Editorial: Series review on Taroko derailment: risk, trauma, and collective memory | Apple Daily Taiwan

Published (HKT): 2021.04.06 09:07

The Taroko Express, a Taiwan Railway train, derailed at the Qingshui Tunnel in Hualien on April 2nd, killing 51 and injuring 187. The accident has plunged the nation into great sadness during the Tomb Sweeping Day holidays. Lin Chia-lung, Taiwan’s transportation minister, has promised to shoulder political responsibility. Many citizens expect him to honor his word.

It was just two years ago or so when the Puyuma Express, another Taiwan Railways train, derailed and caused heavy casualties. Thus, the public has unanimously blamed the company for the accident. But pointing the finger at the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) for the tragedy is not sufficient. As one of the state-owned enterprises saddled with grave problems, the TRA loses more than 3 billion dollars annually with aggregate losses exceeding 130 billion over the years. Due to multiple structural factors, it is almost impossible for the TRA, an unwieldy organization overshadowed by its problems, to shake off its malaise and rise into an efficient, precise modern corporation simply with all kinds of crisis management skills.

In fact, even foreign railway companies that perform much better than the TRA are not immune to major railway accidents.

Take the Deutsche Bahn AG, which is noted for its steadiness and thorough implementation of its standard operating procedure (SOP). On June 3rd,1998, a train by the company derailed and crashed into a road bridge outside the town of Echede, in Lower Saxony near Hamburg, causing the collapse of the bridge. The accident was caused by a crack in the metal casing of one of its wheels due to metal fatigue. 101 people were killed. Eighteen years later, on February 9th, 2016, another crash occurred in the town of Bad Aibling, Bavaria. A train dispatcher had been playing mobile games on his phone. Realizing he had made a mistake, he input the wrong number in a hurry. He did not know that two trains were on the same track before they collided head-on at the speed of 100 km per hour. Eleven people were killed.

Positive institutional change is needed

The UK is the cradle of modern railroad technology and civilization, which should mean that its operation of trains should be flawless. But on May 10th, 2002, a train passing through Potters Bar, north of London, derailed and flipped due to a problem with the point blades, claiming the lives of seven people, including Taiwanese student Lin Jiaxin and TVBS journalist Wu Jiajing. Liu Haijuo, an anchor of Phoenix TV, was seriously injured.

We, the Taiwanese people, favor Japanese railways for their precise operations. After the 1998 Deutsche Bahn AG accident, the Taiwan High-Speed Rail, which had initially chosen to procure its trains from a German-French railway union, switched to Japan’s Shinkansen trains instead, reflecting the implicit trust in Japan’s railways.

But Japan is absolutely not immune to railway accidents. On April 25th, 2005, an Express train on JR West’s Fukuchiyama Line derailed on the outskirts of Amagasaki City in northwestern Osaka and crashed into an apartment building beside the railway, causing 107 deaths and 562 injuries. It was the worst railway accident with the heaviest casualties in modern times. According to the report of the investigation committee, the driver was trying to make up for the delay of 1 minute and 20 seconds of the previous trip to avoid the stringent “repentance education”. He drove his train at 120 kilometers per hour and was unable to decelerate to 70 kilometers before a tight turn. The train derailed as a result.

Railway transportation handles high numbers of passengers. Trains are operated repeatedly schedule after schedule and run at high speeds on all kinds of terrain. A foreign object on the tracks, a loosening of a track device or a moment when attention drifts off could result in a 1/10000 deviation, and an unredeemable tragedy could ensue. Compared with railway accidents in other countries, however, the latest tragedy involving the TRA can inspire positive institutional change in society if some people take action.

Safety SOP should be implemented accurately

First, the SOP for safety in public construction works must at least be as rigorous and accurate as in Europe and Japan. Second, all workers should have a sense of work ethics and prioritize the welling of others in the work they perform. It is important to inculcate work ethics in our students in national education so that they can adopt a proactive hands-on approach after graduation and make up for the loopholes of SOPs. Third, we have to think about how to transform such a major social event into part of the collective memory so that we can overcome the sadness and inspire people to go forward.

After the Fukuchiyama Line accident, a memorial area called the “Forest of Prayer” was established at the scene. Located in the exact apartment that was hit by the train, the memorial hall preserves what things were like during the accident, with words recounting the accident and commemorative contributions from the families of the victims. An outdoor monument is inscribed with the names of the victims. On April 25th every year, a memorial service is held in the “Forest of Prayer”, and trains bearing the exact number of ill-fated train slow down. The victims are honored with a flute.

The TRA accident was caused by the failure of a construction contractor to apply the brake on his construction truck, which then slipped down the slope and collided with the Taroko Express, causing it to crash and derail. Those who are legally liable must be held to account. However, only when all of those who witness the incident can start a little change in their lives can we say that we have truly remembered and fulfilled the lives that are lost. Risks happen in civilizations. However, the essence of civilizations lies with our diligence to eliminate man-made risks.

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