The derailment of Taroko Express No. 408 has been followed by a wave of criticism of the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) and its employees, accusing them of lax management, lose screws and what have you.
There have also been calls for the privatization of the TRA, and for the minister of transportation and communications and the premier to step down.
As an associate professor of business and a TRA customer for more than 20 years, someone needs to speak up for the agency and its employees.
The cause of the crash is unrelated to the TRA’s management. It was the result of a subcontractor not following the rules.
Instead, discussions should address oversights in the subcontracting and supervisory units, as well as assess the subcontracting process to determine whether there was one subcontract, or if an initial subcontractor passed work on to others.
Why should discussions be about TRA employees? The TRA and its employees were also affected by the crash.
On a balance sheet, assets are assessed as debt plus shareholder equity. Reports that describe the TRA’s debt of hundreds of billions of New Taiwan dollars, but ignore shareholder equity, provide an incomplete analysis of its financial situation. This is one of the unfair ways the TRA is being treated.
For example, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co has even more debt, but it also has far more in assets.
The TRA provides a public service, so it should not be judged solely on the profit it reports. Its financial problems are almost certainly because of the burden of being a public service.
For example, urban areas offer the best jobs and have more schools and universities, but the TRA, as a public service, also has to serve people in rural areas. Why should its contributions in those areas be ignored?
When a government agency buys tickets for civil servants or orders the TRA to lower prices for student tickets, the TRA’s only option is to absorb the losses.
Such things should be taken into consideration when looking at its finances.
Privatization of the TRA is touted as a panacea, but such thinking is naive. Its services are important to many people who have no alternative. If it were to increase prices, the daily number of customers would not decrease by much, while its income would shoot up and debt would be alleviated.
Would the government be willing to do that?
An alternative would be to cut services to small stations, which would force people to find other means of transportation. Would that be a good solution?
Corporatization, and freedom from government rules on how it can use its assets, is the right solution. Taiwan’s main urban centers are connected by rail and, with the exception of the three biggest urban centers, the most lively areas are within about 500m of the main train stations.
If the TRA made an effort to develop commercial opportunities around its main stations and made them as convenient as MRT stations, its future would be bright.
The TRA does need to change, but using the Taroko Express derailment to smear it is inappropriate.
Those who have lived in rural areas know how vital rail services are.
People should not go overboard in their criticism of the TRA.
Lin Shiou-jeng is a retired associate professor of Chung Chou University of Science and Technology.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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