The scene looks familiar: bodies wrapped in white cloth, heartbreaking wails from family members calling on the soul of the dead. Despite strong appeal from society, Taiwan Railways Administration fails to prevent the tragedies of derailment from happening.
A Taroko Express train operated by TRA derailed near Hualen county on Friday, killing at least 50 and injuring more than 200. A preliminary investigation found the train hit a crane truck that had slid down a slope next to the track. The truck driver Lee Yi-hsiang (李義祥) will surely be held liable, but TRA cannot shun its legal and administrative responsibilities for poor supervision and negligence of duty. The Minister of Transportation and Communications, Lin, Chia-lung said he would take political responsibility and announced on Facebook that he would resign from his job.
If the level and depth of accountability are limited to this, it may help contain the impacts on government and politicians. But we are afraid greater tragedies are likely to happen, devastating TRA and more importantly, public safety and the life of people. This is not threatening talk. It’s a painful lesson that has been learned through blood and tears.
A number of incidents are found related to TRA’s inner management problems. Piles of post-incident reviews and reports are produced. But more tragedies have proved the previous reviews are either a mere formality or suggestions have not been properly implemented.
For example, a number of accidents, including a maintenance train that hit and killed railway workers, were due to delayed notification and lax vigilance. Over the last 15 years, nine workers died on duty.
Cry today, smile tomorrow
A Puyuma Express train derailed on Oct. 21, 2018, resulting in 18 fatalities and 215 injuries. An investigation later showed that the accident was caused by speeding and technical malfunctions on the train. The head of TRA Lu Chieh-shen (鹿潔身) and Transportation Minister Wu Hung-mou (吳宏謀) resigned after the crash. While the case is still on trial, Wu has been reassigned as chairman of Chunghwa Post six months after his resignation.
On December 4, 2020, a TRA train was almost hit by a torrential rain-triggered landslide between Ruifang and Houtong stations. Fortunately, the driver noticed and reported the unusual situation. He then stopped the train, narrowly escaping a major disaster and saving hundreds of passengers on board. Then TRA started a thorough inspection of slope stability along the track. But the examination seemed to focus on whether the soil and the rock are loose, ignoring whether an “improper object” will fall into the track.
TRA is improving the slope stability along the Northern Corridor between Suao and Hualien. A tunnel is also under construction. But no protection fences are seen on the construction sites. Of course, there is no safety inspector to detect potential risks on a daily basis. This time, a construction vehicle slid down the hillside into the track and caused the disastrous derailment.
A string of tragedies have sadly indicated TRA does not even have the capability to fix a minor problem. Lost precious lives and grief-stricken family’s painful cries have instead helped TRA’s senior management improve their first response to crises. They know how to divert the focus and “reduce the negative views of TRA” immediately after an accident.
However, TRA itself is not the only problem. The high-ranking government officials are fully aware of the entrenched problems in TRA, reaffirming they are paying huge attention. But “attention” does not mean identifying what really goes wrong, nor does it mean working out effective solutions. Instead, what attention really means is offering condolences, expressing sympathies, ordering a review, declaring the national flag at half-mast if the death toll is huge. Such scenario repeats again and again. “Cry today, smile tomorrow” can be said to have its origin.
Policymakers must face the consequences of inaction
Legal, administrative, and political powers are separate with essential responsibilities. Legal responsibilities for officials can be easily identified. Administrative responsibilities can be demonstrated in a way one is punished or replaced. Human nature, workplace culture, and bureaucratic inertia can explain why it is common for officials to protect each other and fail to reform the core problems. TRA’s wrongdoings and inner problems are exposed one by one after each incident, but they remain intact for years as TRA refuses to change, and more importantly, the government refuses to address them. In fact, the government should help TRA go through a fundamental and radical change in terms of its system, finance, and personnel. But the heads of the Ministry of Transportation and beyond have been interested only in taking a piecemeal approach to problem-solving as long as TRA does not have a major incident during their term of office.
But Murphy’s Law is often proved in a tragic manner. The more senior decision-makers are trying to avoid political responsibility, the more TRA’s problems will emerge in various forms, including fatal incidents. The legal and administrative responsibilities incurred by the accidents force decision-makers to face the consequences of their inaction.
It is sad to see those in high positions focusing on if there is a need for who and who to be held politically responsible while precious lives are being lost in accidents. While politicians are saying “we can’t just walk away”, many have been “walked away” (abandoned and dead). If the government really wants to shoulder responsibility after the worst incident in 70 years, please recognize and assume your political responsibility as a start.
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