One of the most extraordinary attractions in Taiwan is the historic Changhua Roundhouse 彰化扇形車庫, originally built in 1922 during Japanese colonial rule and still in operation today. Although information is hard to come by it seems that it might be the only roundhouse still operating in Asia—and certainly one of the oldest still in regular use anywhere in the world. Every other roundhouse I researched for this article has been abandoned, demolished, repurposed, or converted into a museum, and those rare few that are still operational have been mighty hard to date. As such, the Changhua Roundhouse is a dream to visit for a railway enthusiast like myself, particularly since the ambiance hasn’t been ruined by the sort of tacky treatment you’ll often find at Taiwanese tourist attractions. After signing in with the guard at the gate I had free run of the place—and as you can see from some of the following photos, nobody minded me getting dangerously close to moving trains as the mechanics went about their daily routines.
Roundhouses are relics of the steam locomotive era. Unlike more modern diesel and electric locomotives, steam locomotives were optimized for forward motion and typically couldn’t—without great difficult, anyway—be thrown into reverse. The advent of railway turntables allowed for a simple way to reverse locomotives and other rolling stock—which should explain the roundhouse, a circular or semicircular workshop connected by radial spokes to the turntable at its heart. How it works: a locomotive rolls onto the turntable, an operator rotates the turntable to direct the locomotive toward one of (in this case) 12 stalls or bays, and then the locomotive backs in for servicing or storage. You’ll see that process in just a minute.
This roundhouse is one of six that were built in Taiwan in Japanese times1; others were once found in Taipei 台北, Hsinchu 新竹, and Chiayi 嘉義, with two more in Kaohsiung 高雄 (one at the main station and the other at the old harbour station)2. Like most of the others this roundhouse is semicircular—hence the name in Chinese, 扇形車庫, which translates to “fan-shaped train garage”.
The other Taiwanese roundhouses were all demolished by the early 1990s, largely for the same reasons they’ve become obsolete everywhere else: roundhouses are an inefficient use of space and no longer necessary now that locomotives can readily move in either direction. The Changhua Roundhouse was spared the wrecking ball in the late 1990s when heritage groups, railway enthusiasts, and concerned citizens mounted a campaign to preserve the site. It was a success and the roundhouse opened to the public in 19983. Since then the roundhouse has been designated a cultural asset and some facilities have been built for the benefit of visitors, primarily an observation deck overlooking the turntable. There are also a few of those weird railway robots you’ll see in several other historic sites such as Old Caoling Tunnel 舊草嶺隧道 but I didn’t bother to photograph them. There were more interesting things around!
Not long after wandering into the main roundhouse area I was absolutely thrilled to see a train approach the turntable. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might see the process up close—on some level I assumed it was more like a museum4, but no, the roundhouse is an active, working facility! Contrary to newly reset expectations, there are few areas that are off limits, and while that locomotive was rotated and driven into the roundhouse I was able to walk all around the turntable and take some great photographs without interference.
When the motorized turntable slid over to the appropriate track the operator hit the stop button, jumped out of the control booth, and locked everything into place. The locomotive then eased into the bay and mechanics standing by got down to business right away, replacing what I think might have been brakes, though I am admittedly no expert when it comes to train maintenance. If you’re curious about the technical side of things I suggest reading this article in Taiwan Panorama.
What I find most amazing about the Changhua Roundhouse is the fact that it’s genuinely something out of the pages of history—but it’s also very much alive and in the present. Workers go about their business just as they’ve done for nearly a century, albeit with new technology and processes in place. Taiwan has many tourist attractions dedicated to its many industries—gold, coal, oil, timber, salt, pottery, and glass, among others—but they always feel rather distant from their individual histories. Yes, you can walk into a museum and imagine how things were once upon a time—but the Changhua Roundhouse is a truly living museum, offering a far more vivid window into the the past.
This post is probably one of the most comprehensive reviews of the Changhua Roundhouse in English but there are, of course, many Taiwanese blogs with photo-heavy posts about it e.g. here, here, here, and here. It is a popular destination for domestic tourists—and rightfully so! The Changhua Roundhouse is an essential part of the cultural heritage of Taiwan. Everyone should see it at least once—there’s no guarantee the roundhouse will remain in operation forever.
Interested in visiting the Changhua Roundhouse? According to this government web site, the roundhouse is open to the public in the afternoon from 1pm to 4pm, Tuesdays to Fridays, and 10am to 4pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. If you’re planning a visit be sure to check for more current information than what I provide here; searching Google Maps for the Chinese name should provide access to current hours of operation. Admission is free, you need only register at the gate. The roundhouse is located just to the northeast of Changhua Station on the west side of the tracks. If you walk out of the front of the station keep left, pass the impressive Qiaoyou Building 喬友大廈 on your right, and follow one of the smaller streets angling back toward the railway line. Here you will find a pedestrian underpass that leads you to the gates of the roundhouse, one of Taiwan’s great unsung cultural treasures.
- An interesting side note: I went looking for roundhouses in Japan, assuming they might have modelled the ones they built in Taiwan after their own, and it would appear that my hunch was correct. The Changhua Roundhouse bears more than a passing resemblance to several still found in Japan: Umekōji Roundhouse in Kyoto 京都, built in 1914 and now the Umekōji Steam Locomotive Museum 梅小路蒸気機関車館 in Kyoto 京都; Tsuyama Roundhouse 津山扇形機関車庫 in Okayama, built in 1936; and Bungo-Mori Roundhouse 豊後森機関庫 in Kyushu, built in 1934. All of these Japanese roundhouses have been out of service for many decades. Incidentally, it seems plausible that there remains a colonial era roundhouse in Pyongyang next to the central station, but I’ve uncovered absolutely nothing more than a positive match on satellite maps. Rason and Chongjin also show evidence of roundhouses in positions that match pre-war maps but the structure in Chongjin was likely rebuilt in the 1950s after it was damaged in an allied bombing run. ↩
- This page has some great old photos from the late 1970s of the now-demolished roundhouses in Hsinchu (e.g. here, here, and here) and Chiayi (here and here). For reference you can find the exact locations of all former roundhouses in Taiwan by perusing the excellent University of Texas Libraries U.S. Army Formosa City Plans (1944–1945) archive. Direct links to high-resolution maps: Taipei (then known as Taihoku), Hsinchu (Shinchiku), Chiayi (Kagi, formerly a part of Tainan), and Kaohsiung (Takao). For reference, here’s the map of Changhua, then a part of Taichū. ↩
- It is worth noting that railway facilities like the roundhouse were not open to the public during the martial law era. ↩
- Actually, the roundhouse is also home to several steam locomotives that occupy the leftmost engine bays. I didn’t pay very much attention to them once I saw real work being done—and to keep things at least a little mysterious I haven’t posted any photographs of them either. ↩