TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwanese prosecutors on Friday formally charged the operator of a crane truck that slid down an embankment into the path of an oncoming express train, resulting in the island’s deadliest rail disaster in decades.
The operator of the truck, Lee Yi-hsiang, has been in detention in Hualien, a city in eastern Taiwan, since shortly after the April 2 crash. He had previously apologized and taken responsibility for causing the collision, which forced the eight-car Taroko Express to fly off the rails and slam into the walls of a tunnel, killing 49 people and injuring more than 200 others.
“This case has already caused the innocent deaths of 49 victims, and the enduring pain of their families,” Chou Fang-yi, the Hualien District prosecutor, told reporters at a briefing on Friday.
It also caused millions of dollars in economic losses and damaged Taiwan’s reputation as a destination for tourism, she said.
“Therefore, we are seeking the highest possible penalties for negligent homicide and hit-and-run for the defendant surnamed Lee,” Ms. Chou added.
Local prosecutors in Hualien said investigators interviewed more than 100 people and reviewed camera footage from the train and the crane truck over the course of two weeks.
They said that on the morning of April 2, Mr. Lee and a colleague, surnamed Hua, had been working on a construction site on a steep mountainside, just above the tunnel where the train later derailed.
The site was associated with a construction project commissioned by Taiwan’s transportation ministry to improve the safety of the slope.
Prosecutors said there should not have been any workers on the site that day, since it was the start of a long holiday weekend. But Mr. Lee, the crane truck operator, was also the construction site manager, and an official said in an interview that Mr. Lee had been rushing to finish the project to avoid penalties for missing a deadline.
Prosecutors said that Mr. Lee was trying to maneuver the crane truck around a hairpin turn when it got stuck in the bushes on the edge of the slope. He got out and tried to dislodge the truck, but it tumbled down the embankment onto the railway track.
Neither Mr. Lee nor Mr. Hua attempted to alert authorities to the situation, the prosecutors said.
Just over one minute later, the Taroko Express, which was packed with 498 people, including many families who were on their way to scenic eastern Taiwan for the Tomb Sweeping holiday weekend, emerged from a nearby tunnel and collided with the vehicle. The train had been traveling at about 80 miles an hour, investigators have said.
The prosecutors said they were bringing multiple charges against Mr. Lee, including negligent homicide, leaving the crash scene and falsifying his credentials to apply for the project.
If convicted on all counts, Mr. Lee could face up to twelve years in prison, Ms. Chou said in an interview.
Mr. Hua and two other project supervisors who were not at the crash site that day have also been charged with negligent homicide, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison. The police department had previously said that Mr. Hua was a migrant worker from Vietnam.
The revelation that the crane truck had been associated with a government-commissioned project has triggered an increasingly heated public discussion in recent days about the Taiwan Railways Administration, which runs the Taroko Express and was also the agency behind the slope safety scheme.
Although major train crashes are relatively rare in Taiwan, the derailment in Hualien earlier this month was the second serious incident in three years. In the last major train accident, in 2018, 18 people were killed and 170 others injured after a train derailed in northeastern Taiwan’s Yilan County.
Just days after the crash in Hualien this month, President Tsai Ing-wen vowed to overhaul the railway agency, which has long been dogged by complaints about its bureaucratic culture and weak safety consciousness.
“When it comes to the TRA, my view is much the same,” Ms. Tsai said. “People everywhere in Taiwan deserve to have a safe path home. Reforming the agency is our unshirkable responsibility.”
The train crash in Hualien has been one of the worst disasters that Ms. Tsai has faced since she took office in 2016. Her transportation minister, Lin Chia-lung, has already offered to resign and will leave office next week.
An official with the Taiwan Transportation Safety Board, a government agency that is responsible for investigating major transportation accidents, said recently that the agency’s investigation into the crash was continuing. It expected to release the results next year.