[Be sure to see updated links at bottom.]
Even if you aren’t a foreigner who’s vainly attempted to book tickets online in Taiwan, the irony of the following graphic from Taiwan Rail’s English language homepage is hard to miss. With its awful graphics and stilted language it certainly doesn’t instill confidence.
Don’t get me wrong. Taiwan’s rail system is one of the best in the world (ignoring for now the occasional acts of sabotage, corruption, etc. which have plagued the system over the past few years). Honestly, I love taking the train. The trip to Hualien from Taipei is one of the most beautiful and pleasant rail trips anywhere. Assuming you can purchase a ticket …
You see, the thing is that you can only purchase a ticket at the train station up to one week before you leave, by which time all the tickets are usually sold out for the train you want. That’s because the smart Taiwanese have already booked tickets online up to two weeks before the departure date, giving them a one week head start.
So why not purchase a ticket online? Well, if you are able to read Chinese, you might try to go to the main web page used by ordinary Taiwanese and book your ticket there. That would be a big mistake, because, due to Taiwanese linguistic chauvinism, that site only works for those with Taiwanese National Identity Cards. (Only Taiwanese citizens read Chinese?) If you need to use a passport number instead you are directed to the English language site. To be honest, the Chinese language site is not easy to use no matter how good your Chinese might be — you basically need to know the train you want to take before you attempt to book the ticket online. You also shouldn’t attempt to use the system at night as it seems to only work during daytime hours, although that isn’t exactly clear if you are attempting to use the system at night.
So … we head over to the English language site and navigate the menu “ticket — internet ticketing” which gives us a 404 Page Not Found error. That’s because the link is incorrect and hasn’t been fixed in the six months I’ve been in Taiwan. Come to think of it, the system didn’t work five years ago either … although the page has had a redesign. (Honestly, before it had a starry night-time theme and the links didn’t work then either.) Anyway, here is the correct link. But before you go there you might want to look at this web page which gives you an easy to navigate schedule — don’t ask how I found it, it seems that Taiwan Rail has about half a dozen different web pages each seemingly maintained by completely different people who don’t talk to each other. Go Go Go! Good Good Good! Once you’ve picked the train number you can go directly to this page and enter the relevant data. (Note that the “departure date” menu is still in Chinese, although the lack of Chinese encoding on this page makes the day of the week appear as gibberish.)
Once you’ve booked your ticket, print out the confirmation number. As far as I can tell, you have to book each ticket separately. You can’t book a round-trip ticket, and if your return ticket is more than two weeks away you will only be able to purchase a one-way ticket at this point.
For some reason the confirmation receipt is in English, without any Chinese, even though the people you will have to show it to are unlikely to have very good English; however, it should still be fairly easy to take this to any post office or train station and pick up your tickets. I don’t really understand why you can’t just go and purchase the tickets at the post office or train station, as it seems to take them longer to process these internet bookings then when you purchase directly at the station, but those are the rules…
I know I made it all sound quite complex, but once you figure it out it is quite simple. Go here, and pick your train. Go here and book your ticket using the train number (during the day). Then print out the receipt and go to the train station or post office to pick up your tickets (bring some ID — if you have an ARC card that will do).
I hope this helps. If you have any other hints please share them in the comments.
UPDATE: Looks like they finally updated the website. It looks a lot better, but the English version is still woefully inadequate and doesn’t properly link to the English time-schedule. There is, however, a proper link to the internet ticketing system, which hasn’t improved any.