The new Minister of Transportation and Communications, Wang Kwo-tsai, who took office today, comes from a professional background in transportation. Unlike the politically appointed Lin Chia-lung, the Executive Yuan now favors professionalism over politics, responding obviously to the loud call for the reformation of the Taiwan Railways after the incident of the Taroko Express. Wang is known as an “errand man of steel.” Now that such a heavy burden of reforming the Taiwan Railway is on his shoulder, President Tsai Ing-wen cannot stay out of the matter. She must keep an eye on the progress from her position as the president and never stop helping Wang solve problems until the goal is reached.
After 49 lives were lost to the derailment of the Taroko Express, President Tsai proposed three major directions for reforming Taiwan Railways, including a thorough solution to its institution culture, resolving the long-term financial losses, and discussing the most sustainable business model suitable for Taiwan Railway. At that time, she emphasized that everyone should believe in the determination of the government to reform. Judging from the way she survived the reform of the pension scheme for military personnel, public servants, and school teachers, President Tsai is qualified to boast such a reform. The appointment of a new minister symbolizes the initiation of the reform, and everyone will be its supervisor.
With the century-old history of the Taiwan Railway, all those in power know how serious the deeply rooted problems are, and they have also attempted reforms. In 2014, Taiwan Railway carried out a general checkup themselves under the term of President Ma Ying-jeou. However, accidents do not decrease significantly with Taiwan Railway. Experts and scholars believe later that back then the mechanical system, the electrical system, the signal system, and their construction affairs were not yet integrated. The decision was made at levels that were too low in the hierarchy, and the entire mechanism for managing the safety of the rides needed to be improved. This kind of reform that lacks a macrocosmic perspective is only treating the symptoms rather than curing the disease.
On October 21, 2018, a Puyuma Express train derailed at Xinma Station in Yilan, resulting in 18 deaths and 291 injuries. Four days later, Premier William Lai requested a general checkup of Taiwan Railway, hoping to identify core issues, propose a corresponding strategy, and improve and strengthen the risk management and safety mechanism of Taiwan Railway by a thorough review and a comprehensive improvement plan.
The General Checkup on the Review of Taiwan Railway to be Implemented
The General Checkup Team of the Taiwan Railway was formed by people higher in the hierarchy. The Executive Yuan convened inter-ministerial meetings with scholars and experts, and as of January 18, 2019, the team has held 10 committee meetings. Issues such as “people,” “trains,” “railways,” “management” and “finance” were reviewed. Issues related to safety were given priority, and a report was presented with seven aspects, including “the systemic analysis and management of traffic accidents,” “the upgrading of the safety management system,” “railway system safety,” vehicles and the electrical system,” “maintenance system, “operation system,” and “organization efficiency.” However, the report of more than 300 pages still couldn’t prevent the tragedy of the Taroko Express on April 2, 2021. This time, 49 lives were lost, and more than 200 people suffered injuries of different degrees.
Perhaps Taiwan Railway believes that this time the contractor Li Yi-Xiang and others have caused the accident by reckless negligence. However, the report of the general checkup of Taiwan Railway required that the security measures should be enhanced for the sections along the railway under construction. Taiwan Railway conducts daily, normal, regular, special, and repeated checkups with different natures. According to the investigation of the Hualien District Prosecution Office, the slopes next to the site of the accident had seen two accidents with U-turns of large trucks. Constructions were taking place above the railroad tracks, yet there was no temporary fencing. Hasn’t the complete absence of the supervision of the construction site proven the inspection by Taiwan Railway to be only on paper? As for the United Geotech Inc., they could continue to win many tenders by Taiwan Railway with their records of forging construction. Why are they so powerful?
Taiwan Railway does have a system for the construction and maintenance of projects. One only needs to take a look at all the SOPs listed in the report. However, these are all paperwork. When it is implemented, it is either at someone’s will or without insistence on details. The result is repeated fiascos.
It may be the worst moment for Wang Guo-tsai to take over as the Minister of Transportation and Communications amidst the saddened anger of the people. However, he participated in the general checkup of Taiwan Railway in 2018, and at least he wouldn’t be feeling the elephant like a blind man. So it can also be the best time for him, because the anger from people could be manipulated. The problems of the Taiwan Railway are all in front of us, but they are easier to identify than dealt with. After Wang takes office, he will not need long narratives to paint a rosy future. The only thing he needs to do is taking action. Last year, the Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung held press conferences every day for the pandemic because it concerns the health of the entire population. In the future, the Ministry of Transport and Communications should also follow. It is recommended that the progress of major reforms of the Taiwan Railway be reported to the people through live broadcast every three months.
Lin Chia-lung took over as minister after the accident of the Puyuma Express, and Wang Guo-tsai was ordered to take over after the accident of the Taroko Express. These were the result of tragedies and not popular with anyone. We hope that President Tsai, without any pressure for reelection, could shoulder the responsibility for reform with the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. After all, every major mistake of the Taiwan Railway resulted in the loss of lives. If you stay put again without any action, you cannot blame the people for fighting back with their anger.
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