Organizational reform to build a new safety net for Taiwan Railway︱Cheng Yu-che

Published (HKT): 2021.04.07 11:05

When news broke in the afternoon of April 2 that Taroko Express of Taiwan Railway had a major accident, many people’s hearts sank. Then video footages were released of the most damaged carriages of the train. Basically only half of the train was left intact. It was an unbelievable sight that left us heartbroken and speechless. The fact that Taiwan Railway has learned nothing from the past hurts and is frustrating.

Over the last six months, a dangerous iceberg has always been there. In a previous investigation into the Puyuma express train incident, a panel of experts applied the “Swiss cheese model” of accident causation and concluded that human, organizational and systematic errors had contributed to the malfunction of layers of accident prevention defenses, hence the express train incident. Nevertheless, the risks in the operations of Taiwan Railway have obviously not been lowered over the past six months, as exemplified by the cracks found in the fishplate joint of Nan’ao Station, the damages to the section of the railway between Ruifang and Houtong Stations caused by a landslide, the fatal accident in which an engineering vehicle crashed into a road maintenance crew at Haiduan train station in Taitung, and the Taroko derailment. In particular, the Houtong incident almost caused train damages. That was actually a loud premonition. Unfortunately, no one heard it or took notice. Eventually we had yet another grave accident.

Previously the Society of Railway and National Planning of Taiwan was invited to join a railway inspection team established by the Executive Yuan. Many specialists and scholars in the group had proffered short, medium and long-term solutions for improving the operations of Taiwan Railway. But the way the group operated was in the same vein as Taiwan Railway worked: every sub-team came up with specific and useful suggestions, but when all the ideas were put together, they just would not work. Railway workers therefore had to deal with a plethora of suggestions on improving railway operations, and they managed to maintain day-to-day operations of the railway service in the absence of specific integrated measures from the Executive Yuan and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.

Weak safety awareness

As Taiwan Railway has only aimed at maintaining railway operations without seeking to lower risks, each train accident has been more serious than the previous one. An accident that killed railway workers and injured another was followed by a fatal accident involving passengers; an incident that saw the suspension of a rail line was followed by another in which disaster prevention measures became the cause of a fatal accident. The Executive Yuan and the Ministry of Transportation and Communications have shirked their responsibility, and many people in Taiwan cannot accept the fact that two major railway accidents happened within such a short period of time. Little wonder family members of the victims in the latest accident cried in pain and told the president that “words were heard but no improvement was made”. Putting in place safety measures should not be an “achievement” of the government but a basic thing to do. How railway safety is ensured is definitely an important indicator for people to evaluate the government’s performance.

After the Taroko derailment, violations of railway regulations could still be detected everywhere. When heavy machinery was removed from the damaged carriages, for example, we saw the workmen operating the machinery adjust the angle of the steel cables on top of the carriages and direct the whole operation with their bare hands and without wearing a helmet. Protruding metal objects on damaged train carriages amount to the most common danger in the aftermath of railway accidents. In the Regulations for the Occupational Safety and Health Equipments and Measures, there are many articles that cite two meters as the height beyond which certain rules have to be observed. Trains surely are above two meters and therefore work in the aftermath of derailment accident should be carried out in accordance with related rules. Despite the presence of journalists and the head of the transport minister, we could still see a lot of on-site safety issues. In case the steel cables broke or a carriage fell, there could well be another accident that is even tougher to handle and more complicated to explain.

According to the Transportation Occurrences Investigation Act and the principles on conducting investigations into transportation incidents, authorities including the Railway Bureau and Taiwan Railway are, as a matter of course, part of the investigation team in every probe into an incident. One article in the act states that prior to an interview, the supervisors and employers of interviewees shall not influence the interviewees’ statement of facts in any way or obstruct the conducting of the interview. After the Taroko accident, some persons in charge of the bureau and Taiwan Railway have made comments on the accident. It was inappropriate of them to do that and they might have been guilty of interfering with the investigation or even violated the law.

From the way the aftermath of the accident was handled to officials’ comments on the event, one can detect a weak safety awareness of the government and its poor ability in observing rules.

Many people are asking why there is no safety culture within Taiwan Railway. Safety culture is so called because it is not just about systems or regulations, and surely not about shirking responsibility after an accident. A safety culture should involve a strong sense of cautiousness. With everyone aware of the importance of taking precautions, a strong awareness of work safety can be cultivated and safety mechanisms formed. This way, when someone in the system makes some low-level mistakes, risks can be kept under control before big mistakes are ever made.

Fierce competition for talent

The competition for talents facing Taiwan Railway today is without precedent. Both Taipei Metro and the Taiwan High Speed Rail were established more than 20 years ago. MRT companies in Taoyuan, Taichung and Kaohsiung are now in need of a large number of young employees. Taiwan Railway, which is responsible for transportation affairs across the entire Taiwan, are not able to compete with other railway operators, let alone with players in other transportation sectors. When their jobs are not entirely secure, and when their lives are threatened by some small mistake, how can the employees of Taiwan Railway manage to take care of the safety of both their colleagues and passengers?

In the past decade, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications has overlooked the needs arising from land development. It has handed over a great deal of city transport services to the MRT system. In Taichung and Kaohsiung, MRT routes parallel to the railway lines of Taiwan Railway have been built. Employees of Taiwan Railway have witnessed how their company has lost a lot of commuters who used to travel on Taiwan Railway’s inter-city lines to MRT companies. When the low-ranking employees are not sure if they can keep their job in the future, how can they protect the safety of other people?

The only way to build a proper safety net is to make changes within the organization. To this end, Taiwan Railway needs the recognition of top officials of the government and the Executive Yuan. The president and the head of the Executive Yuan, are you listening? The organizational issues can no longer be dodged or remain ambiguous. From the Puyuma accident to the Taroko derailment, more than 70 people were killed and their families have cried in silence. When will the government face the issues properly and resolve them all? Can it at least tell the workers at Taiwan Railway how their company will look like in 10 years?

(Cheng Yu-che, Board Director of the Society of Railway and National Planning in Taiwan)

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