Train maintenance, lack of buses bring EDSA to a halt on Holy Week

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
Train maintenance, lack of buses bring EDSA to a halt on Holy Week
Commuters choose to walk home after having a hard time catching a bus from EDSA Ortigas station on April 13, 2022.
The STAR / Walter Bollozos

MANILA, Philippines — More industries requiring their employees to report to the office, the pre-holiday rush to the provinces, and two rail lines suspending operations for their annual scheduled maintenance.

These factors combined to bring about the collapse of public transportation on Metro Manila's main thoroughfare just days after heavy rains exposed longstanding weaknesses in its fragile public transport system.

At the Guadalupe MRT-3 station on Wednesday night, the silence on the tracks was filled with the sounds of frustration and the gnashing of teeth.

There were children crying out of the stress of standing in line for hours. Workers cursed under their breath, and habal (motorcycle taxi) riders tried to take on as many passengers as they could. A woman called her partner to let them know she'd be coming home late. 

The line snaked all the way from the inactive MRT-3 station to the Pag-IBIG branch around the corner, twisting and turning and eventually looping just to make way for more people arriving from the office clusters in BGC.

"Ah putangina, GG," a young man who couldn't be older than 18 said as he took in the scene and laughed in disbelief. Other commuters within earshot, helpless to do anything but wait, could only laugh along.

Even the fastfood joints around the corner closed their doors. There were too many frustrated commuters coming in, the guard at the door said. 

The buses they were lining up for could only do so much, with the Metro Manila Development Authority’s marshals ensuring that seats would be filled, but aisles would be left clear of passengers.

There were few buses, too — with the sluggish rollout of service contract subsidies and the lingering effects of the oil crisis, some drivers and operators opted not to ply their routes to begin without of fear of operating at a loss.

It was the same scene of commuter hell on Holy Week everywhere else along EDSA. From Ayala to Cubao, commuters waited for hours to get home the day before a holiday and in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic. In Ayala, the lines extended all the way to Magallanes. 

In Ortigas, a monster line trailed all the way from the station to the Asian Development Bank. Users on social media even posted that the metal pedestrian fences were bent and misshapen by the sheer number of commuters jostling for their place in the line. Eventually, not even the guards could hold off the crowds. 

Some commuters gave up on what remained of public transportation and decided to walk the rest of the way. 

Earlier in the day, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board announced that it had "conducted more intensified Anti-Colorum Operations since the launch of Oplan Trip Order: Semana Santa" last week.

READ: Amid brewing transport crisis, MMDA deploys eight buses, trucks on Commonwealth

According to the DOTr, maintenance personnel of the Metro Rail Transit-Line 3 spent the day inspecting the line's auxiliary transformer, 12KV switchgear, and low-voltage transformer.

By 8 p.m., the lines were still surging. It was only then that the LTFRB issued a statement saying it would extend the operation hours of its free ride service along the EDSA Bus Carousel.

"A mini loop has also been held at the Ortigas station for a quick ride for the riders. In addition, skip buses and rescue buses have also been sent to stations with long queues of passengers,” it also said.

And where systems failed, the people stepped in. In the absence of help from the government and with the EDSA Carousel buses stopping services by 11 p.m., social media users also took it upon themselves to reach out to riders willing to pick up stranded commuters.

"No one should experience that - especially not after spending the whole day working...I got in touch with riders I knew and we offered to sponsor their gas to help some people get home," social media user Sarah Gomez told Philstar.com in an online exchange. 

"When I posted about the plan to sponsor riders, several people reached out to me to pitch in. So I wasn't the sole sponsor. People really wanted to help; they just didn't know how."

DOTr points to lack of MRT-3 operations; advocates say transport in crisis

On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade apologized for the situation, which had seen people being forced to walk across cities for lack of rides.

"We are aware of the inconveniences caused by the closure of MRT-3 to allow for its annual preventive maintenance and the impact it has had on the lack of supply of bus services," he said. 

"While we were on top of the situation, we admit that the lack of available public utility vehicles has been a lingering problem that we strive to resolve, not just during Holy Week season. Moving forward, we will make sure that what happened yesterday shall never happen again in the succeeding days."

Philstar.com reached out to Tugade for his assessment of why the commuter situation reached this point. He has yet to respond as of this post, and a communications representative said he was busy conducting inspections.

In a phone call with Philstar.com, Primo Morillo, convener of advocacy group The Passenger Forum, questioned Tugade's focus on the MRT-3 maintenance rather than the general lack of transportation options outside of the MRT-3 and EDSA carousel. 

"People were working and it was the last weekday before a long weekend, so we know that was going to happen," he said. 

"What they need to admit is that this is a daily problem; there are only times where it is highlighted because the problem doubles or triples."

Morillo said the anti-colorum operations on the same day also did not solve anything and only disturbed the transportation system.

Colorum is the term used by the department when referring to vehicles carrying passengers without a Certificate of Public Convenience, Provisional Authority, or Special Permit from the LTFRB, or traveling on roads not covered by their documents.

READ: Summer rains highlight transport problems unaddressed during pandemic

Although technically illegal, these colorum vehicles fills gaps left by licensed public transportation, with some plying unserved routes. 

Private SUVs carpooling workers amid the coronavirus pandemic found themselves apprehended by cops and road authorities amid the government crackdown on colorum vehicles

"In fact, it discourages carpooling. It discourages companies from suddenly implementing shuttles for their employees who have a hard time. So it goes back to issue of the red tape in the LTFRB," Morillo said. 

While he admitted that private companies carry some responsibility for requiring on-site work on a day when public transportation was crippled, the commuter leader was quick to point out that "the government was the one who encouraged [returning to work.]"

"Many companies would [deploy shuttles for their workers] if it was only easier," he said in Filipino. "What companies want is for their employees to arrive on time."

Two train lines under maintenance on the same day

Part of the chaos was having two train lines go offline on the same day. Asked if the Light Rail Transit Authority and MRT-3 management coordinated on their scheduled maintenance, LRTA spokesperson Hernando Cabrera answered in the negative.

"No, we don’t have to coordinate, because we’ve been doing that since time immemorial," he told Philstar.com in a phone call speaking about the annual maintenance work. "We didn’t really [plan for it to be] on the same day."

"We take advantage of the Holy Week because people aren't at work and they shouldn't be outside...it's not a coordinated action, it's just the best schedule that is available for maintenance."

But what about workers who were made to go back to their offices with regular on-site work starting to open up in a number of industries? "Well, we also made our personnel go to work," he said. 

"It was announced ahead of time and we do this every year. Why is it becoming an issue now? We need this because the heavy maintenance will take days...there should be some kind of compromise."

He went on to point out that the LRT-2 and MRT-3 were "not similarly situated" with the latter having a much wider ridership. "Especially on holidays, line 2 has a low ridership."

"Any time you suspend operations, many will really be affected. But the thing is, this is the only time that we can do our heavy maintenance," he also said. 

No description available.

Photos courtesy of NCR Commuters Group chat

The Passenger Forum called it "insensitive" that two rail lines suspended operations on the same day, saying the build-up of stranded commuters was inevitable given the lack of public utility vehicles on the road. 

Workers from Antipolo and Marikina have long relied on the LRT-2 for East-West mobility throughout the Metro. TPF said that the situation as a whole was worsened, but not necessarily the situation along EDSA. 

Transport and commuter groups have long said that the pre-pandemic public transportation crisis went largely unsolved over the past two years, and the symptoms are starting to show again as workers troop back to their offices. This is the same crisis from years ago, they say. 

Even after Holy Wednesday, photos of long queues at transport hubs flooded commuter group chats and social media feeds. 

"Tonight will not be forgotten by EDSA commuters who waited in queues for 3-5 hours to catch their rides and by those forced to walk home. Commuters deserve better,” Move as One Coalition convener and transport economist Robert Siy said in a tweet Wednesday night.

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