Unfortunately Unstuck: The 2021 Hualien (Taiwan) Train Collision

Max S
10 min readFeb 5, 2023

Background

Hualien is a city of 99619 people (as of 2022) in eastern Taiwan, located in Hualien County 94km/58.5mi south of Taipei and 102km/63mi east of Taichung on the eastern coast of Taiwan’s main island (both measurements in linear distance).

The location of Hualien in eastern Asia.

The city of Hualien is the origin of the North-Link line, a double-tracked electrified main line forming part of the Taiwanese Eastern Line which runs along most of the main island’s eastern coast. Construction on the line, then as a single-track version, started in 1973 and was completed in 1980. The line allowed safe and fast travel between the cities of Yilan County and Hualien County, a connection previously provided by a narrow, dangerous highway or an overnight ferry trip. The line was almost immediately running at or over capacity, despite several upgrades for higher speeds and tighter scheduling, and was expanded to double-track configuration in 2005. Nowadays the line serves 13 stations on a length of 79.2km/49.2mi as it winds along the mountainous coast, allowing speeds of up to 150kph/93mph.

The site of the accident seen from above before the accident, the train approached from the northeast (upper right corner of the image). There seems to be no better aerial photo available.

The vehicles involved

The Taroko Express is an express passenger service offered by Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) since 2007 as part of the country’s most prestigious class of rail services. The Taroko Express services are provided by the TEMU 1000 tilting electric multiple units. Introduced into service in Taiwan in 2013 the TEMU 1000 is based off the Hitachi Rail 885-series and operates in fixed 8-car units with two end-cars and six middle cars. Each TEMU 1000 measures 166.9m/548ft in length at a weight of approximately 296 metric tons. A special suspension system allows the train cars to lean into turns by a few degrees, reducing centrifugal forces and thus allowing higher speeds. The trains have a maximum speed of 150kph/93mph, but are limited to 130kph/81mph in regular service. As an odity the TRA offers both seat-tickets but also ones to travel standing up, expanding capacity of the trains by 120 people beyond the maximum seating capacity. At the time of the accident the train involved carried two drivers in addition to 2 crew members and 494 passengers.

TEMU 1000 unit number 7, the train involved in the accident, photographed wearing a temporary Hello Kitty Livery in 2016. The livery was removed at some point before the accident.

On the day of the accident a construction worker was working at a site next to the rail line, a few kilometers south of the town of Heren. The worker had been driving to the site in a 7-ton flatbed truck with an onboard crane, allegedly a 1994 Hino Ranger. The fourth generation of the Ranger was introduced in 1989, being sold in Asia as the Ranger while other markets such as North America see the type under different model-numbers. The Ranger has been made since 1964 and is a popular truck in eastern Asia, being found in a variety of configurations for all sorts of duties.

The truck involved in the accident, captured by Google StreetView in 2020.

The accident

The Qingshui Tunnel is a dual-tube tunnel going through the cliff of the same name, consisting of the original western Tunnel opening in 1979 and a second tube a few feet to the east opening in 2001 when the line was expanded to two tracks. The northern entrances to the tunnel are not side by side due to the topography at the site, with the new portal (eastern track) being situated a short distance north of its older counterpart. Since 2019 construction had been going on at eastern line’s northern portal, installing a protective structure (called a “gallery” or “rock shed”) above the track ahead of the portal to protect it from rocks and other debris falling down the cliff next to it.

The rockfall-gallery at Graubünden (Switzerland), a structure very similar to the one being constructed at the Qingshui Tunnel.

The 2nd of April 2021 was the first day of the Qingming-Festival, a four-day holiday in Taiwan which is typically observed by visiting the graves of ones’ deceased relatives. As such no work was meant to be taking place at the construction site, but it also meant that the trains across the country were rather full. Despite the holiday a worker had driven to the site, Mister Lee Yixiang (the family name being “Lee”). Mister Lee was responsible for the operational safety of the construction site, while also being involved as one of the contractors with his companies Yicheng Construction Corporation and Yixiang Industrial Corporation Limited. He interacted with another worker at the site, a Vietnamese migrant worker by the name of Hoa Van Hao, but it’s unclear at which point and by what means he had arrived at the site.

On the day of the accident the Taroko Express was operated by TEMU 1000 unit number 7, under the control of 32 years old Mister Yuan. He had worked for the TRA since 2015 but only became licensed as a train driver in 2019, upgrading to the Taroko Express in 2020. He was joined in the cab of the train by 31 years old Mister Jiang who worked as his assistant and had been with the company since 2011. Mister Yuan had departed the Shulin shunting yard at 7:05am and was scheduled to arrive at Taitung City station in the southeast of Taiwan by 11:10am. Most of the train’s journey was uneventful, with the train control system registering delays of no more than 5 minutes at various points during the trip. The last station passed by the train was Heren station at 9:26:58am, 3.5km/2.3mi ahead the Qingshui Tunnel’s northern portal, travelling on the eastern track. By that point the train had a delay of 6 minutes and 28 seconds and was logged at 126kph/78mph. The train had actually been captured on film by a railway enthusiast when passing through Wuta station 24km/15mi north of Heren:

Footage of the train involved in the accident passing Wuta station a few minutes ahead of the accident.

Mister Lee was preparing to leave the site of the accident at around 9:20am but due to a miscalculation ended up getting his truck stuck in a ditch/area of soft soil (translated sources differ). He recruited Mister Hoa to help him free the vehicle with an excavator and the two men went to work connecting the two vehicles with a woven belt of some sort. The attempt eventually failed as the belt ripped in two, causing the truck to roll down an incline until it ended up on the eastern train track. The Taroko Express left the Heren Tunnel just north of the site at 9:28:27am, heading around a slight right hand turn. An emergency stop was triggered at 9:28:33am with the truck coming into view, 8 seconds later the train slammed into the obstacle at 123kph/76.5mph, with the impact captured by the onboard dashcam:

WARNING: THE VIDEO MAY BE DISTRESSING TO SOME VIEWERS

After the impact the train immediately derailed to the right, with the leading car ramming the left hand wall of the tunnel’s portal at approximately 50% overlap, ripping the cab apart. The remains of the train’s leading car entered the tunnel to the left of the rails, scraping along the wall until they came to a halt 130m/426ft into the tunnel. The leading four cars suffered severe damage and partial loss of survival space during the accident, with the leading car suffering the worst damage, especially during the impact with the outside wall of the portal. The rear 3 cars suffered relatively minor damage, with the rear 2.5 cars remaining outside the tunnel. 49 people died in the collision, another 213 required hospitalization for their injuries. Both the driver and his assistant were killed during the collision with the portal.

The remains of the leading car as captured by a responder’s camera shortly after the accident

Aftermath

The first alarm reached the nearest fire department at 9:35am, with responders arriving at the site by 9:58am. Survivors in the back of the train had already disembarked the carriages, while those in the forward carriages found their way out of the tunnel blocked by the misaligned cars and pieces of the truck’s and train’s wreckage. Those with less severe injuries elected to climb the train and move along the roof of the cars to reach the portal, while the rest had no choice but to wait for help. The first responders arrived at the site within minutes of the accident, over time over 150 fellow responders would join them. Bringing equipment to help clear a path to and into the forward cars they managed to rescue all seventy-two survivors within a few hours.

Responders using ladders to both access the train’s interior and its roof, which served as a walkway into the tunnel.

The rear two cars were removed from the site the morning after the accident, followed by the third later in the day. Responders managed to recover the dashcam from the truck’s remains along with one of its two SD-cards, halting recovery of the wreckage until the second card could be found by the side of the tracks. By the afternoon half the train had been removed from the wreckage. The truck driver, Mister Lee, was taken into custody and interrogated about his role in the cause of the disaster. He was released on the 4th of April before being arrested again on the fifth when a court, on appeal, found that he may be a flight risk and/or destroy incriminating evidence. Also on the fourth of April the minister of Transportation and Communications, Lin Chia-Lung, took responsibility for the accident and announced his departure from office, stating he would leave office by the end of the rescue-effort.

Remains of the truck’s rear section sitting in the wreckage ahead of the tunnel.

The investigation found that Mister Lee a history of faulty behavior ranging from unprofessional to grossly negligent and criminal. When working a different construction-site in 2015 he used photoshopped images of an unrelated construction site to prove progress, while he had gotten the jobs as both the site-manager and site hazard inspection manager despite owning one of the construction companies involved by lying about his identity to cover up the conflict of interest. He further dug himself deeper during the investigation when stating that the car had slipped down the hillside while being parked, contradicting evidence from the data-logger showing the engine running and footage from the dashcam which showed the towing attempt. The footage also disproved Lee’s claim that he was alone at the site at the time of the accident.

The information from the data-logger, dashcams on both the train and truck and evidence at the site showed that the truck had rolled away during an improperly conducted towing attempt, running down a brush-covered hillside into the path of the train. Lee also failed to notify the emergency services of the rail line’s obstruction for several minutes between the truck sliding away and the train striking it.

A photo taken by the investigation after the rear section of the train was removed, showing where the truck had slid onto the tracks.

On the 16th of April Taiwanese authorities announced charges being filed against seven individuals, among them Mister Lee and Mister Hoa. Aside from charges relating to negligent acts causing the accident Lee was also charged with crimes surrounding breaches of the Taiwan’s Construction Industry Act which is meant to cut down on corruption. Another dozen individuals were professionally disciplined without legal consequences. The government announced that new safety-guidelines were in place by the time construction-projects near or on rail-lines were allowed to resume in late May.

Responders struggling to access one of the two forward cars inside the tunnel.

In November 2022 the court sentenced Lee to seven years and ten months in jail for negligent cause of death and charges surrounding corruption, while Mister Pan, responsible for supervising the construction project as Lee’s superior, was sentenced to 8 years and 10 months in jail. He was found to have enabled Lee’s behavior which led to the accident. The court found that Pan should have insisted on fall-protection along the construction site’s trackside edge, including insisting on a smoother, straight access road originally planned in place of the steep, hairpin-turn including one which was built. Pan had also allowed Lee to be at the site despite the day being a national holiday where no work is meant to proceed. Lastly, Pan had reported flawless progress to his superiors while the project had gotten severely delayed. The rest of the defendants received jail-terms from 10 months to seven years, except for Mister Hoa who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Relatives of the victims severely criticized the sentences, pointing out that they meant Lee only got about 2 months of jail time per person he got killed, and announced to seek a retrial with heavier sentence for Lee and a jail-sentence for Hoa.

A crane recovers the forward cars from the tunnel.

In the days after the accident Taiwan had received condolences from over 600 foreign representatives in 80 countries including all of the country’s diplomatic allies. The first anniversary of the accident was marked by train drivers all over the country sounding their train horns for 30 seconds at 9:28am local time, the time of the accident.

The collision and derailment ended up being Taiwan’s second-worst train accident ever, only being surpassed by a fire in 1948 which claimed 64 lives. The rockfall-gallery at the site has since been completed, improving operational safety on the line.

An identical TEMU 1000 running as the Taroko Express in July 2022.

_______________________________________________________________

A kind reader has started posting the installments on reddit for me, I cannot interact with you there but I will read the feedback and corrections. You can find the post right here.

--

--

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.