The Council of Agriculture (COA) said it hoped to reach an agreement with the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) before the end of this year as to when it will officially transfer management of Alishan Forest Railway to the nation’s largest railway system.
A logging railway built in the Japanese colonial era, the forest line was outsourced to Hungtu Alishan International Development Co following a build-operate-transfer contract in 2008.
Last year, the council’s Forestry Bureau terminated the contract with Hungtu as the latter failed to repair damage caused by Typhoon Morakot in 2009. The two remain entangled in lawsuits to determine who has the right to manage the railway.
The lack of proper management has taken a toll on the national heritage railway. On Wednesday, a train hit by a falling tree caused a derailment that killed five Chinese tourists and injured 109.
A cross-departmental panel is scheduled to launch an investigation into the accident this week, the council said.
Council of Agriculture Deputy Minister Hu Sing-hwa (胡興華) said the decision to allow the TRA to takeover management of the line was made last year.
“We were unable to settle on a specific date for a formal transfer because of all the legal disputes with our contractor and the repairs that need to be done to the railway,” Hu said, adding that the council hoped to sort out some of the technical issues with the TRA over the next three months.
The TRA had been reluctant to take over the railway because of an evaluation that indicated it would have to spend NT$3.7 billion (US$128 million) over a six year period to upgrade the forest railway service, including replacing old and damaged railroad ties and fortifying the foundations.
Managing the forest railway would place an additional burden on the state-run railway operator which has already accumulated NT$100 billion in debt.
According to the council’s Forestry Bureau, the railway makes about NT$60 million in revenue a year, but has annual operating costs of about NT$200 million. In other words, the line makes an annual financial loss of between NT$140 million and NT$150 million.
Hu said that having the TRA manage the forest railway at least constitutes a “definite direction” for the railway decided through Cabinet-level negotiations.
“The railway is a cultural asset,” Hu said. “The government needs to find some way to maintain it. It does not matter if the money comes from the TRA, COA or even the Council of Cultural Affairs,” he added.