Editor’s note – Monthly ticket is a new CNN Travel series that sheds light on some of the most fascinating topics in the world of travel. In May, we ride the rails exploring the most beautiful train journeys in the world. Whether you’re looking for travel inspiration or insider knowledge, Monthly Ticket will get you there.
(CNN) — Taiwan’s first-ever food train has just been put into service – and this stunning creation is quickly gaining fans not only for its food, but also for its looks.
The unveiling of the Moving Kitchen took place on the platform of Nangang Station in Taipei in March 2022 – a surreal moment for Johnny Chiu, founder of Taipei-based JC Architecture.
Looking at the chic orange and black train, it’s hard to believe that when it debuted in 2019, its original appearance was called a “cosmetic disaster” by local media.
Chiu redesigned the entire train, including the new gourmet dining cars, and that’s the main reason why this former “disaster” is now affectionately called “Taiwan’s most beautiful train.”
The letter that started it all
“In Taiwan, train travel has always been an important part of our lives,” Chiu told CNN Travel.
“From joining the army (military service is compulsory for men in Taiwan) to returning home for the celebration of the Lunar New Year, passing through meeting our girlfriends or our grandmothers, the trip by train is in everyone’s memory.”
“The kitchen bar looked almost like a hospital, with white plastic counters and garbage cans that you could find on the streets. And with the noisy flowers painted on the wall, it was really not tasteful Everyone went crazy. The photos were on every media site and every social media account,” Chiu recalled.
Designed by Johnny Chiu, the Moving Kitchen debuted in March 2022.
Lee Kuo-Min JC Architecture
Saddened by the situation, Chiu wrote an open letter, inviting everyone to see it as an opportunity for the Taiwanese railway to modernize, and hoped that someone would convey his message to the TRA.
In response to the criticism, the TRA enlisted a group of creatives to come up with a solution that was more pleasing to the eye. One of them saw Chiu’s open letter and contacted him.
“I got an email response saying, ‘Johnny, great. We are happy that you have this positive response. I’ll give you two weeks and please pitch us your ideas,” Chiu recalled.
Two weeks of sleepless nights and whiskey-infused brainstorming sessions later, Chiu and his team presented the TRA with a makeover plan. Soon after, they won the project.
Renovation of a 50 year old train
Architect Johnny Chiu and his team were commissioned to transform this 50-year-old train in 2019.
Lee Kuo-Min JC Architecture
But the real challenge was just beginning.
The team had only seven months to remodel the refurbished orange train. Formerly known as the Chu-Kuang Express, it was an old diesel locomotive from the 1970s.
“We didn’t know it was an old train. We had to empty everything inside and repaint everything,” says Chiu.
They faced many challenges, including power and structural issues.
There were complicated electrical wires that they had to hide. Meanwhile, safety standards were higher than for their usual interior projects, as train materials must be fireproof and durable.
Hardware aside, it was also difficult to persuade a 132-year-old government organization to get on board with these new design ideas.
“Taiwan Railway is not about design, it is about safety, punctuality and precision. But luckily, the TRA Director and Vice Director were able to make the tough decisions and push the whole team with dedication and passion,” says Chiu.
The new design took seven months to develop – and it was again presented to the public at the end of 2019. The historic orange color remains, but is accented with black to create a luxurious look.
The team replicated the original retro Japanese-style font on the car’s livery.
The interior is inspired by Taiwan’s natural surroundings, with wooden textures and black stones used to echo the mountains and rock formations along Taiwan’s shores – where the train will cruise.
“We even thought about how you get the ticket. Like in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, you open an envelope to find a golden ticket and happily anticipate your ride,” Chiu explains.
The Future 2.0: Taiwan’s first gourmet train
The Future’s livery is inspired by the orange color of the original train.
Lee Kuo-Min JC Architecture
With a major win under its belt, the TRA proceeded with production of The Future 2.0 – the Moving Kitchen gourmet train.
Victor Cheng is the senior manager of Lion Travel, which handles the train booking.
“Food trains are a familiar concept in Japan and Europe, but not in Taiwan,” he told CNN Travel. “But Taiwanese people love training and they love food – so it was a logical and appealing step to combine the two.”
As The Future’s sole tour operator and Taiwan’s largest travel agency, Lion Travel spent more than a year arranging the experience with JC Architecture and TRA before its unveiling in March.
“To be the first five-star food train in Taiwan, we had to overcome some hurdles – lack of cooking water and electricity are the first two major challenges,” Cheng explains.
A large amount of water is needed for drinking, cleaning and cooking. But on-board storage space is limited.
To solve the problem, fresh water and utensils are loaded onto the train between meals at stops. Staff are also working closely with partner caterer, Silks Hotel Group, which operates luxury hotels and restaurants in Taiwan, to arrange the necessary appliances on board.
“The second challenge is to provide gourmet catering services on a moving train. Our servers have spent a lot of time practicing having a firm stance while waiting for tables on a wobbly train. The timing of each dish must also be precise. Cheng said.
The delivery of each course coincides with the sights passengers will see.
For example, the first course of one of the meals on the two-day trip is abalone. It is introduced when the train arrives at Turtle Island, famous for the mollusk.
The second course is a seafood salad on a blue dish, paired with the sea view of the east coast.
Then the meal continues to highlight local delicacies such as hot spring vegetables (vegetables grown with local hot spring water), duck and purple sweet potatoes passing through different destinations.
“And because it’s a travel train, we don’t have a schedule to rush from one station to another. We can slow the train down on some of the more scenic routes. The train would stop while passengers dined in the most beautiful stretches of the route – where the train is closest to the sea in Hualien,” Cheng explains.
A culinary journey
The Moving Kitchen is Taiwan’s first food train.
Cheng says every party involved in the project did their best to keep the Moving Kitchen running smoothly.
“At the station where we stopped our train, there was an overgrowth which blocked parts of the view of the sea. Knowing this, the TRA sent someone to pull weeds and prune trees for the journey” , explains Cheng.
Train travel serves more than culinary experiences. It is combined with in-depth sightseeing activities such as visiting a local rice farm and fishing port to understand the food they will eat on the train.
“So it’s not just about having a great meal on a moving train. The Moving Kitchen combines food, scenery and sightseeing into a comprehensive journey,” Cheng adds.
Unlike the first version of The Future, the renovation of the Moving Kitchen cars took around a year, leaving more time for customization.
There are two new 54-seat dining cars, as well as a new bar and kitchen. The dining areas feature a mix of high bar counters, sofa booths, and also two- to four-seater tables.
“We pushed the materials a bit more. We bring in marbles from Hualien County and rattan made by aboriginal tribes in southern Taiwan,” Chiu explains.
“I’m also from southern Taiwan. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s rattan chair as a child as she spoiled me with her cooking.”
The chairs are made of rattan from southern Taiwan.
This inspired Chiu to design a special rattan chair for the Moving Kitchen. The chairs can be fixed to the floor for added security but are designed to be lightweight.
The armrest has a 45 degree angle, allowing passengers to easily squeeze into their seats, but “still have an armrest chair that exists in a really good fine dining restaurant” – which JC Architecture has a lot of experience in designing design.
Special spotlights have been designed to make the food delicious and Instagram-friendly. A telephone and menu holder is installed next to the table. A sculptable applique allows passengers to manipulate the shape of the slim aluminum shade.
Sold-out until September
Lion Travel’s Cheng told CNN Travel the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The Food Train launched on March 30 and tickets for the Moving Kitchen trips were sold out through September.
“On the first trip we had an orange and black dress code – to go with the colors of the train. We see so many people dressing up for the occasion and they couldn’t stop taking pictures once in the train. train. We were all so moved,” Cheng said.
Moving Kitchen currently offers one and two day itineraries. During the latter, guests leave the train and spend a night at a nearby hotel. Six tours depart each month.
Six other train tours on The Future – without the Moving Kitchen – are also available each month. They are themed according to the seasons and last from one to four days. The Future train has four business class cars, each with 33 seats.
“I’m very proud of this train. It’s because I think it’s unique in Taiwan. I think it’s successful because the train gives confidence to this 132-year-old company. And there’s a saying who says, if TRA could do it, so could other members of the public sector,” Chiu says.
“I also think there’s a lot more history and culture, which we could dig into and express in a new storyline, so I’m really happy that this one letter has changed the public sector.”