Taiwan train crash: Body parts found after last carriage removed; authorities seek damages

Workers checking damaged carriages on the mountains of Hualien, Taiwan, on April 6, 2021.
Workers checking damaged carriages on the mountains of Hualien, Taiwan, on April 6, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI - More body parts have been found when the crushed remains of the last carriage of a train that derailed on Taiwan's scenic east coast was finally pulled out from a tunnel at the crash site, almost a week after the accident.

The latest discovery of human remains late on Tuesday night (April 6) by workmen who lifted the first carriage - labelled No. 8 - of the 408 Taroko Express, which was sliced in half when it crashed headlong into the tunnel wall on April 2, led prosecutors to believe that the death toll could change.

DNA from the passengers' remains have been sent to Taipei for further identification, said Hualien's head prosecutor Yu Hsiu-duan.

The Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) said on Wednesday it is seeking NT$840 million (S$39 million) in compensation from the main suspect, Lee Yi-hsiang, whose truck caused the train crash that killed at least 50 and injured 218 near the famous Taroko Gorge in Hualien.

On April 4, the TRA also moved to seize NT$376 million of Mr Lee's assets, which the Hualien District Court granted on Tuesday.

Mr Lee, 49, was appointed in 2019 to manage a construction project to prevent rocks from falling onto the train tracks near the crash site. The project was initially scheduled to be completed by January, but the completion date was postponed due to the TRA's safety concerns. The authorities had asked the workmen to cut back on their hours and operate only late at night so as to not affect passing trains, which run till midnight.

Mr Lee is the owner of Yi-Hsiang Construction Company and Yi-Cheng Construction. According to government records, Mr Lee's namesake company put in a bid and secured up to 19 government construction projects in the past five years, worth nearly NT$200 million in total.

In a weekly meeting of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Wednesday, President Tsai Ing-wen led the party's leading members to observe a minute's silence for the victims of the crash before announcing the need to reform the TRA.

"The Taroko Express accident has hit the Taiwanese hard. We are heartbroken over the deaths and injuries," said Ms Tsai, noting in particular the death of the young train operator. "Because of this, the TRA must go through a reform."

The TRA is a government-affiliated railway operator that reports to the Ministry of Transportation and Communication. It is in charge of both passenger and freight trains in Taiwan, except for the high-speed rail, which is managed by a private company.

Aside from demands from the Taroko crash's survivors and victims' families for the government to make the trains safer, the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party has slammed the Tsai administration for negligence in vetting contractors which bid on construction projects. In the legislature on Wednesday, KMT lawmakers called for Premier Su Tseng-chang, Transportation Minister Lin Chia-lung and Deputy Transportation Minister Chi Wen-jong to step down.

Taiwanese have taken to social media to voice their disappointment in the TRA, flooding its Facebook page with suggestions for reforms and harsh criticism. First and foremost, the Tsai administration will now aim to resolve the systemic issues within the TRA.

For instance, the train operator now relies on horizontal communication between departments, but in the future, each department would report and work on issues within itself in a top-down manner to boost efficiency.

"Most importantly, many people have pointed out (the need to change) the TRA's idea and standards of construction safety management," Ms Tsai continued.

The next goal would be to pay off long-term debt which the TRA has racked up.

As at July 2020, the TRA was NT$403 billion in debt, a 2 per cent increase from the NT$391.5 billion it owed in 2017.

In addition to more remote routes that do not bring in revenue, TRA debt has continued to swell because of a steady drop in passengers over the years, as Taiwanese travelling between the island's developed west coast cities now rely on the much more advanced high-speed rail, which, despite higher ticket prices, is well maintained and always on time.

Following a train derailment accident in 2018 that killed 18 people and injured 187, the TRA pledged to reform, but the Taroko accident happening just two years later has caused many Taiwanese to doubt the promises.