The government should stop all railway projects and allocate funding to rebuild the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA), a transportation expert said in a meeting of the legislature’s Transportation Committee yesterday.
The committee held a public hearing to explore ways to reform the agency after Taroko Express No. 408 on April 2 crashed inside a tunnel in Hualien County after slamming into a crane truck near the tunnel’s entrance, killing 49 people and injuring 244.
Several transportation experts were invited to share their views, with some of them having been previously recruited by the Executive Yuan to examine the TRA after the derailment of a Puyuma Express train in 2018, which killed 18 people and injured 215.
“The situation facing the TRA today is the result of a wrong government policy that has been implemented for 30 years, which has prohibited the agency from raising the ticket price for more than two decades,” said Anne Chung (鍾慧諭), deputy director of Feng Chia University’s Innovation Center for Intelligent Transportation and Logistics, who was from 2014 to 2016 Taipei Department of Transportation commissioner.
The agency has accumulated losses of NT$430 billion (US$15.15 million), of which more than NT$100 billion was caused by an old pension system, she said.
In addition to allowing the TRA greater flexibility in adjusting fares based on different train services, Chung suggested that the government set financial goals for the agency.
Meanwhile, funds allocated for railway projects in the Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program — about NT$351.6 billion — should instead be used to rebuild the agency, she said.
Most projects in the infrastructure program would only deepen the TRA’s financial woes, she said.
“The government spent NT$309.3 billion on grade separation projects in Taipei and Kaohsiung. Rather than making the train system operate faster, the projects have greatly reduced transport capacity and increased operating costs to two to three times higher than before,” she said.
Chung dismissed a Keelung mass rapid transit project as “nonsense,” as it would use a TRA route between Taipei and Keelung, and consequently hurt the agency’s business.
The government should focus on using TRA stations and other properties to generate revenue, which should be the agency’s real “gold-laying goose,” she said.
The TRA is often pressured by elected officials to increase the number of stops, she said, adding that turning the agency into a state-run company would help attract workers and free it from political influence.
Maa Shyh-yuan (馬士元), an associate professor of urban planning and disaster management at Ming Chuan University, said that the government should restructure the agency into a state-run company, a proposal opposed by members of the Taiwan Railway Labor Union.
“Ten years ago, the agency had a debt of NT$80 billion, and now it is NT$400 billon. The debt could reach NT$1 trillion if we continue ignoring it,” Maa said.
“I would tell our friends at the union that what people care about is transportation safety. The union’s traditions and values are in conflict with public interests, and they should put their prejudices aside and reconsider their position,” he said.
The country has lost 67 lives in the two fatal train derailments, and their sacrifices should not be in vain, Maa said.
The government should initiate a referendum on whether the TRA should become a state-run firm if no progress is made on this matter, he added.
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