Preprint / Version 1

Zen and the Art of Commuter Rail Operations

Taiwan Railways Administration’s Design, Operations, and Philosophy


  • Alex Lu P.O. Box 684
  • Amanda N. Marsh



Taiwan Railways, commuter rail, benchmarking


This paper offers a review of ideas and practices making Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) unique and distinctively different to North American commuter railroads, based on two weeks’ field observation, published sources, authors’ cultural knowledge, and discussions with locals. Unlike most transit systems, TRA accommodates different trip purposes and train types on shared railway infrastructure, covering areas with varying traffic densities, travel needs, and geographic features. As an importer of railway technology, to meet diverse requirements, and because of incremental and stop-gap measures devised in response to capital budget restrictions, TRA has needed to embrace, operate, and maintain a wide assortment of different standards and procedures. This willingness to accept outside designs and consider functionality/cost/simplicity trade-offs when addressing specific needs resulted in constantly varying daily routines for management, staff, and customers. In turn, it may have cultivated expectations of learning curves with new technologies and continuous training requirements, apparently resulting in higher skill levels and a more nimble workforce that contributes to overall higher reliability, tolerance of changes, and nuanced operations tailored to maximize railway effectiveness. These observations suggest further research needs for commuter rail authorities: Can infrastructure and schedules be designed with better cost-flexibility tradeoffs? Should train priorities be explicit in public schedules? What is an appropriate level of standardization? Is technology better thought of as workplace assistance and not functional replacement for employees? Embracing diversity in engineering and operating solutions could reduce investment costs yet improve effectiveness by requiring humans to think on their feet.


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Author Biography

Alex Lu, P.O. Box 684

Alex Lu had been a management analyst in the rail and transit industries for more than twenty years. He joined the railway industry in 1999 with Railtrack PLC (the former British Rail’s Infrastructure Division) in Capital and Strategic planning, and later got his first Operations job as a scheduling clerk at ScotRail Railways Limited, responsible for the short-term timetabling of the Glasgow “Blue Train” electric suburban network. Since then, he has worked with many railroads from Maine Central to Florida East Coast to Central Japan Railway to the New York City subway system, in a variety of roles including planning, management, infrastructure, big data analytics, international benchmarking, technology, and industrial engineering. Alex is a Member of the Chartered Institution of Railway Operators (MCIRO).


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