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Taiwan’s extraordinary 111-year-old forest railway gets a makeover

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Snaking through the dense forests of Alishan, one of the tallest mountain ranges in Taiwan, the 111-year-old Alishan Forest Railway has long been a popular attraction for train fans.

And now, the train’s operators are freshening up its historic fleet by adding six sleek new rail cars.

Collectively named Formosensis, the new carriages are the product of two years and nine months of planning and construction. Test drives kicked off in March, with the company hoping to wrap things up by June.

Both the livery and interiors of the six new cars are lined with two types of cypresses native to the island – Taiwan red cypress (or Chamaecyparis formosensis – which inspired the name) and Taiwan cypress (Chamaecyparis Taiwanensis).

“Taiwan red cypress and Taiwan cypress are fine and uniform wood materials,” say Alishan Forest Railway officials in a statement. “They’re durable, resistant to erosion and insects. The essential oils it contains exudes a unique phytoncide scent (the scent of the forest), which is both energizing and cleansing. Passengers could enjoy a refreshing forest bathing experience.”

Formosensis will elevate the experience for travelers in several ways. For one, the current cypress-themed train doesn’t have air-conditioning or soft seating.

Each new car will be fitted with 18 leather seats, including two four-seat booths and two two-seat booths. They will also feature bigger windows and warmer lights compared to older models, all to enhance the viewing experience.

But travelers will have to wait a bit longer before they can climb aboard. Details of the routes and launch date have yet to be confirmed, according to the train office’s spokesperson.

Asia’s highest narrow-gauge mountain railway

The existing Alishan Railway Route runs from Chiayi city station to the Loco Shed Park, a garage-turned-park where visitors can see preserved old train engines and trains that served the Alishan Forest Railway.

Completed in 1912 under the Japanese occupation, the railway was once used to transport now-endangered Taiwan cypress trees from Alishan. After logging was banned, it became the only passenger train to ride up the mountains.

It’s believed to be the highest narrow-gauge mountain railway in Asia, climbing from 30 meters to 2,216 meters above sea level – some 16 meters higher than the famed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which ascends from 100 meters to 2,200 meters.

The Formosensis carriages will be the latest addition to Alishan Forest Railway’s historic fleet, which includes restored steam locomotives.

Train lovers can experience some of the 71.6-kilometer railway’s original features – including the many spiral and horseshoe bends along the tracks. (You can see the aerial photos of some of the tracks in the above photo gallery.)

The journey also offers a glimpse into Taiwan’s diverse natural beauty, as the train goes through a tropical forest, then a subtropical forest and finally a temperate forest during its ascent to the top of Alishan.

In addition to developing more modern trains for the route, Alishan Forest Railway has also been restoring some of its older trains, as well as historical attractions along the line.

In 2021, the Alishan Forestry Railway and Cultural Heritage Office completed restorations of the century-old Shay 21 steam locomotive. It’s Alishan’s first 28-ton steam train, imported from the United States in 1912, and is powered by its original coal-burning engine.

Meanwhile, a Shay 31 locomotive makes occasional appearances during the flower blossoming season, from March to May.

Getting to Alishan

The Alishan Forest Railway isn’t a continuous line – one section of track between Shizilu Station and Alishan Station was damaged in a typhoon.

Travelers can take the main line from Chiayi Station to Fenqihu Station (2 hours, 20 minutes) and continue the journey by bus from Fenqihu Station to Alishan Station.

Only one train departs daily from Chiayi, at 9 a.m on weekdays. Two more trains (at 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m.) are added at weekends. (Find the schedule on this website).

From Alishan Station, there are a few branch lines that ferry passengers to the attractions around the Alishan Scenic Area.

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