Last week, train service resumed through the Cingshuei Tunnel (清水隧道) in Hualien County, where the Taroko Express No. 408 derailment took place on April 2, and a new minister of transportation and communications stepped up after his predecessor resigned to take responsibility for the fatal accident.
The Executive Yuan also approved a draft amendment that would stiffen the penalties for offenders convicted of negligent homicide to especially target those charged with forgery and negligence after the derailment.
However, these should not be a farewell to the Taroko Express accident, but rather a reminder of what the government and the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) should continue doing. To make the nation’s railways safe in the short term, the authorities must improve unstable slopes near railway lines, enhance the detection of foreign objects along the tracks, thoroughly inspect the national rail network and employ the same protection system used on the high-speed railway in dangerous areas throughout the TRA network.
More importantly, the government must prioritize TRA reform, with safety and efficiency at the top. Having delayed this task for 20 to 30 years, the government must no longer neglect to put words into action in corporatizing the TRA, streamlining its structures and boosting operational flexibility. Maintaining the “status quo” at the agency will only cost Taiwanese more in the future.
In recent years, the TRA has proceeded with improvements, but new problems have emerged one after another during the process. An online poll conducted by Yahoo-Kimo Inc found that 85 percent of respondents had no confidence in the government’s pledge to reform the agency, while 49 percent of respondents had no expectation that the TRA would be corporatized or privatized. To be sure, reform is not an easy road, with the agency’s financial difficulties and a lack of morale among employees posing stern challenges.
The figures reveal just how difficult it will be to reform the 73-year-old TRA: While its debt was about NT$80 billion (US$2.8 billion) when corporatization was first discussed 20 years ago, the debt has swelled to more than NT$400 billion. The TRA has not registered a surplus on its books since 1978, when the nation opened expressways, and its losses have only accelerated since 2007, when Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corp began operations.
However, the TRA has not raised its fares for 26 years, despite changes in consumer prices and wage levels, and an old pension system saddles it with NT$4 billion in payments every year.
The agency’s structure, which is the root of its problems, must be changed to salvage employee morale and allow it to operate more like a national corporation.
The TRA is a government agency that is also responsible for a transportation business. Its decisions — regarding personnel, operations, procurement and investment — must comply with restrictive regulations, and are under constant pressure from superior agencies and lawmakers.
The TRA will never experience a rebirth — and never achieve market competitiveness — whithout fundamental changes to its structure.
Over the past three to four decades, other state-run entities — such as Taiwan Power Co; CPC Corp, Taiwan; Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp; Chunghwa Post Co; Taoyuan International Airport Corp; and Taiwan International Ports Corp — as well as several state-owned banks have been corporatized.
There is no reason the TRA should not pursue corporatization to gain control of its operational challenges and regain public trust — but the most critical requirement is the government’s determination to reform the TRA.
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