Taiwan crash investigators focus on how a truck fell in the path of a train

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Two days after Taiwan’s deadliest rail disaster in decades, investigators sought to determine why a truck slipped from a construction site into the path of an express train, resulting in the collision and derailment that killed dozens of people.

The operator of the crane truck, Lee Yi-hsiang, was arrested Sunday by a judge, who overturned an earlier decision to grant him bail. Lee, who has not been charged with a crime, told reporters he caused the crash and said he would take full responsibility.

“I hereby express my deepest regret and sincere apologies,” Lee said, his voice choking as he bowed in apology.

But investigators were still trying to determine if Lee had neglected to use the emergency brake or if the truck had malfunctioned in some way. Lee told reporters on Saturday he put the brake on.

Other aspects of the disaster were also under consideration. Officials said they were trying to determine exactly when the train driver applied the brake before the collision.

Officials said on Sunday that 50 people were killed in the crash of the eight-car Taroko Express, which derailed and slammed into a wall of the tunnel after hitting the truck on Friday. The train was packed, carrying 498 people on the first day of a long vacation weekend.

Authorities previously estimated the death toll at 51. Identifying the victims was a slow and difficult process, with emergency personnel still attempting to clear the wreckage from the tunnel and recover the remains of the victims on Sunday. Thirty-seven survivors of the crash were still hospitalized on Sunday, officials said.

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Some survivors and relatives of the dead have shown more grief than anger. Taiwan’s last serious train crash in 2018 was caused by driver negligence, but first impressions were that Friday’s collision looked more like a freak accident.

Some family members said they did not want to blame the disaster until the government completed its investigation, which authorities said would take around two months.

The Site of the Railway Crash near the Qingshui Cliff in the Hualien Mountains of Eastern Taiwan | TBEN-JIJI

“I don’t want to blame anyone,” Wu Ming-yu, 68, said Sunday, as she sat with family members in a tent at a funeral home in Hualien, a town south of the site. accident on the east coast of Taiwan. They were waiting for a mortuary makeup artist to finish work on the body of Wu’s daughter, Huang Chiao-ling, a 35-year-old nurse who was on her way to see her family.

Yet Wu said she feared the construction site may have fallen short of safety standards. “You have to keep the construction safe, because if you don’t, you will end up hurting other people,” Wu said.

The construction project was commissioned by the Taiwan Ministry of Transportation to improve the safety of the slope near the crash site, which occurred on a steep mountainside on the Pacific coast. It was part of a larger six-year plan to improve rail safety in Taiwan. The operator of the crane truck was also the site manager for the project.

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“It’s ironic and very unfortunate,” said Yusin Lee, professor of civil engineering and director of the Center for Railway Studies at National Cheng Kung University in the southern city of Tainan. “It’s a reminder that even when we have safety-oriented construction projects, we must always keep safety in mind.”

At a press conference on Sunday, officials said Lee Yi-hsiang may have hidden some of his background when he applied to be the site manager for the project.

Su Chih-wu, a quality control engineer at the site, said by phone that workers had almost completed the project, which focused on strengthening the structure of a rail tunnel parallel to the one where the accident took place. has occurred.

He also said there should have been no workers at the site on Friday, as it was the first day of a long holiday weekend. On Sunday, it was not clear whether Lee or anyone else had visited the site that day.

Another project engineer, Yang Chin-lang, dismissed the idea that his team had failed to ensure an adequate level of security. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said over the phone. Yang and Su said they were questioned by prosecutors on Saturday.

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“I just followed the design plans and did my job,” Yang said.

Damaged train car at the crash site on Sunday |  REUTERS
Damaged train car at the crash site on Sunday | REUTERS

The accident happened near the Qingshui Cliff, an area where mountains rise dramatically from the Pacific Ocean. Experts say the rough terrain has long been a challenge for transportation engineers, and many accidents have occurred on the winding road over the years. But railways and highways are an essential link between Taipei, the capital, and the east coast.

Feng Hui Sheng, deputy director of Taiwan Railways Administration, said in an interview on Sunday that the agency has continuously improved the safety of its systems and equipment since the 2018 crash.

He said these changes will continue and authorities will also seek to improve signaling and alarm systems in the network and improve track safety. But he also recognized that broader changes could happen slowly.

“When it comes to innovation and reforming the system,” he said, “we are more conservative”.

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