Systemic issues, poor maintenance to blame for deadly derailment in NE Taiwan: Scholar

Scholar says systemic issues with TRA, poor maintenance to blame for derailment of Puyuma Express train in Taiwan's Yilan County


(By Central News Agency)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- While much of the focus of the deadly derailment of a Puyuma Express train, which claimed the lives of 18 and injured 190 in Taiwan's Yilan County, has been on the driver, a scholar from Ming Chuan University blames a host of systemic problems that ultimately led to Sunday's tragedy.

In a report by Commonwealth Magazine, Ma Shih-yuan (馬士元), an associate professor of urban planning and disaster management at Ming Chuan University, was cited as saying that he refused to take the Puyuma Express when it was first launched in 2013, and instead has taken the slower Tze-Chiang Limited Express to eastern Taiwan over the past five years. Ma says that he only took the Puyuma Express once when an assistant accidentally booked a ticket for him on the line.

Ma emphasized that a full investigation is needed to find the exact cause of Sunday's derailment, but he also bluntly asserted that that the manpower dedicated to maintenance under Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) was insufficient for the higher risk operation of a tilting train such as the Puyuma Express. "I'm not saying that the Puyuma would definitely overturn, but if the maintenance is poor, even electrical multiple unit trains could overturn. It's just that because the Puyuma travels at a faster speed, the risk is higher, and so I refused to take it," said Ma.

Ma said that the government is willing to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in joint construction projects, but when it comes to managing long-term maintenance, it is very stingy with money. From 2008 to April of 2017, Ma claimed that the headcount for maintenance crews in charge of track inspection was reduced by 20 to 30 percent.

Ma Shiyuan also said that in recent years, the TRA has promoted electrifying the lines extending through Hualien, Taitung, and Pingtung, elevating track in Taichung, and increasing maintenance equipment, all without increasing the number of personnel. Ma Shiyuan believes that the railway administrator has long been constrained by a government cap on the number of employees, and he believes the railway should be moved towards privatization to better meet manpower needs.

(CNA image)

Earlier this year, China Times reported that the number of Taiwanese railway workers had dropped by nearly 30 percent over the past 10 years. It said that the electrical technicians were overworked and, at the time, the report warned that if the situation was not improved, the railroad could enter a "big failure" era.

According to TRA statistics, from 2008 to April of 2017, the number of employees working on a given maintenance team in northern and central Taiwan decreased by 20 to 30 percent. Railway maintenance teams, which at their peak had 12 to 15 each, dropped down to six to eight workers per team.

Each maintenance team is now responsible for covering an area encompassing three stations, including checking for problems such as subsidence of track and buckling, as well as regularly replacing track and adjusting rails. Ensuring the safety of the trains requires a heavy workload, and the likelihood of turning the task over to contractors is high.

Not only is the number of workers insufficient, but the workload and pressure is high. The starting salary of only NT$30,000 is not sufficient to attract and retain talented, experienced workers, and UDN today reported that the Control Yuan last year found that, out of 27 TRA maintenance workers surveyed, more than half had less than three years of experience.

The China Times quoted a TRA employee as saying that the driver behind the deadly derailment of the Puyuma Express, Yu Chen-chung (尤振仲), was manning the train alone when he encountered a problem with the air compressor. The train was supposed to arrive at 4:21 p.m., but a 14 minute delay caused by the problem with the air compressor led the scheduled arrival time to be shifted to 4:35 p.m.

(CNA image)

The train stopped in Yilan for two minutes before departing, and once underway, the dispatcher urged Yu to speed up, according to the employee. The employee said that Yu had to deal with the technical issue with the air compressor while still being expected to make up for the lost time, possibly causing him to accelerate to unsafe speeds and ultimately causing the train to derail when it hit a curved section of track at Xinma railway station near Su'ao.

Because there is a shortage of drivers for trains in the Qidu Marshalling Yard in Keelung, many second-line supervisors often need to support front-line operations. Because Oct. 21 was on a weekend, manpower was insufficient, so Yu, who is normally a supervisor in charge of scheduling in the office, went on duty to drive over the weekend, only to encounter mechanical problems.

A person familiar with the matter said, in general, when the train has a problem, a depot staff member should board it to increase the crew in the locomotive to two. However, in the case of Puyuma Express train No. 6432, once the problem with the compressor was inspected, no one joined Yu at the controls, instead he continued to head south on his own.

Because of the constant compressor issues, the train was to be switched with another train once it reached Hualien, but the ill-fated train never reached its destination.

(CNA image)