Sun, Sep 22, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: The birth pangs of Taipei’s MRT

The Muzha Line took twice as long as anticipated to open to the public due to mishaps and controversies, including two train cars catching fire within five months in 1993

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Sept. 23 to SEPT. 29

Around 5:50am on Sept. 24, 1993, a Taipei MRT car burst into flames during a test run. It took eight firetrucks 20 minutes to put out the blaze, leaving a completely charred interior and destroyed wheels. Then-Department of Rapid Transit Systems (DORTS) head Lai Shih-sheng (賴世聲) apologized to the public on behalf of French contractor Matra, and asked the company to stop all testing.

This was the second time in five months an MRT car had caught fire. A blaze on May 5 earlier that year had destroyed two cars during manual driver training, causing an estimated NT$80 million (US$2.5 million) in damages. Up until that point, DORTS had planned to open the MRT line to the public on August 2. That plan was pushed back after the incident.

Exactly a year after the Sept. 24, 1993 fire, a tire exploded during another test run. The three Taipei City mayoral candidates Chao Shao-kang (趙少康), Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Huang Ta-chou (黃大洲) arrived at the scene, with Chao and Chen demanding that all testing of the MRT system be stopped until the matter had been fully investigated.

Taipei residents may take the MRT system for granted these days, but these incidents were just a portion of what made the transport system the source of much public discontent in its early days. It would take until March 28, 1996 for the system to finally open to traffic.

ROUGH BEGINNINGS

Construction on the Muzha Line (today’s Wenhu Line) began in December 1988. When it finally opened to the public, it covered 12 stops over about 10km from the Taipei Zoo to Zhongshan Junior High School.

The line was originally supposed to open in December 1991, but suffered a series of delays. According to the book The MRT White Papers (捷運白皮書) by Liu Pao-chieh (劉寶傑) and Lu Shao-wei (呂紹煒), one major issue was that construction on all six lines began simultaneously, making it difficult to supervise. Since the nation had no prior experience with an MRT system, starting all six lines together also meant there was no chance to learn from mistakes.

The first issue was land expropriation; the conflict grew violent as DORTS staff, including former chief Chi Pao-cheng (齊寶錚), often ended up with bruises and scratches after negotiations.

This resulted in a surreal situation where government workers spent all night counting ducks to compensate farmers who would lose their land. Residents living in what is now the Nangang Depot even doused their village with gasoline and brandished gas tanks, as if prepared to fight to the death.

After much bureaucratic drama and controversy about prices and shady deals that involved gangsters and corrupt officials, construction of the line finally commenced. But its quality remained in question despite the exorbitant budget. The public was initially excited for the MRT, but grew disillusioned with each negative news report.

As a sidebar to an article about the May 5, 1993 fire, United Daily News printed a list of some mishaps during the MRT construction dating from 1990, mostly entailing structural issues such as collapsed retaining walls and cracked beams. In January 1993, a fuse was blown in one of the cars in the depot, frying the circuit board.

But the worst was yet to come.

EVERYTHING GOES WRONG

The May 5, 1993 fire took place during manual operation training — the system was automated, but drivers needed to learn how to drive the train in case of an emergency. Investigations showed that the fire was caused by friction between the wheels and the rails due to a jammed brake. The authorities were baffled, as the same system was used in many Western countries without incident.

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