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Inconvenience

President Duterte apologized to commuters for the “inconvenience” of a decrepit and dilapidated MRT-3. He did not, however, supply us with a clear timeline about when this vital mass transport service might finally be a reliable service.

If the MRT-3 were a tunnel, we have yet to see the light at the end of it.

The President might have understated the problems plaguing the MRT-3 by apologizing only for the “inconvenience.” The MRT-3 has become much more than that. It has become a public hazard.

Last week, for reasons no one seems to know, a carriage detached from the rest of the train. Service was interrupted yet again. Stranded passengers had to be evacuated under hazardous conditions. The rail line became a walkway.

We all know the maxim: If something can go wrong, it will. That might as well be painted on the sides of every carriage running the MRT-3 line. It has become the motto of this hapless enterprise.

Last Tuesday, lawyers of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) finally filed plunder complaints against the Mar Roxas-Jun Abaya gang. We might at least exact some accountability for this mess by doing this. Alas, it will not save the MRT-3. It will not end the horror this facility inflicts on 600,000 commuters each day.

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For months, as the MRT-3 broke down with annoying regularity, DOTr Undersecretary Cesar Chavez successfully narrowed the blame to the maintenance provider and made it sound like all problems will be solved by simply replacing that provider.

That can only be partly true.

Now that a decision has been reached to terminate the service contract of Busan Universal Rail Inc. (BURI), we face the full-scale of the problem. This entire facility will have to be rebuilt at great cost to the taxpayer.

The official term now used by the DOTr is that the system will need “rehabilitation.” That, too, understates the scale of the task ahead. The existing rails will have to be torn up and replaced. The power supply for the system will have to be replaced as well. The signaling system is as obsolete as the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.

The existing rails are in such a bad condition that, if anyone tries to use Abaya’s Dalian trains on them, they will be ruined in a day. There are those who say the Abaya trains can be conscripted for use with some minor retrofitting. They are seriously deluded.

The DOTr maintains that the service need not be interrupted while “rehabilitation” is in progress. They will need a large crew of miracle workers who can tear up the old rails without disrupting service.

Some would want us to believe that the problematic MRT-3 can be saved simply by replacing BURI with the original maintenance provider, Sumitomo. It is as if Sumitomo is simply standing by waiting to renew its affair with the MRT-3.

I have it on good source that Sumitomo is reluctant to return.

First, they were really treated badly by the Mar Roxas-Jun Abaya gang. Their engagement was terminated on indecently short notice.

Second, they cannot possibly accept an engagement limited to maintenance. That is like buying aspirin to deal with cancer. In order to do maintenance properly, they will have to rebuild the system.

Third, Sumitomo is wary about dealing with bureaucrats again and working with the arcane bidding and procurement rules that make it impossible to have a clear timeline of work. They would prefer to work with the private owners, MRTC. This will enable them to be assured of funding without having to deal with the arcane rules of public procurement.

For as long as management of the MRT-3 is controlled by the DOTr, the process of bringing in professional help will require, before anything else a budget allocation determined by congressmen, not engineers. Then they will have to go through some form of competitive bidding where losing bidders normally go to court to stop an award.

We do not know how long it will take for the DOTr to replace BURI with a new service contractor like Sumitomo. There is nothing in next year’s budget to fund the billions needed to “rehabilitate” the MRT-3.

Sumitomo estimates they will need to bring in as many as a hundred engineers to do the “rehabilitation.” Even then, and with full funding, they will need 26 months at the very least to make the MRT-3 reliably functional.

Those conditions, everyone knows, are not present. At best, the DOTr will need to ask for a supplemental budget in the billions to deal with the problem that is the MRT-3.

Nine months ago, MRTC wrote Transport Secretary Art Tugade offering to hire Sumitomo to service the MRT-3. The private owners likewise offered to raise the capital to rehab the decrepit rail line at the shortest possible time and even procure new trains to enhance frequency and speed. They have not received the benefit of a reply from the DOTr.

The agency’s extreme disinterest in all the offers for private sector solutions to the crisis that is the MRT-3 can only indicate the bureaucrats intend to deal with the problem by themselves, with all their inherent handicaps. They forget the MRT-3 started dying when government took control of operations.

Government control can only be justified by the need to keep fares low and operations subsidized. But that it exactly why the MRT-3 is what it is now.

President Duterte should have completed his apology by admitting that the MRT-3 will still be what it is on the day he leaves office.

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