Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) offered his resignation to Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) in the aftermath of Friday last week’s fatal Taroko Express No. 408 crash. Su declined, asking him to stay for the time being and deal with the response, as that was the responsible thing to do.
The complex question of responsibility for the tragedy will be answered more fully after investigations and reviews have been completed. It is right that Lin offered to take the fall, and just as right that Su asked him to stay to oversee the response.
While neither are completely off the hook, the conclusion of who bears responsibility will need to be cast far wider than the two, and also include Lee Yi-hsiang (李義祥), the site manager and driver of the crane truck that slipped onto the track and caused the crash, his construction company Yi Cheng Construction Co (義程營造), the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA), the government, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the political culture and Taiwan’s general attitude toward safety.
Media reports initially went straight for the low-hanging fruit, casting Lee as the main culprit. However, beyond the question of whether he had neglected to engage the brake or the brake had failed, why he had been onsite on a day the TRA had said construction was to be halted for the Tomb Sweeping Festival four-day break, or what transgressions Lee had been guilty of in the past, there remain more fundamental issues.
Following these lines of inquiry gets no closer to answering the safety concern of how a truck could be parked on an access road with no barrier separating it from the tracks, or how such a large object could obstruct the track with no sensor to warn an approaching train.
Pertinent to these questions is why the TRA had not implemented the recommendations of the report into the previous major rail disaster, the 2018 Puyuma Express derailment in Yilan County.
Where does the responsibility lie for this failure? Is it with the TRA or the government? With Lin, Su or all the way to the top to Tsai? Or is it with the political culture and resistance to the swift implementation of sweeping systemic reforms of the TRA?
Even if we are to place the responsibility at Lee’s feet, it should be with a recognition of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
This tragedy is a chance to reflect on the often casual approach to safety endemic in Taiwanese culture, manifested in the way vehicles are parked on steep slopes in bustling tourist sites or on red lines on street corners outside convenience stores; how heavy construction vehicles operate on roads without adequate barriers keeping pedestrians at bay; how boxes and old furniture are stored in stairwells that serve as emergency exits in residential buildings; or how goods block sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk in the road in the face of oncoming traffic.
Most egregious of all, it is in waiting for disaster to strike before asking questions about how simple accidents can be avoided.
Recommendations are already being made: Erecting barriers at construction sites above railway lines; reviews to identify safety blind spots; installing slope detectors at high-risk sections; intrusion detection and disaster warning systems; and requiring trains to slow down at curves.
However, the question remains: Why were these not implemented a long time ago?
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