This Train Crash Killed 49 People. It Didn’t Have to Happen.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — It appeared at first like a freak accident.

A contractor was navigating a pointy activate a sand-packed street. He had been employed to shore up a steep hillside on Taiwan’s east coast — any falling particles may very well be a security hazard to the trains that rushed by beneath.

At the sting of the embankment, his truck bought caught. He and one other employee tried to pull it free, utilizing a fabric strap and an excavator. The strap snapped, and the truck tumbled down the hill onto the railway tracks.

About a minute later, Taroko Express No. 408 collided with the truck, killing 49 individuals and injuring greater than 200.

“This accident could have been avoided,” a member of the Taiwan Transportation Safety Board mentioned in an interview.Credit…Ritchie B Tongo/EPA, by way of Shutterstock

In an on the spot, the picturesque oceanside slope grew to become the location of Taiwan’s deadliest railway catastrophe in seven many years.

The tragedy on that April morning is one in every of a number of crises which have shaken this island democracy of 23.5 million individuals, which prides itself as a well-managed and accountable society. It has undermined confidence within the authorities at a time when Taiwan has struggled with a surge in coronavirus circumstances and rolling electrical blackouts.

While prosecutors have accused the contractor, Lee Yi-hsiang, and others of negligent murder, the roots of the catastrophe go a lot deeper, revealing systemic failures on the authorities company that runs the prepare system, the Taiwan Railways Administration.

A detailed examination of the crash by The New York Times, primarily based on interviews with present and former officers, railway workers, contractors and security specialists, discovered that the company suffered from a tradition of complacency and weak oversight. Contractors like Mr. Lee had been mismanaged, upkeep issues festered, and officers missed or ignored security warnings — creating situations that contributed to the crash.

Rescue employees after the crash. Credit…Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

A authorities adviser advised officers in 2017 that the road on which the crash occurred was an accident ready to occur.

Earlier this yr, a neighborhood employee for the company twice warned concerning the threat of heavy gear maneuvering round that very same flip. No one did something. The authorities are investigating whether or not the company ought to have performed extra to observe up, Chou Fang-yi, a prosecutor on the case, advised The Times.

Mr. Lee ought to by no means have been awarded the venture below the company’s guidelines. According to the indictment, he illegally misrepresented his firm on the applying, utilizing the credentials of a bigger, extra skilled firm to qualify for the venture. The company didn’t do sufficient due diligence to uncover the issue.

“This accident could have been avoided,” Li Kang, a member of the Taiwan Transportation Safety Board, a authorities company investigating the crash, mentioned in an interview.

The Taiwan Railways Administration promised reforms after the crash. But previously, such guarantees have led to little change.Credit…Sam Yeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since the catastrophe, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, has vowed to deal with longstanding complaints concerning the Taiwan Railways Administration, which supplied greater than 500,000 rides per day earlier than the pandemic.

A report by Taiwan’s transportation ministry launched on Sunday cited failings within the railway company’s security processes and administration of development tasks.

The railway company mentioned it was enterprise reforms. In May, it reprimanded 12 workers for “inadequate supervision and management” of the venture on the crash web site, although none had been dismissed.

In a written response to questions, the company mentioned the reprimands had been a “warning and a chance for public servants to reflect on their failure to properly fulfill their duties.”

Past guarantees to enhance have had little end result. Ms. Tsai’s authorities referred to as for reforms in 2018 after a prepare crash within the northeast killed 18 individuals. Although some suggestions had been instituted, structural adjustments weren’t.

President Tsai Ing-wen has promised to deal with longstanding complaints concerning the railway company.Credit…Annabelle Chih/Reuters

Since 2012, the company’s trains have skilled 316 main incidents, together with collisions and derailments, in accordance to a assessment by The Times of knowledge from Taiwan’s transportation ministry. The accidents have killed 437 individuals.

By comparability, Taiwan High Speed Rail, the newer, public-private high-speed system on the island’s west coast, had no main incidents throughout the identical interval.

“Typically when there is an accident, T.R.A.’s response is to hold a meeting, discuss, organize a lecture and an exercise and tell workers that this is the correct protocol,” mentioned Lu Chieh-shen, who labored on the company for 38 years and served as common director from 2016 to 2018. “Then they go back to their routine.”

A Deadly Collision

Salvage work, days after the crash.Credit…Ritchie B Tongo/EPA, by way of Shutterstock

On the morning of April 2, Mr. Lee, the contractor, was not supposed to be working.

It was Tomb Sweeping Day, a vacation when individuals honor their ancestors. But he was not on time and didn’t need to get fined for lacking his deadline, prosecutors say.

He enlisted a number of different employees, however there have been no outdoors security supervisors monitoring the location, as authorities guidelines required.

At least twice earlier than, development autos had develop into lodged on the identical street the place Mr. Lee’s truck bought caught attempting to make the flip, in accordance to the indictment. In January, a railway company employee warned the venture’s security supervisors to enhance the street’s grade and floor and set up protecting fencing. It wasn’t performed.

Mr. Lee mustn’t have been awarded the venture within the first place.

Lee Yi-hsiang, who has been charged with negligent murder in reference to the crash, often received authorities contracts regardless of a spotty document.Credit…EBC, by way of Associated Press

When the Taiwan Railways Administration was in search of contractors to reinforce the slope in 2019, his two firms had been ineligible as a result of they lacked expertise with that type of work.

So Mr. Lee used the license of a bigger firm, Tung Hsin Construction, to apply, although it was unlawful to accomplish that, in accordance to the indictment. In return, prosecutors say, he provided the bigger firm a part of the earnings.

Contractors and specialists who spoke with The Times mentioned the company often awarded contracts to the bottom bidder, prioritizing financial savings over security. The emphasis on price, two contractors mentioned, deterred extra respected firms from bidding.

The company “believes in using cheap labor to perform high-risk operations,” mentioned Chen Hong-shan, a contractor who has labored on a number of tasks for the railway administration. “This has been the practice for decades.”

Rescue employees recovered a physique on the day of the crash. Credit…Chiang Ying-Ying/Associated Press

He added that as a result of company budgets usually allotted too little for security measures, contractors had to reduce corners to make tasks worthwhile, compromising the work.

The company, in its written response, mentioned that whereas some contracts had been awarded to the bottom bidder, others went to the “most advantageous” one. In these circumstances, the company mentioned, a contractor’s security document and expertise had been deciding components.

Mr. Lee recurrently received contracts regardless of having a spotty document.

In 2009, one in every of Mr. Lee’s firms, Yi-hsiang Industry, was blacklisted for a yr over procurement rule violations, in accordance to authorities information. Since 2013, the authorities have fined his firms a mixed 35 occasions for numerous infractions involving autos, in accordance to a Times assessment of knowledge. In 2018, Mr. Lee was sentenced to six months in jail for falsifying paperwork concerning the progress of a venture.

An injured passenger was requested to determine the physique of a member of the family. Credit…Annabelle Chih/Reuters

Still, beginning in 2013, Mr. Lee was legitimately awarded at the very least 48 contracts, totaling almost $10 million, with the railway company and different authorities entities, in accordance to a assessment of procurement information. That complete doesn’t embrace the $four.6 million contract for the slope reinforcement venture.

In all, Mr. Lee was awarded 9 contracts by the railway company, together with the slope venture. In every case, his was the bottom bid, in accordance to the info.

Prosecutors have accused Mr. Lee and 6 others of prison legal responsibility; 4 had been charged with negligent murder. If convicted of all expenses, Mr. Lee might face up to 12 years in jail.

Red Flags

Relatives of the useless mourned close to the crash web site on the day after the catastrophe.Credit…Ritchie B Tongo/EPA, by way of Shutterstock

In 2017, Liao Ching-lung, a railway security professional and authorities adviser, was learning video of a 2016 prepare derailment on Taiwan’s east coast when he observed one thing alarming: the observe was in horrible situation.

Concerned, he requested a gathering with transportation ministry officers.

“I told them it was only a matter of time before there was an accident on the track,” he mentioned.

Mr. Liao’s warning was prescient. In 2018, the Puyuma Express, one other prepare operated by the railway company, derailed on that very same route, referred to as the Northern Loop line, killing 18 individuals. And the April crash occurred on the identical line.

Although an investigation into the Puyuma crash by the Taiwan Transportation Safety Board blamed the motive force for disabling an computerized velocity warning system, the board’s report additionally flagged endemic issues on the company, saying it routinely skipped or postponed repairs and upkeep on automobiles and tracks so as to hold trains operating on schedule.

After a 2018 crash that killed 18 individuals, an investigation discovered that the railway company routinely skipped or delayed repairs and upkeep.Credit…Sam Yeh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It additionally cited the company’s failure to present employees with sufficient gear and security coaching. The method the company is organized “may cause business concern to be prioritized over railroad safety in decision making,” the board warned in its remaining report, launched final yr.

Investigators for the board advised The Times that the company had not completely carried out the adjustments that it mentioned it had. For instance, the company, regardless of its claims, nonetheless has no formal, complete course of for reporting upkeep points, mentioned Mr. Li, one of many investigators.

“They had only accepted the changes on paper — they did not put them into practice,” mentioned Young Hong-tsu, the protection board’s chairman.

After the Taroko Express crash in April, the labor ministry audited 195 ongoing railway company tasks and located 306 situations of security violations on development websites. They included failure to set up protecting fencing and to conduct correct threat assessments. Work was suspended in 15 circumstances.

Once the crown jewel of Taiwan’s transportation community, the railway company is now, in some ways, an ossified relic. Its historical past as a beloved establishment — well-known for the Japanese-style structure at some stations and for its boxed meals, often known as railway bentos — has made change politically tough.

An aerial view of the crash web site at a information convention.Credit…Johnson Lai/Associated Press

“Within T.R.A., people like to joke that the agency is very good at selling bento boxes but doesn’t care about workplace safety,” mentioned Huang Te-hui, a upkeep employee for the company.

Even as transportation choices on the island have proliferated, efforts to make the company extra environment friendly and profit-oriented have stalled. Powerful constituencies, together with unions and politicians, have shielded it from accountability and prevented desperately wanted operational and administration adjustments, its critics say.

“For nearly a century, T.R.A. has played an important role in the distribution of political benefits,” mentioned Hochen Tan, who was Taiwan’s transportation minister from 2016 to 2018.

Attempts to elevate ticket costs have been blocked by elected officers who feared the political fallout. Fares have gone unchanged for about 25 years, whereas prices have risen. Resistance from native residents, in addition to officers wanting to preserve hyperlinks to their communities, has left the company saddled with unprofitable routes. And few have dared to tackle the problem of its swelling worker pensions.

As a end result, the company has struggled to keep financially afloat. Its present deficit is round $14 billion.

Since the April crash, the company has mentioned it will set up extra boundaries alongside tracks to catch falling particles, in addition to sensors to warn drivers of potential obstacles. It additionally mentioned it will use surveillance expertise to higher monitor development websites. The authorities plans to give greater than $500,000 to the household of every one who died within the crash.

Chen Yan-yi, four, and her aunt Chen Yi-chuan in a photograph taken earlier than the crash. Both of them died.Credit…Chen Peng-nian

Among the households, there are fears that the 49 lives misplaced on that day have develop into not a name to motion, however one other missed alternative to result in wanted change.

Chen Peng-nian, 38, was among the many lots of trapped within the wreckage. He and his household — his dad and mom, sister and two youngsters — had been within the third carriage from the entrance, on their method to their ancestral house close to town of Taitung.

Injured, he groped round within the darkness till he discovered a cell phone to use as a flashlight. He noticed his mom holding his son, who was bleeding, and his father close by.

His sister was slumped lifeless on the opposite facet of the automobile. Only a short while earlier than, he had been taking photos of her along with his daughter, Yan-yi, who was four. In one picture, Yan-yi is smiling, sporting a pink and white polka-dot hat with ears. She was thrown from the prepare and died.

“They call for reform, improvements — I can say all these things, too,” Mr. Chen mentioned in an interview, referring to Taiwan’s leaders. “But what are they actually doing? I have no idea.”

Relatives of the useless at a funeral house in Hualien, Taiwan, on the day after the crash.Credit…Annabelle Chih/Reuters