New Minister of Transportation and Communications Wang Kwo-tsai (王國材) yesterday pledged to run the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) more like a corporation within three years, adding that he would resign if plans to reform the agency fail.
Wang made the remarks at a meeting of the legislature’s Transportation Committee, where the ministry was scheduled to brief lawmakers on the progress of plans to form “travel bubbles” with other countries.
However, committee members focused on Wang’s plans to reform the TRA, which he pledged when he took office on Tuesday.
Wang, previously a deputy minister, was promoted to minister when Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) stepped down to take responsibility for the April 2 railway derailment that killed 49 people and injured more than 200.
Wang has appointed former Railway Bureau director-general Allen Hu (胡湘麟) as the new deputy transportation minister and promoted former TRA deputy director-general Du Wei (杜微) to head the railway agency.
Officials who are familiar with the agency’s core issues and are capable of addressing them are needed to carry out reform, Wang said.
However, Taiwan People’s Party Legislator Andy Chiu (邱臣遠) compared the appointments to “putting old wine into a new bottle,” and asked how the ministry could reform the TRA when it simply promoted current officials without recruiting new ones.
Wang said that he was the executive director of an ad hoc group formed by the Executive Yuan to conduct a comprehensive examination of the TRA after a Puyuma Express derailment in 2018 killed 19 passengers and injured 215.
The ad hoc group listed 144 issues with the TRA and made recommendations accordingly, he said.
“The TRA had followed the suggestions made by the ad hoc group, such as enhancing the maintenance of train cabins and main compressors,” he said. “Building open-cut tunnels to enhance the safety of side slopes was one of the recommendations, but the Taroko Express derailment on April 2 exposed problems with construction site management, which was really frustrating.”
“The TRA is improving in many ways, but new problems have emerged during the process,” he said.
Asked about a timetable for reform, Wang said that it would be carried out in three stages.
Within one year, the ministry would address urgent railway safety issues and integrate the TRA’s electrical engineering, rolling stock, construction and transportation departments by setting up several regional operation centers, he said.
The second phase would involve dealing with the TRA’s financial losses and the third phase turning it into a corporation, he said.
The Executive Yuan has agreed to compensate the TRA for the financial losses that it has sustained for managing small and unprofitable railway stations, Wang said, adding that it agreed to handle the debts that the TRA has accumulated over the years due to an old pension system.
Lawmakers and the Executive Yuan have proposed amendments to the Railway Act (鐵路法), which would grant the TRA greater flexibility in using its properties and assets, he added.
In three years, the TRA would begin to operate like a corporation, he said, without specifying when it would make the transition.
Wang also told Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Hung Mong-kai (洪孟楷) that he would step down if his plans for reform fail.
The TRA is scheduled to submit a new ticket pricing scheme to the Ministry of Transportation and Communications by the end of this year, as the agency has not adjusted fares for 26 years.
However, “adjusting train fares would not be the ministry’s top priority,” Wang said, adding that its first and foremost task is to increase the TRA’s revenue.
Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Chen Ming-wen (陳明文) asked Wang if he would reverse some of the transportation policies stipulated during Lin’s term, such as extending the high-speed rail line to Pingtung and Yilan counties.
The ministry would continue to implement the projects, Wang said.
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