THSRC to delay launch

CEREMONIAL PUT-OFF: The trial conditions set by the inspection committee mean the official launch will have to be postponed until next year, a company official said

By Jessie Ho and Shelley Shan  /  STAFF REPORTERS

Thu, Nov 30, 2006 - Page 12

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp (THSRC, 台灣高鐵) announced late last night that it would postpone the launch ceremony it had scheduled for next month, after an inspection committee set a series of conditions to be met before the nation's first bullet train can officially operate, company officials said yesterday.

"Considering public perceptions and concerns, I suggest the launch ceremony scheduled for Dec. 7 be postponed," THSRC executive director Ou Chin-der (歐晉德) told reporters earlier in the day during a media test-ride between Banciao (板橋) in Taipei County and Tsoying (左營) in Kaohsiung County yesterday.

"We regret the conclusion but respect the committee's decision and will do our best to meet the requirements," Ou said.

On Tuesday, a high-speed railway inspection committee asked the THSRC to meet three terms and make improvements in 31 areas, including test the trains at intervals of less than 10 minutes for two weeks, complete a one month accident-free period following the minor accident that occurred last Friday, and integrate signaling systems with several other sub-systems.

The final call on the date of the launch ceremony, however, depends on THSRC's board, Ou said, adding that no date for a board meeting had been set. The official date for commercial operations, however, will be sometime next year, said Arthur Chiang (江金山), vice president of THSRC's administration division.

Major issue

One major issue raised by the committee was the Independent Validation and Verification (IV&V) report conducted by Lloyd's Register Group.

The report identified 28 major defects to be improved on Nov. 4, but 21 of the defects had been resolved by Nov. 21.

The speed of this process triggered doubts among committee members.

Ou explained that THSRC had been working hard to rectify the indicated defects and sent the data to Lloyd's when the work was completed. As an independent validation and verification institution, Lloyd's makes its judgments based on the advice of a group of professionals from various fields and will not be biased, Ou said.

When asked why the committee members still considered those defects a problem, Vice Minister of Transportation and Communications Ho Nuan-hsuen (何煖軒) said they also debated among themselves as to what they considered a valid inspection.

Some members wanted to personally examine the problems, while others were fine with the test run records, Ho said.

Yang Yeong-bin (楊永斌), chairman of the inspection committee, said in a television interview that committee members complained that they had to collect data themselves to verify THSRC's statements.

Regarding the allegations that THSRC presented inaccurate Chinese translations of the IV&V report, Ho said that the company, the committee members and ministry officials had reached a consensus earlier that they would go by the original text, which was written in English.

Ho also said the ministry would hold the first supervisory meeting to plan the test run schedule for the following month.

The delay in operations will not heavily impact on THSRC's finances, as the company has a contingency plan, Chiang said, rejecting a Chinese-language media report that the company would see losses of NT$3.6 billion (US$110.77 million) because of the two month-delay.

Despite the delays, THSRC still expects to earn operational income in the second year of commercial operation, and break even within eight years, Chiang said.

Finances secure

The large amount of interest from foreign investors demonstrates that company finances are secure, Chiang said.

THSRC planned to issue overseas convertible bonds worth US$200 million, but decided last month to raise US$300 million instead as many overseas investors had shown interest in subscribing to the bonds, Chiang said.

The five-year bond issuance is being managed by Deutsche Bank's Hong Kong branch and is expected to be complete by January, he said.

Besides subscribing for bonds, some foreign investors are also buying THSRC shares on the market, Chiang said, without identifying investors.

The presence of foreign shareholders means THSRC's finances would be more stable as it would mean greater corporate governance, he added.

Media reports had it that investment bank Lehman Brothers was mulling to invest in THSRC, but Chiang declined to comment on it.