Shuttling passengers to and from the mountains, the Maokong Gondola, which has begun operation in the heat of a Taipei summer, is Taiwan's longest cable car system. Whether the gondola can maintain its current popularity with curious visitors is a question that remains to be answered. (photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)
Financed by the Taipei City Govern-ment at a cost of NT$1.3 billion, the Maokong Gondola in Taipei's Mucha is Taiwan's first mass-transit mountain cable car. The system made its inaugural run at 2 p.m. on July 4, attracting 13,500 curious visitors on the first day alone.
Other cable cars in Taiwan include the 30-year-old system in the Yun Hsien Holiday Resort in Wulai, Taipei County (overall length 382 meters), and those at the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village in Nantou County (1 kilometer) and Hualien Ocean Park (330 meters). The 4030-meter Maokong facility is by far the longest in the country.
In fact, the Maokong system, produced by French company POMA, has several unique characteristics. When the maximum number of 144 cabins are in operation with eight passengers per cabin and taking 40 minutes for a return trip, the system is capable of delivering 2000 passengers per hour to their destinations, conveying them in a complete circuit through four stations: Taipei Zoo, Taipei Zoo South, Chihnan Temple, and Maokong.
The Maokong Gondola changes direction at two points on its route, and the 80.3° turn inside the zoo is the sharpest such turn in the world. Meanwhile the section between Chihnan Temple and Maokong is the most exciting part of the route. The height of the Chihnan Temple stop is over 110 meters. As the cable car leaves the stop, it drops 40 meters at an incline of around 60°. Then, approaching Maokong, it climbs again at 45°. This sudden fall and rise provides all the thrills of a roller coaster ride.
Traversing the four stations from Taipei Zoo to Maokong takes 20 minutes, with spectacular views of the Chingmei River, Taipei Zoo and the hills around Maokong itself. Travelers can also see the Taipei 101 building in eastern Taipei City.
Despite the Maokong Gondola's unique features, the system has been controversial since its inception. It is operating, but it seems that there remain a number of problems yet to be ironed out. It's perhaps no wonder that many visitors have been approaching the spectacular ride with trepidation.
First, there is no air conditioning and windows can't be opened to allow a natural circulation of fresh air. On a summer afternoon the cabins can get very stuffy and humid--not unlike a small sauna. To solve this problem, the Taipei Rapid Transport Corporation, which operates the cable car system, has had no choice but to hastily drill ventilation holes behind the seats, to give passengers some relief from the heat.
Sudden stops have also proved alarming for passengers. On opening day, Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin and former mayor and KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou became stranded in their cabin for 20 minutes, a very embarrassing start. According to the TRTC, someone pushed the wrong button opening a special security door on the platform which was designed to protect passengers from falling, and the system stopped automatically.
In addition, there is a special weather monitoring system, so if a serious storm comes up within a six-kilometer radius of Maokong, the system shuts down temporarily.
On the afternoon of July 9 when the cable car had been operating for less than a week, a big storm shut the system down, but also damaged the control system so it couldn't be restarted. The cable car was stopped for five hours. Around 100 passengers suffered the terrifying experience of being stuck in their cabins, swinging helplessly in the sky for eight minutes.
Maokong in Mucha has had a reputation as one of the foremost scenic tea parks in Taiwan. In the early 1980s a number of teahouses were set up, attracting crowds of tourists (and their cars) at weekends and public holidays. But because of narrow, winding mountain roads, traffic congestion became a severe problem, and business declined. It was in order to bring new business opportunities for Maokong without repeating the traffic chaos that the city government built the cable car system.
According to statistics, an average of around 200,000 people visit Taipei Zoo each month. It takes only 20 minutes from the zoo to Maokong by cable car, so the city government estimates that the Maokong Gondola should bring on average about 20,000 visitors per day to Maokong. If each of them spends NT$2-300, it could bring several billion dollars into the area's business coffers each year.
The novelty of Maokong's new cable car has attracted a great number of visitors, many of whom have come up from central and southern Taiwan especially to ride it. Unfortunately, while tourist agencies are promoting one-day excursions to attract tourists to try out the new system, the first two weeks have seen a number of unhappy customers. Bad weather has caused stoppages, emergency evacuation routes seem ill-organized and too slow, and nearby scenic spots, businesses and transportation links have not been well enough prepared for the influx, so there have been many complaints.
Some groups including the Homemakers' Union and Foundation, the Green Party, residents of Chihsia housing estate in Mucha, and a group opposing the Peitou cable car project, point out eight serious problems: system safety, the heat and humidity inside the cabins, rubbish being thrown onto the mountain, a lack of emergency medical facilities, traffic control problems, noise pollution disturbing local residents, worries about possible landslides, and maintenance difficulties. They warn the passengers to remember these "Four Don'ts and one No": Don't rock the cabin, don't be in a hurry, don't complain, don't worry about the heat and humidity, and no assurance of safety.
The cable car is in operation, but is Maokong ready for the expected influx of tourists? Can Maokong rely upon the novelty of the cable car to revitalize the local tourist trade? These questions remain to be answered.