Taiwan isn’t exactly huge, so when you go from one end to the other on high-speed train, the journey is pleasantly short.
I make this post more for travelers who like to look before they leap not because it is complicated. By no means is riding high-speed trains in Taiwan a difficult thing for anyone who doesn’t speak or read Chinese. I even feel foolish typing this. All Chinese signage is also in English. All announcements are also in English. Even the automatic ticket machines can be selected for written and audio English, the instructions coming in complete, step-by-step sentences as if speaking to an idiot. That’s a great thing, especially if you are overwhelmed with excitement in a foreign land, late and don’t want to make a mistake, or suffering from stupefying jet lag or the like.
The Taiwan HSR automatic ticket machines take credit cards and debit cards, and half of them even also take cash. (Warning: some credit cards have troubles and it may be necessary to have the computer-chip credit card rather than the traditional magnetic stripe. All credit cards should work at the windows, however.) You can choose roundtrip tickets here and it will print two separate tickets. You can choose a non-reserved seat on cars 10-12 or pay a bit extra for a reserved seat or even a bit more for business class. Business class means wider seats, two by two, plus some complimentary coffee/tea service. There is a separate ticket window for business class and for the elderly/handicapped, etc.
For reservations you’ll be asked for dates and times. Change is given in coins (as the machine will also kindly warn you before you insert cash).
You can go to a ticket window if you prefer, but lines can sometimes be an issue if you are in a hurry to make the next train. Tip: there is rarely a line for business class or elderly/handicap tickets.
With a reserved seat, if you missed your train you can go to the ticket window and even after the train’s departure and change the ticket for free. (Been there, done that.) Be aware that this may have been a kindness toward a foreigner. The policy as printed is that changes and refunds must occur at least a half hour before departure time! Also, if you change your mind when get on board and you’d like to go business class or get a reserved seat, no problem. Contact a conductor and they can change that ticket for you with a cash payment (for which you’ll get a receipt – very honest culture in Taiwan, no shenanigans).
Go to Taipei Railway Station. All taxi drivers obviously are going to know this place. There are two bus stations next door and behind the station, FYI. (Taipei Bus station and Taipei West Bus Station) The meeting of the Blue and Red MRT (subway) lines is also at Taipei Main Station, the MRT station underground next door. (See the Taipei MRT map) Get your tickets for High Speed Rail by following the HSR arrows on the signage downstairs in Taipei Railway Station, one level below ground level, B1 if you will.
After you purchase your ticket, go to the gates (when facing the ticket windows, these will be in the direction behind you). Signage again indicates which gates to go through for the different platforms numbered and lettered 1A and 1B, for example. But you should also check your ticket for your car number. Cars 1-6 are on one side, 7 and above on the other. Slip your card into the slot at the gate (it even shows you exactly which way to do this, magnetic strip up, arrow forward). The card will go through and you need to take it from the other slot before the gate will open. Keep it; you will need it to get out at your destination, and at your destination you will get it back as a receipt.
Once inside the gate make note of the platform for your train number (A or B) and descend the escalators another floor to the platform. Signage is clear about which train is on which track, and the trains show their numbers as well. The recorded voice on board also notifies you in English what the destinations/stops are and when you can expect to get to each. Seriously, this is easier than riding the subways in Chicago and New York.
There are small luggage storage areas in the front of the cars. Business class has its own car (Car #6). Some train cars even have free Wi-Fi internet. The Taiwan HSR stations in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung (Zuoying Station) all connect to the local trains or MRT. For example, in Kaohsiung (Zuoying) you can descend to the MRT and connect to the airport.
The duration of the trips depend on the number of stops, of course. All trains stop at Banqiao at the edge of Taipei, but some express trains only stop thereafter at Taichung and Kaohsiung (Zuoying station) making the full length of the country in 1 hour 36 minutes as opposed to the usual 2 hours.
Sample fare: From Taipei to Taichung (52 or 61 minutes), one-way is NT$765 (reserved) or NT$700 (non-reserved). Business class adds about NT$300 (Taipei-Taichung) to $500 (Taipei-Zuoying).
Tip: There are “early-bird” discount reserved tickets on Taiwan High Speed Rail. The discount is 35% and applies to a limited number of available tickets purchased 8 to 28 days in advance. When those sell out, you can still get a 10% discount during that time.