Push car railways are an interesting and unique feature of Taiwanese railway history. Push cars, known as daisha in Japanese (台車 in Chinese), were a key form of transport in Taiwan during the Japanese era. Knapp writes that they were an "important and short-lived form of intermediate technology". Although most studies focus on the role of roads, railways and harbours in Taiwan's economic development, the push cars played a key role in connecting the hinterlands to the more central towns and north-south railway line. They allowed the Japanese to exercise administrative control and also facilitated the movement of agricultural surplus to markets.
Owen Rutter, an Englishman who visited Formosa in 1920, recounts a trip by push car to visit an aboriginal tribe near Taipei in his book Through Formosa. He describes the basic operation of the cars.
We were met at Toyen by the usual officials, who had push-cars and coolies ready waiting for us. The push-car is simply a light trolley with brakes. On the flat one coolie can get it along, running behind and shoving until it is well underway, and then getting on until it begins to slow down. Going up hill two coolies are necessary, but it is when you are going down hill that the fun begins and you have all the thrills of a prolonged journey on a kind of private (and rather flimsy) scenic railway.
The track is a very light line of about 18 inches gauge and and the sleepers are mere billets of wood. At present only the main towns of Formosa are connected by roads, and the outlying districts, even up to the hills, are linked up by means of these push car lines, of which there are over 550 miles in the island.
Davidson also describes the operation of the push cars.
The passenger cars are provided with seats for four, and are covered with a light awning. They are on a very miniature scale, and are pushed or pulled by relays of Chinese coolies. Young Hakka girls are frequently employed for this work, and fairly good time is made considering the method of operating.
Construction of push car railway lines began very early during the period of Japanese rule. Only eight months after arriving in Taiwan they had constructed a push car railway line between Tainan and Kaohsiung. By February 1898 the line extended all the way north to Hsinchu were it joined the railroad to Keelung. (The Keelung to Hsinchu railway line was originally completed in 1893). Heavy railroad did not reach Kaohsiung until 1905 with the complete north-south connection being made in 1908. Knapp writes:
Without the daisha it is unlikely that agriculture would have become so commercialized so quickly because peasants would have been unwilling to produce a surplus unless it could be moved to market.
Patterns of push car and steam railway development (Knapp)
Passenger traffic on the push cars declined during the 1920s and 1930s as new roads were built and bus services began operating. The bus services offered faster travel times and lower fares. However, the push cars played a key role in Taiwan's development by providing the means for agricultural surplus to be transported to market towns on the north-south railway line.
- Davidson, James W. The Island of Formosa Past and Present. SMC Publishing Inc., Taiwan, 1988 (originally published in 1903).
- Knapp, Ronald G. "Push Car Railways and Taiwan's Development." in Knapp, Ronald G. (Editor). 1980. China's Island Frontier: Studies in the Historical Geography of Taiwan. SMC Publishing Inc., Taiwan, 1980.
- Rutter, Owen. Through Formosa: An account of Japan's Island Colony. SMC Publishing Inc., Taiwan, 1990 (originally published in 1923).
*photos from Vintage Formosa.