How would the railway derail Taiwan-Japan relations? | Daizo Amakasu

Published (HKT): 2021.04.08 09:16

A Taroko Express train operated by TRA derailed near Hualien county on the morning of Apr. 2. To date, 50 death and 216 injured have been confirmed. The accident has more casualties than any others in the past and is the most serious rail accident in the history of TRA. Shinzō Abe, former Prime Minister of Japan, has immediately expressed his deep condolences via Twitter. Then the current Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga also posted the same. The most shocking would be China’s leader Chairman Xi Jinping, who also expressed his condolences via Xinhua News Agency the next day.

“It’s a Japanese-made vehicle again!” The related people in the Japanese train manufacturer were shocked when hearing about the train accident because Taroko Express was manufactured by Hitachi of Japan. They breathed a sigh of relief when later found out from the local news that the train was not the cause of the accident but a crane truck that was parked at the construction site above the tunnel had slid down a slope next to the track.

The derailment of Puyuma, a Japanese-made express train, in 2018 had caused a major dispute between Japan and Taiwan. Puyuma Express was manufactured by Nippon Sharyo, a subsidiary company of JR Central. The Taiwan Transportation Safety Board (TTSB) published a report in October last year. It said two things had caused the incident, in which 18 people died: the train itself has a problem, and a safety device was disabled because the driver thought it had malfunctioned. The report did not hold the Japanese manufacturer, Sumitomo Corporation, liable, but TRA did take Nippon Sharyo to court a year before to seek compensation. The TTSB report concluded the train itself has no issue but has pointed out the maintenance problems and proposed a specific improvement plan to Sumitomo. The people in the above Japanese train manufacturer remembered the bitterness after the Puyuma accident, the lawsuit by TRA.

Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) scrapped the bid for the next generation of high-speed rail vehicles from Japan’s enterprise alliance in February this year, saying the quote from the Japanese is too high. THSR has not yet announced any solutions, such as when the next bidding would be. Taiwan’s high-speed rail is the only successful example of Japan exports Shinkansen technology and a symbol of goodwill between Japan and Taiwan. But the bid annulment indicated that are severe disagreements between THSR and the Japanese manufacturer. The latest rail accident has once again highlighted this issue.

The history of Taiwan’s rail transport started in the late Qing era. The Japanese enriched Taiwan’s rail network when they ruled there. The majority of railways have followed the narrow Japanese gauge standard of 1,067 mm, which is different from the 1,435 mm followed by Chosun (Korea), the second Japanese colony. The majority of the world’s rail gauges are 1,435 mm, and therefore they are called standard gauges. 1,067 mm gauges in Japan and Taiwan are the minorities only. Therefore Taiwan still used the vehicles left by the Japanese after Japan lost in the war, and relied on the Japanese trains and technology for its rail development. Taiwanese railways used to be the territory of Japanese manufacturers.

But this Japanese territory has been divided among numerous countries when Japan and Taiwan severed their diplomatic relations in 1972. After that, TRA promoted railway electrification, and cooperation was led by the UK. Later, TRA terminated importing the Japanese-made electric trains and introduced vehicles and technologies from other countries. For example, technologies from different countries can be found in Tze-Chiang Express, the older model of Taroko and Puyuma Express. The front and rear electric locomotives and passenger cars in between were made by a mix of technologies from the UK, France, Italy, South Korea, South Africa, and other countries. The combination of different countries’ technologies was also in the local trains. But this multi-countries cooperation and the “iron rice bowl” nature of TRA had caused many accidents, which had triggered a debate of privatizing TRA.

Before the Taroko Express accident, TRA introduced 520 units of EMU900 regional trains manufactured by a Korean company ROTEM, which would begin to operate on Apr. 1. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, Premier Su Tseng-chang, and Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung have all attended the train’s inauguration ceremony at Keelung Railway Station. Tsai praised these Korean-made regional trains as “the most beautiful local train in Taiwan railway history.” She said these trains enhance the quality of commuting in the northern region and encouraged people to make the most of them. So another country has joined in to share the rail territory.

TRA bought 344 units of EMU500 from Daewoo Korea back in the 1990s, which broke down more frequently as the machines aged. But the Korean company refused Taiwan’s request to supply maintenance and parts. Therefore TRA wanted to rid of the Korean enterprises. Also, four Japanese and Taiwanese businesses have founded the Taiwan Rolling Stock Company (TRSC) in 2002, which, alongside the Japanese enterprises, would be responsible for nearly all vehicles demand of Taiwan railway after 2006.

So why did TRA still end up buying the Korea-made regional trains? Because most Japanese railway vehicle manufacturers such as Hitachi and Nippon Sharyo were busy exporting vehicles to other countries and taking care of domestic business and have not accepted the request from Taiwan. The Japanese enterprises lost an excellent business opportunity without having to fight off any competition, the same disagreement as to their high-speed rail.

The Japanese and Taiwanese politicians repeatedly emphasized both countries are having the best relations right now. But the events of the high-speed rail and TRA have shown otherwise. Marx said that the base can determine the superstructure. The base is the economy, and the superstructure is politics. I deeply feel that we must pay more attention to how the railway disagreement (the base) would affect the Japan-Taiwan relations in the future.

(Daizo Amakasu, Japanese Veteran Journalist)

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