Taiwan transport minister to step down after deadly train crash

Lin Chia-lung said he ‘took full responsibility’ and will leave office once the initial rescue work is completed.

In the island's worst rail accident in seven decades, 50 people have been confirmed dead [Ann Wang/Reuters]

Taiwan’s transport minister said on Sunday he would step down after he and the manager of a construction site whose truck slid onto rail tracks causing a catastrophic train crash accepted responsibility for the disaster.

Lin Chia-lung, in a statement on his Facebook page, said he would step down once the initial rescue work had come to an end, adding he “took full responsibility”.

“I should have accepted all the criticism over the past few days, but we have not done well enough,” he said.

Premier Su Tseng-chang’s office said prior to the announcement that Lin had made a verbal offer to resign, but Su had rejected it for the time being, saying efforts for now should focus on rescue and recovery.

In the island’s worst rail accident in seven decades, 50 people have been confirmed dead after a packed express train carrying almost 500 passengers and crew slammed into the truck near the eastern city of Hualien on Friday, causing it to derail and the front part to crumple.

Lin Chia-lung said he would step down once the initial rescue work had come to an end [File: Ashley Pon/AFP]

‘Deepest apologies’

The truck that the train hit had slid down a sloping road onto the track just outside a tunnel. Officials are investigating the manager of the construction site, Lee Yi-hsiang, whose truck is suspected of not having its brakes properly applied.

On Sunday, Lee read out a statement apologising for what happened as police took him away from his residence.

“I deeply regret this and express my deepest apologies,” he said. “I will definitely cooperate with the prosecutors and police in the investigation, accept the responsibility that should be borne, and never shirk it. Finally, I once again express my sincerest apologies.”

Lee, 49, was part of a team who regularly inspected Taiwan’s mountainous eastern train line for landslides and other risks.

A Hualien court said on Sunday evening it had ordered that Lee be detained for two months, saying there was a risk he may destroy evidence. After questioning by the judge and evidence from prosecutors, he is suspected of causing death by negligence, it said.

His lawyer told reporters that Lee wanted to face up to what had happened and was apologetic and expressed regret.

Young Hong-tsu, chairman of the Taiwan Transportation Safety Board, told AFP news agency that investigators were combing through the train’s recording devices as well as security camera footage from the front car.

“According to the testimonies by some passengers, they heard the horn being sounded and it’s believed the train driver had spotted an object of obstruction on the track,” he said.

But the train driver – who was among those killed – would have struggled to stop a collision.

“It’s believed the train driver might have only had 10 seconds at most to react and there was not enough distance to emergency brake,” he added.

Some survivors reported that the train did not appear to slow down before striking the truck.

But Hong said others did notice violent vibrating before the collision, suggesting the train driver might have pulled the emergency brake moments before impact.

Workers are continuing to remove the train from inside the tunnel and look for other bodies, and officials have warned the death toll could go up or down as they verify identities. The government revised the toll down by one on Sunday evening to 50.

The transport ministry and the rail administration that comes under it are faccing several questions, including why there was no proper fencing at the site and whether too many standing-only tickets were sold for the train journey.

Deputy transport minister Wang Kwo-tsai said late on Saturday the railway administration needed to take a hard look at all these issues.

The railway administration is without a permanent director after its former chief retired in January.

Friday’s crash took place at the start of the Tomb-Sweeping Festival, a four-day public holiday when many Taiwanese return to villages to tidy the graves of their ancestors.

Taiwan’s eastern railway line, a popular tourist draw, winds its way through towering mountains and dramatic gorges before entering the picturesque Huadong Valley.

The last major train derailment in Taiwan was in 2018 and left 18 people dead on the same eastern line.

Taiwan’s most deadly rail disaster on record was in 1948 when a train caught fire and 64 people perished.

Source: News Agencies