Taiwan train accident: Truck hit tracks about a minute before train reached spot

A screenshot from the train's camera footage showing the construction truck that slid onto the tracks, just moments before the crash. PHOTO: TAIWAN TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD
Members of the press taking photos of a damaged train carriage extracted from a tunnel yesterday after last Friday's train derailment north of Hualien in Taiwan, which killed at least 50 people. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI - The truck that caused Taiwan's worst train crash which killed at least 50 people was on the tracks for just over a minute before it was struck, officials said on Tuesday (April 6), adding that the train operator had done all he could to stop the crash.

The findings were disclosed by the Taiwan Transportation Safety Board (TTSB) at a press conference, after investigators attempted to reconstruct the moments leading up to last Friday’s (April 2) tragedy.

The TTSB’s recovery teams, which had dispatched some 20 people over the past four days for the investigation, combed the rubble in search of evidence at the site.

They managed to retrieve the train’s video cameras from the first and last carriages, as the Taroko Express is a double-headed train that can be operated from either end.

They also found a memory card from the dashcam of the construction truck that caused the crash. The truck slipped down an embankment, and prosecutors are working to determine whether the truck driver failed to secure the parking brake or if the truck suffered a mechanical failure.

TTSB chairman Young Hong-tsu showed recovered footage taken from inside 33-year-old train operator Yuan Chun-hsiu’s cabin.

The train’s control system showed Mr Yuan attempting to stop the 408 Taroko Express, which was travelling at 125kmh when it left a tunnel and was about to enter Daqingshui Tunnel near the eastern coastal city of Hualien.

“There was a little over one minute between when the truck slid onto the tracks and the Taroko Express hit it, according to our initial estimate,” said Dr Young.

“We see him putting on the air brakes, but with that speed and rounding a slight curve, it was impossible,” Dr Young added.

The train, according to the officials, would have required a distance of 600m, or 16.6 seconds, to fully stop. But when the truck came into view, Mr Yuan had only 6.9 seconds – with a distance of around 250m – to act. He could only lower the train’s speed to 121kmh.

Camera footage from the train showed it slamming into the yellow truck, tilting to the left and then skidding to a stop after crashing into the tunnel’s left walls.

Led by Dr Young, the investigators also looked into the truck’s registration and repair history.

Mr Tseng Ren-song, who headed highway accident investigations at TTSB, said: “The truck’s owner had stopped going to the original Japanese manufacturer Hino Motors for repairs after 2009. He went to a maintenance shop to get his brakes refitted with a generic type, something engineers at Hino said was not acceptable.” 

Truck owner Lee Yi-hsiang had told Hualien police that he went to check on the construction site alone, and had pulled up the truck’s handbrake after he parked.

Prosecutors are working to determine if the driver failed to secure the parking brake or if the truck suffered a mechanical failure. PHOTO: TAIWAN TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD

Investigators also pulled surveillance camera footage from the highway nearby, which showed several construction vehicles pulling into the construction site.

The footage dismantled Mr Lee’s claims. Corroborating with the dashcam footage from the truck, the investigators discovered that he had left the engine idling.

TTSB board member Li Gang said: “The truck slipped from point one to two, where it got caught on some bushes and the engine died. Then we believe it tumbled through some undergrowth and fell onto the tracks.” 

While the fact that the truck engine was left idling drew much attention from the local media, Dr Li said the team would not be able to comment on the significance due to the ongoing criminal investigation. TTSB is working with Hualien’s prosecutors on the case. 

The ashes of Mr Yuan arrived in his hometown of Taichung on Tuesday evening. 

A train had earlier taken his ashes past Shulin station in New Taipei City, to signify that he had completed his shift, as the Taroko Express had started its journey from Shulin last Friday.