TAIWAN High Speed Rail Corp began carrying fare-paying passengers on January 5, with the first train leaving Panchiao station near Taipei at 07.00 for the 345 km trip to Zuoying in the southern city of Kaohsiung.

Tickets for the 90 min journey were offered at a 50% discount for travel during a 15-day 'commercial test phase', pending the anticipated start of full-fare operations on January 20. Despite teething problems with the credit-card booking system and ticket machines, THSRC had sold 180 466 tickets by 18.30 on the evening before the launch.

Chief Executive Dr Ou Chin-Der had announced on December 27 that THSRC had received authorisation from the Ministry of Transport & Communications to begin revenue operations, after the company had addressed various issues highlighted in the pre-opening inspection report.

During the soft-launch period THSRC operated 19 trips each way. There was a basic hourly service from 07.25 to 20.25, with trains calling at Taoying, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi and Tainan, plus a few short workings and extra peak-hour limited-stop trains calling only at Taichung.

Travelling on a pre-launch test train on January 1, Taiwan's President Chen Shui-bian said cutting up to 3 h from the journey time between Kaohsiung and Taipei 'would virtually transform Taiwan into a city state like Singapore.'

The 7 km tunnel section between Panchiao and Taipei Main Station is expected to open within the next few months.