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Under-designed

My mouth was probably agape as I listened intently while San Miguel CEO Ramon Ang briefed us about what he was doing with the MRT-7 project. He had his fingers in every aspect of the undertaking.

He told us he asked added gauges for the rails, intervened in the design of the rail cars to make them lighter by using aluminum bodies and specified the highest standard steel for the bogeys that linked the rail cars. He made sure the elevated structure was better than specification, added the depth of the gravels ballasts to reduce damage to the rails. He ordered a third more cars than specified so that the trains could go on periodic maintenance servicing like jet planes do.

Will this not make the project costlier? “It is first and foremost a public service,” he said. This system will not burden commuters with frequent breakdowns.

As for the costs, he says they will still be lower than if government built the system. The over-designed MRT-7 will run smoothly for decades.

That is the opposite of the attitude taken by those who built the MRT-3. In the first 15 days of December, the MRT-3 operations broke down 16 times. It will not get better anytime soon. It can only get worse.

Every aspect of the MRT-3 appears under-designed. Corners were cut on nearly every aspect.

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MRT-3 uses overweight trams converted into rapid transit trains by lifting the cars to align with the stations. There was a mismatch from the very start.

A few months after it started operating, maintenance provider Sumitomo discovered several cracked bogeys. The engineers suspected that either inferior steel was used for them or the Czech supplier delivered refurbished parts.

As early as the first year of operations, the rail system experienced too much shelling and damage to the tracks. Two things explain this: the rails were of inferior quality and the gravels ballasts were too thin to soften the impact of train wheels. Those train wheels wore out easily, explaining the swaying motion of the MRT-3.

In the Makati area, the rails were found to be misaligned, causing the trains to twist and vibrate. Engineers surmise the reason for this is that two separate contractors built the rails and failed to align them properly.

In 2003, the Czech suppliers were summoned to examine the flaws in the system. They recommended horizontal dampers be installed to absorb the excessive lateral vibrations and mitigate damage to the rail cars. Sumitomo took no corrective action. We inherit rolling wrecks as a consequence.

Cesar Chavez, before he resigned as DOTr Undersecretary for Rails, was obsessed with getting maintenance provider Busan out and bringing Sumitomo back in. He succeeded in getting Busan out, but did nothing about the structural flaws in this system. He withheld monthly payments to Buri from September last year and expected the company to deliver.

In the meantime, in-house crews do the sophisticated maintenance work needed on a daily basis. Less than a third of the trains are in use, causing the long queues and the overcrowding that further deteriorates the system.

Since Abaya’s mis-designed Dalian trains are unusable, we could run out of trains for this dinosaur of a mass transit system. Good luck to all of us.

Veto it

By some freak of the legislative process, the grossly unstudied proposal to raise excise taxes on coal found itself to the final version of the tax reform bill up for the President’s signature. The only remaining remedy is for President Duterte to veto this item in the bill and force Congress to more closely study the imposition and conduct public consultations on it.

The business community is aghast at how an excise tax proposal could suddenly fly in from left field to cover up the fact that vested interests have gotten their way in resisting the other, better studied revenue options. It throws a monkey wrench into the investment-recovery calculations of those who dared invest billions to improve our energy supply and lower costs.

It is the unshakable truth that every tax eventually cascades down to the consumer. It is painful enough that the more justifiable excise tax on diesel will push up inflation in the near term and raise transport costs. There was no reason for exempting diesel from excise taxes before and the new impositions simply corrects that.

By taxing coal, the source of half the power we generate, we will be forcing up the costs of power. This is right against the goal of bringing down power rates that have been among the highest in the region. By bringing down power rates, we will encourage the growth of manufacturing. In turn, this will create new jobs and make our economy more inclusive. 

If our environmentalists were concerned about our rather small carbon footprint, the proper tax would be on emissions and not on coal. Taxing emissions will encourage our industry to invest more in cleaner technologies. It will discourage badly maintained vehicles from dirtying up the air.

Today, ancient power plants that cause pollution persist because tax penalties fall on fuels and not on emissions. Opportunistic businessmen have even brought in old induction steel plants condemned in China and sold for a song in countries like ours where fuels but not emissions are taxed punitively.

There are new coal-fired generating plants using the best technologies that cause virtually no pollution. The brain-dead coal tax will penalize investments in these technologies and allow the inefficient plants to persist. This will not help clean up our air.

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