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Premier vows to increase staffing at Taiwan Railway after derailment

2018/10/25 23:21:42

Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德/CNA file photo)

Taipei, Oct. 25 (CNA) Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) said Thursday that the government will continue to increase the number of train drivers, mechanical engineers, maintenance and other professionals in Taiwan's railway transportation system as the longstanding problem of insufficient manpower was again exposed in the recent deadly derailment accident that killed 18 people and injured 210 others.

Lai said he approved in January a three-year plan to enable the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) to recruit 2,818 employees, including 385 train drivers and staff in such departments as mechanical engineering and track maintenance, which are directly involved in ensuring transport safety.

Although the cause of derailment is under investigation, the accident exposed the staffing shortage as the Puyuma express train No. 6432 was operated by just one driver from the time it left Shulin in New Taipei City at 14:50 p.m. for Taitung County to the time it derailed at 16:50 p.m. on Sunday.

A leaked transcript of the conversation the train's driver Yu Chen-chung (尤振仲) had with a train dispatcher and a train inspector, reported by local media on Thursday, showed Yu had been in constant communication with the dispatcher and the inspector during the 43 minutes before the crash.

According to the communication record, Yu began to report the train was experiencing power cuts at 16:05 p.m. and since then he had been trying in vain to fix the problem by examining various systems of the train, as instructed by the dispatcher and the inspector.

The dispatcher gave Yu numerous instructions to check various indicators on the train's control panel while Yu was the only one operating the train.

A report issued by the Yilan District Court this week indicated Yu had admitted he had turned off the speed control mechanism of the train, known as automatic train protection (ATP) system, because the train was having power problems and so he could manually accelerate the train.

Yu was supposed to switch the ATP back on or manually reduce the speed before the train approached a curve on the tracks.

But he neglected to do so and as a result, the train entered a curve at a speed of about 140 kilometer per hour, double the permissible limit at that section of the tracks near Xinma Station, Yilan County, causing the eight-carriage train to derail, with four carriages overturning.

It was not clear whether he was too distracted or overwhelmed by talking to the dispatcher and trying to resolve the power problems, but records show he was talking to the dispatcher right up to the time of the derailment.

According to the driver's statement to prosecutors, he said he did not follow standard operating procedure to turn the ATP back on at the next stop after the system was turned off because he had been communicating with the train's dispatcher.

Interviews with other drivers on local media and statements by TRA officials indicate it was standard practice at the TRA to have one driver operate each train, and that the driver is allowed to turn off the ATP and control the speed manually on their own.

That has left many worried about the safety of the Puyuma, given the drivers have to operate the trains solo while also having to manually monitor the track conditions and adjust the speed accordingly, when problems with the Puyuma forces them to shut off the ATP in order to accelerate and get passengers to the destinations.

Worried passengers have been returning purchased Puyuma tickets after the accident even as Lai urged the public to have confidence in the Puyuma and to continue taking the trains.

Lai on Thursday did not say whether he will ask the TRA to immediately increase the number of drivers on each Puyuma, the fastest model in the system, and TRA officials have not said whether they will require drivers to restrict the speed to a certain level if the ATP is turned off.

At a press conference Thursday, Minister without Portfolio Wu Tze-cheng (吳澤成), head of the Cabinet-level task force set up to investigate the cause of the accident, and other officials did not dispute the veracity of the transcript when asked to comment.

As shown by the transcript, the ATP had not been in operation after it passed Daxi Station, 44 kilometers north of Xinma, in accordance with the data from the train's event recorder, equivalent of an airplane's black box, provided by the TRA earlier this week.

Conflicting accounts have surfaced as to what led to the deactivation of the ATP, which could have prevented the crash by controlling the maximum allowable speed if it had worked normally.

The transcript recorded the 43-minute long conversation among the driver and the dispatcher from the time the train passed Gongliao Station in New Taipei at 16:05 p.m. until 16:48 p.m., two minutes before the crash.

It showed that Yu told the dispatcher at 16:46 p.m. that the status of ATP was in deactivated mode.

The TRA, however, said Wednesday that Yu did not report the move as he should have, with TRA deputy chief Tu Wei (杜微) saying that the information released by prosecutors suggested Yu's negligence because he shut down the ATP and thus the train was going too fast.

However, Tu's statement was not only proven false by the leaked transcript but also refuted by the Taiwan Railway Labor Union, which said the communication record between Yu and the dispatcher showed that Yu did inform the latter of the ATP status, albeit just shortly before the derailment.

At Thursday's press conference, Minister without Portfolio Wu and other Cabinet officials were pressed to comment on the way the TRA has been handling the case, interpreted as one of its many attempts to sway public opinion to blame the driver for shutting off the ATP.

In response, Wu said that the driver seemed to tell the dispatcher at 16:46 p.m. as shown in the record that the ATP was in a deactivated state, while the TRA's statement seemed to suggest that the driver should have notified the dispatcher of his move at an earlier time but he didn't.

More information will be cross-examined, including the first half of the communication record and data recorded by the train's dashboard and monitoring system, said Allen Hu (胡湘麟), head of the Bureau of High Speed Rail and a member of the Cabinet's task force.

Hu said more interviews with people involved in the process will be conducted to clarify events that led to the crash.

(By Shih Hsiu-chuan)