“South, Lonely Railway” not only records the past, but also gives new meaning to the present.

Original link: https://taiwan.chtsai.org/2023/09/12/nanfang_jimo_tiedao_2/

After watching the documentary “South, Lonely Railway” directed by Xiao Juzhen, and then reading the movie book of the same name, I can better understand the director’s point of view in this documentary: the railway served as the trajectory of ordinary people’s lives in the early years.

On the Train

When there is something to give, there is something to give away. This perspective also makes this movie condensed in a certain time and space in the past. It’s not easy for modern audiences to relate. I feel a bit pity. Even if the director’s original point of view is maintained, some clues can be added to connect the common people in the early years with the common people in the modern era.

What Director Hsiao calls “the common people in the early years” roughly refers to the era before Taiwan’s economy took off, when there were no highways and people generally couldn’t afford cars. Railways were the mainstream of long-distance passenger transport in that era. Only rich people can afford to fly.

Later, as everyone knows, Taiwan entered the highway era. Freight traffic gradually shifted from rail to road. The same goes for passenger transport. Road passenger transport is gradually replacing railways, and private transport has become the mainstream.

This century, Taiwan’s public transportation has flipped again. High-speed rail has once again made rail transportation the mainstream and backbone of long-distance transportation (at least in the west). But after all, high-speed rail is just the backbone, shortening the longest distance in the shortest time. When taking the high-speed rail to reach a place, you must also combine it with local public transportation. Mainly Taiwan Railway, but also including MRT, light rail, passenger transport and buses.

Various railway systems with high-speed rail as the backbone have once again returned to people’s lives as the mainstream of public transportation. This is what I call “modern common people.” To paraphrase the famous saying of former US President Trump, to exaggerate, it can be said to be “making rail great again.”

The point is that the connection between railways and life has been broken for many years because highways have become the mainstream, and has begun to be rebuilt because of the opening of high-speed rail. Helping to rebuild the connection between people and railways is the most important value of “Southern, Lonely Railway” in my opinion.

1. Re-understand railway culture

Because of the high-speed rail, modern people have returned to the railways. Taiwan may have a century-old railway history, but the generations who grew up in the highway era are unfamiliar with railways. People may be returning to the railways, but only for daily use. They need some guidance to connect their current experiences with their past trajectories.

2. Rail construction improves life

Before the opening of the Southern Railway, the highway between Pingtung and Taitung passed through mountain roads, up and down, winding, long and prone to motion sickness. Therefore, the opening of the South China Railway is a major event.

This is also the experience of modern people. MRT and light rail in metropolitan areas are one example. The same goes for Taiwan Railway’s rapid transit, shortening of station distances in urban areas, and the establishment of new commuter stations. The Taiwan Railways has established new branch lines and stations for high-speed rail, such as the Sharon Line and the Liujia Line, as well as the Xinzuoying, Xinwuri and Fuxing stations. And of course there is the modernization of Taiwan Railway trains. These new track constructions have actually improved life.

3. Convenient transportation does not necessarily bring prosperity

Better transportation doesn’t necessarily bring more people to a place. Sometimes it gives people less chance to stay, or makes those who are there leave faster. As mentioned in the documentary, during the road transportation period, driving times were long, and small towns along the way prospered because they served as rest stops. Now it has declined.

In this century, various track constructions since the high-speed rail, or major highway constructions such as the Snow Mountain Tunnel and National Highway No. 5, seem to have encountered similar phenomena. Local areas look forward to faster transportation, but it is always accompanied by some unexpected losses.

4. The Taiwan Railway is closed and how to open it

Director Xiao mentioned that she applied to film at Tomioka Machinery Factory so many times that the administrative staff kept complaining, making it increasingly difficult for the director’s application to be approved. Another example is the application to enter the front of the steam train locomotive for filming, but the Taiwan Railway also refused on the grounds that it treats the media equally.

Perhaps with less baggage, the high-speed rail is more open. Ten years ago, I had a column in the “Shang Zhou” column blog. Because I wrote a lot about my high-speed rail experience, the high-speed rail public relations department sent some small gifts as a tribute that year.

I have said before that the Taiwan Railway’s closure has caused a lot of losses to the Taiwan Railway. I feel aggrieved when encountering some things, but it’s because I don’t know much about the world outside the system. I don’t quite know how to communicate with the public. Outsiders sometimes want sympathy and help but don’t know where to start.

5. Temperature of Taiwan Railway

This is what I said before. If I had to describe this documentary in one sentence, it would be this sentence in the film: “You must like your job to be qualified.” The railway crews in the film really like the railways and their jobs. Therefore, they often display a sense of honor and mission.

The director’s interview with the driver Wu Qitai, who was seriously injured in the Nanhui railway incident, is a part that the audience can easily relate to. The couple never talked about it, not even to their children. The children left their room to listen on the day of the visit, and it was the first time they heard their parents talk about it completely.

In recent years, there has been considerable negative sentiment towards the Taiwan Railway. Of course Taiwan Railway needs reform. But Taiwan Railway’s problems mainly come from cultural isolation, not from faulty or bad “people”. I also hope that this film can serve as a window for outsiders to understand Taiwan Railway and reduce misunderstandings.

6. The hero behind the scenes

The construction of the Southern Railway, the most difficult tunnel work, involved many indigenous people. As many as 21 people were killed in engineering accidents across the entire line, most of them Aboriginal people. This is also a truth that most people will not hear in government propaganda.

This also reminds me of “The Defender of the Eight-foot Gate”. In novels and TV series, Aboriginal people work as fishermen. Many of the aboriginal people involved in the tunnel construction of the South Link Railway are Paiwan people from Taitung. Because their fishing income was unstable, they chose the South Link Project, which has relatively high income but also higher risks.

Further reading

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