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Special report: Obsolete MRT signal system could lead to fatal train collision

Metro Rail Transit (MRT)

(First of two parts)

MANILA, Philippines - The possibility that trains may collide due to the poor state of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT)’s signaling system, resulting in deaths and injuries among passengers, cannot be discounted, according to a foreign technical expert.

Stephen Deacon, a signaling and communications consultant hired by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), admitted that a scenario similar to the Clampham Junction rail collision in South London is not farfetched if maintenance issues in the MRT are not properly addressed by the government and its private contractors.

“The importance of a signaling system is like going outside and taking away all the traffic lights in central Manila and watching the chaos due to the failure in a signaling system because of poor maintenance,” Deacon told The STAR.

Deacon cited as a worst-case scenario the Clapham Junction rail crash in December 1998 that killed 35 people and injured hundreds during the morning rush hour at Europe’s busiest railway junction. 

It was the worst train accident of recent times, where two commuter trains carrying about 1,300 passengers collided. A third empty train later ran into the wreckage and killed some passengers who survived the first crash.

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British Rail cited initial reports indicating that the collision was caused by signaling failures.

In the MRT, the worst incident happened in August 2014 when a wayward train overshot the tracks at the Taft Avenue station in Pasay City, injuring 38 people.

The MRT began running in 1999. Designed to accommodate 350,000 passengers a day, it currently carries about 600,0000.

The MRT has an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, which applies emergency brakes automatically in an unsafe situation. 

“That’s what we call fail-safe. So everything is stopping. It’s not fail-safe if everything keeps going even if there is a train there and it’s not detected. That’s why it starts having problems when you got maintenance issues,” Deacon explained.

“If you start with false readings, then you have your issues,” he added, pointing to problems that probably caused glitches in the MRT’s operations.

Incompetency of engineers

Deacon also cited the apparent lack of skills and competence of MRT engineers in dealing with signaling, rolling stock and other maintenance issues of the train system.

He observed that DOTC and MRT engineers are having difficulty configuring the signaling system, among other maintenance aspects.

“That is why in many countries more stringent controls have been applied, unfortunately not in the Philippines yet because you are lacking the quantity of staff with the right skill set,” Deacon said.

He also expressed concern on the emergency braking procedures being discussed by the DOTC at the time he was still working there as a consultant.

“The immediate hazard is the emergency braking,” he warned.

Dirty control rooms

Deacon further observed that the signal equipment rooms (SERs) were unkempt, full of dust, with cables lying around. 

He likened the SERs, which house the control servers, to a machine shop.

“The initial review, this is what you’ve got: it’s a mess… You are supposed to have circuit boards, and my understanding is that this should be clean, no dust, air-conditioned. They are unplugging cables from the trains and throwing them on the ground. And on the ground, you got trains coming,” he pointed out.

“There’s everything on the ground…So I said, ‘we’re replacing it’. No, they say, ‘it’s going back in’. So you pick them up from the ground, with the dirt and everything in it, open up what’s supposed to be a dust-free environment to plug back into the computer, which is the onboard system, and plugging these things which you just put off from the ground, with the grease and everything. They said, ‘Oh yeah’,” he recounted.

An assessment review conducted by Hong Kong-based MTR Corp. Ltd. also found that MRT’s signaling equipment “is very dusty and that alone casts some doubt on the frequency of maintenance work.”

Deacon said his first recommendation was that the MRT management should clean the place and implement proper maintenance.

Propriety problems

Another problem is that the contract with Bombardier, the original signaling system supplier, was apparently not renewed by the DOTC.

This made matters worst, Deacon said, because MRT engineers are unable to change the software for signaling due to propriety problems.

“That means the maintenance contractors can’t do much other than clean up if there’s a failure of the system,” he said.

“It’s maintenance but you can’t go shutdown. You can’t run program… They can look at it, but they can’t do anything with it. They have no tools to do it. On replacement parts, you cannot get the replacement parts as well. The system is obsolete,” he pointed out.

During his brief stint at the DOTC, Deacon conducted a review of the signaling system of MRT and recommended the “complete overhaul of maintenance facilities and procedures.”

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