great beauty and aesthetic sensibility.”

Thanks to the power of design, good old TRA, with its 132 years of history, is reinventing itself and seeking new opportunities. Each train and each station bears witness to the history of Taiwan and offers a sense of Taiwan’s true beauty. Having found the right people to move forward with, TRA is changing its scenery.   

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