Wed, Oct 25, 2006 - Page 8 News List

High-speed rail should be focused on safety

By Cheng Yung-hsiang 鄭永祥

The Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp (THSRC) has invited British independent verification and validation company Lloyd's Register to certify the safety of the new high-speed rail system. But as Lloyd's Register has yet to give its final stamp of approval, Minister of Transportation and Communica-tion Tsai Duei (蔡堆) announced on Monday that the projected opening at the end of this month would be delayed by another six months.

The current plan is to have 19 services running in each direction per day in the initial stage of operation, or about only one train every 55 minutes.This is far short of the number stipulated in the build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract, which says that the THSRC must be able to prove its system is capable of handling one train every four minutes.

The THSRC's inability to run enough trains could very well be a result of not having enough qualified drivers. The company is hiring foreign drivers, but it is not clear at this point how these drivers would obtain the necessary clearance to operate local trains. The THSRC's need for qualified drivers may become more pressing as the number of daily runs increases, so the ministry should carefully consider that this shortage may become more severe when the line opens for service.

Aside from train drivers, operations and control center personnel, train conductors and station heads also have an important role to play. Whether or not these employees are familiar with operating rules, and whether or not they will be able to effectively implement them in their work, will certainly have an impact on safety throughout the system.

Nor should the ministry ignore whether or not those responsible for safety are qualified to work on the high-speed rail. A lack of experienced dispatchers or personnel to handle traveler problems during emergencies could increase safety risks throughout the system.

In the past, completing a public transportation project on or before its deadline was viewed asea political accomplishment. However, the high-speed rail has been constructed under a BOT model, so the private companies involved must shoulder the profits and losses incurred during the time they have been given to operate these systems.

The THSRC should treat this operation as a new public model of transportation. It should provide a product which is fundamentally sound to inspire public trust and build up its image as a fast, punctual, safe and comfortable mode of transportation.

It is therefore good to proceed cautiously when deciding when to open the line and remember that it is not a race. If we make hasty decisions, the high-speed rail could be dogged by the same problems that have hounded the Hsuehshan Tunnel and the electronic toll collection system.

As soon as the service opens, the THSRC will have to begin paying interest on its NT$230 billion (US$6.9 billion) syndicated loan. There might only be 30,000 passengers per day at the beginning, putting ticket revenues at no more than NT$50 million. With heavy interest payments from the loan, revenue projections in the initial stage wouldn't be very good.

But delaying the opening until more runs can be fit into each day will increase overall profit, which could ease much of the pressure when the line opens. In my optimistic estimation, if the rail could start by spring next year, three trains can be scheduled per hour, with the trains running from Banciao in Taipei County to Tsoying in Kaohsiung County in 90 minutes. This in itself will be a fine accomplishment.

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