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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Taiwan
On the Gravy Train

Anger over mass-transit troubles and the new cabinet

By Ajay Singh and Laurie Underwood / Taipei


IT COULD NOT HAVE happened at a worse time. In the morning rush hour on June 3, the single operating Mucha line of Taipei's mass rapid transit system froze up completely. Without warning, the MRT's nine trains lost power and slowed to a stop. With no electricity to open the doors, hundreds of stranded passengers had to alight through emergency exits onto the elevated tracks and walk to the nearest stations.

MRT engineers found that the system's main computers, which control the driverless four-car trains, had crashed and the start-up program was missing. It took nearly five hours to install back-up software and get the trains running again. "The two computers shut down simultaneously," says Tsay Huel-sheng, vice-president of the city government's Taipei Rapid Transit Corp. (TRTC). "Someone entered the system." Authorities are eyeing the local branch of France's Matra Transport, which built the $855-million Mucha line, the first of the MRT's six planned lines -- and has yet to receive its final payment of $111 million.

That was just one of the things that got Taipei residents fuming this month. On June 10 a cabinet reshuffle by President Lee Teng-hui showed just how far his government intended to fight the appalling corruption in Taiwan -- not very. Under pressure from legislators of the ruling Kuomintang, the president replaced two ministers who had mounted anti-corruption crusades. His approval rating promptly fell to 71% from 80% on his May 20 inauguration day. Days before the new line-up appeared, Lee broke a promise to name a more neutral prime minister, reappointing Vice-President Lien Chan PM.

If critics of the reshuffle prove prescient, Taiwan's citizens may be in for more boondoggles like the capital's commuter train system. Costing over $16 billion so far, the much-delayed 88-km MRT is turning out to be the most expensive project of its kind ever undertaken. One reason: insiders contend as much as 40% of its funding was siphoned off through overpriced contracts. The sleaze shows in substandard construction by local builders, including cracks in concrete pylons supporting elevated portions. Public outrage over the MRT helped the opposition Democratic People's Party wrest Taipei's mayorship from the KMT in December 1994.

On May 30, City Hall seized an $18.5-million performance bond Matra put up to guarantee its compliance with the MRT contract. The next day, the company pulled out its staffers from Taiwan, raising safety concerns over the Mucha line. It has seen some alarming foul-ups in the past: During a two-year test period, the line has had a fire, three incidents of burst tires and one derailment. Since it opened to the public in late February -- five years late -- trains have suffered at least three three major malfunctions, including last week's breakdown. Total time lost in all the incidents: nearly eight hours.

Matra wants the bond back, plus the $111 million last payment, which includes cost overruns due to delays in the Mucha line. But Taipei's Department of Rapid Transit Systems says the French trains have several flaws, including faulty brakes on 46 cars. Jacques Muller, general manager of Matra Transport Taiwan Branch, insists his firm has fulfilled its obligations and that the Mucha line has been running since August 1994 and "everything is technically acceptable."

Matra has now gone to the Supreme Court. The other five MRT lines are two to three years behind schedule and TRTC's Tsay expects more arbitration or lawsuits over delays and cost overruns among the 220-odd contractors involved. He pledges: "If we build another MRT system somewhere else, we will control the procedures better." But government critics, noting what happened last week to top anti-corruption crusaders, wonder whether future train lines and other state-bankrolled infrastructure will really become less sleazy.


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