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Taiwan's 7th derailment in 2 years raises red flags

Safety measures seen insufficient at cash-strapped public rail company

Rescue workers at the accident site in Yilan County.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- The deadly train accident Sunday that marked Taiwan's seventh in two years has raised doubts about the island's state-run rail system amid speculation that safety measures took a back seat in light of the operator's financial struggles.

Local media on Monday released security footage from the platform of Xinma Station in northeastern Yilan County where the crash occurred. The Puyuma Express train could be seen overturning as clouds of dust billowed into the air and sparks flew from a toppled utility pole.

The crash is viewed as an error by the driver, who was speeding around a curve. The driver reported mechanical trouble before the crash, however, leading to doubts over the rail operator's safety controls, including of cars and equipment.

The Taiwan government has lavishly invested in flashy infrastructure but held off on maintenance for aging equipment, and repair workers are in short supply, said Ma Shih-yuan, an associate professor of urban planning and disaster management at Ming Chuan University. "The organization is old and rigid, seriously lacking awareness about safety management," he added.

In the previous six incidents, damage was minimal, enabling the state-run operator to escape responsibility, but the latest disaster that killed 18 and wounded 160 has highlighted structural problems.

Upfront costs are a chronic issue for the operator, which single-handedly manages nearly all existing rail lines on the island. It booked a 1.5 billion New Taiwan dollar ($48.4 million) loss in the year ended in December. Available data shows that the company has been mired in red ink for at least 21 straight years. Political pressure to keep fares low has hampered earnings.

Taiwan is divided into east and west by mountain ranges that cut through the island. Most of its 23 million people live on the developed western side, with only a little over 1 million in the three eastern counties of Yilan, Hualien and Taitung. Covering the entire island, including its "forgotten" eastern side, is an expensive undertaking for the company.

The operator's rigid management culture, a vestige from the era of one-party rule by the Kuomintang, has also come under scrutiny. The idea of privatization was floated repeatedly over the last 30 years, but internal opposition always managed to quash it.

"The time has come to review complex management problems," said one expert.

Taiwan also launched bullet train service in 2007, but operator Taiwan High Speed Rail fell into financial trouble for overly optimistic estimates about ridership and was bailed out by the government. But with private-sector investments, the operator is managed separately from the Taiwan Railways Administration. Earnings have recovered thanks to the popularity of the high-speed rail, which connects the major west coast cities, and the company went public here in 2016.

The island's east side is home to popular destinations like Taroko gorge in Hualien that foreign visitors typically reach by train. 

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