Taiwan's train services resume following May Day walkout

Union members warned of more walkouts if disputes over Taiwan Railways Administration reform plans continue. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAIPEI - Taiwan's trains resumed operations on Monday (May 2) after an islandwide walkout on May Day (Sunday) by employees of the Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA), the government-owned train operator.

But union members warned of more walkouts if disputes over TRA reform plans continue.

At least 13,000 of the TRA's 16,000 employees participated in the walkout, protesting against the central government's decision to transition the state-run railway agency into a state-run corporation without consulting staff.

The Taiwan Railway Labour Union (TRLU), the National Train Drivers' Union and the Taiwan Railway Union (TRU) organised the walkout after the Cabinet approved on March 3 a draft Bill aiming to convert the agency into a state-run corporation.

The unions are also protesting over how the agency's NT$400 billion (S$18.8 billion) debt will be handled, ticket price hikes and employee benefits.

The draft Bill maintains that the TRA will still be run by the government, and that there will be a fund from the Transportation Ministry to cover a chunk of the TRA's debt, about NT$148.4 billion.

In response, the TRLU argued that all of the agency's debt should be assumed by the government, rather than passing it on to the new company - which is also proposed in the draft Bill.

TRA employees have organised labour strikes on labour days in the past, but the last time there was a walkout of this scale was in 1988, when most trains did not operate and there was traffic chaos all over Taiwan.

Originally, about 1,200 drivers had been scheduled to work overtime on Sunday in order to meet higher passenger demand over the long weekend. The walkout meant all of the island's 871 scheduled train services did not operate, leaving the TRA scrambling to provide 18 temporary trains to cater to passengers.

Minister for Transportation and Communications Wang Kwo-tsai said on April 25 that he had spoken to union members about their safety-related concerns working for the TRA, and promised to continue communicating with the unions.

However, Mr Wang failed to dissuade the workers from walking out.

Unions' representatives are adamant that this walkout was not a "strike", saying in a statement released on Saturday (April 30) that the government's plan to corporatise TRA did not adopt any of the union's requirements, including prioritising workers' safety, and reiterated fears that the plan, should it be carried out, would "be another fiasco that costs a lot of money".

The three unions held a protest near the Presidential Office on Sunday, calling for the government to include TRA's ground-level staff in government plans to improve safety, especially after two fatal accidents in recent years.

A Puyuma train derailed in the eastern county of Yilan in 2018, killing 18 and injuring 187, after the driver deactivated a train protection system while rounding a bend at excessive speed.

In April 2021, 49 passengers on board a Taroko Express train died after the driver was unable to avoid running into a truck which had slipped onto the tracks from a nearby construction site.

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The government proposed the corporatisation of TRA after the two accidents, and the TRA management announced that it has been working on establishing a safety management system that would boost the safety performance of future railway services.

"They said that, but in reality, none of the front-line TRA workers were able to participate in setting up such a safety system," said TRU board director Liu Chung-shu, who said the TRA missed the point by not communicating with ground-level employees.

Taroko's Tears, a self-help group founded by families of those who died in the Taroko crash, released a statement on Sunday, asking the TRA to put safety first.

"We hope that the TRA can completely change its soft, indifferent attitude in the past and put safety first, moving towards reform and corporatisation… It has been a year since the Taroko accident, but we have not seen any specific improvements," said the statement.

The unions have also warned that more walkouts may follow on upcoming national holidays this year, including Dragon Boat Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day.

When asked on Sunday about more walkouts, TRLU chairman Chen Shih-chieh said it would depend on how the Transportation Ministry communicates with the unions after this weekend.

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