MRT-3 crash: Abaya blaming train drivers, not compadre-contractor

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

The Metro Rail Transit (MRT)-3 is still examining if mechanical or human failure caused last Wednesday’s train crash. But hasty Transport Sec. Joseph Emilio Abaya already has a conclusion. Two train drivers did it, he insists, and so had them booked by the Pasay City police. That’s of course to cover up the real culprit: sloppy maintenance of the railway by the contractor, his own compadre, one Marlo dela Cruz.

Reading between the lines of the initial incident report, non-upkeep truly is to blame. The drivers are least culpable, and even their fault can be traced to dela Cruz’s Global Inc., in joint venture with Autre Porte Technique (APT).

At around 3:30 p.m. a runaway train careened down the southbound tracks to the Taft Avenue end station. Jumping off the tracks, it hit and toppled a post, damaging three cars along busy E. delos Santos Avenue (EDSA). Thirty-two train passengers and eight car riders and pedestrians were hospitalized for fractures and other serious injuries.

Involved were Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) 3, 73, and 8 that comprised the train. The train had “lost motor traction,” meaning it stopped dead on its tracks, due supposedly to “under-voltage,” or power drop, at the catenary, the stick that links the electricity-powered LRVs to the cable above. It had just left the penultimate Magallanes station, elevated six times higher than the final Taft stop, when it conked out with half-capacity, around 500 passengers.

Attempts to restart the train failed. The next three-LRV train unloaded its passengers at Magallanes, then proceeded to the rescue 50 meters away. After coupling with the stalled train, the second began to push it down the tracks towards road-level Taft. But the coupling snapped, accelerating the first train by gravity, like a rollercoaster, to more than 20 kph. Instead of stopping it, the bumper stopper gave way. Its and the electric post’s debris smashed three cars and an MRT-3 security motorcycle.    

Abaya says the drivers of the two trains broke standard operating procedures and so are to blame, for faulty coupling and failing to brake. Phooey!

To begin with, a usable train coupling with and pushing (or pulling) a stalled one is not SOP. The proper way is to dispatch a tow train, usually the Unimog brand that runs on both road and tracks, as one would use a tow truck to remove a stalled car. Each LRV is an independent unit with its own engine, in the MRT-3’s case designed and rated to comprise up to four-LRV trains. To use the LRVs as tow trains would overburden and bust them. More so, on a decline as steep as 60-foot-high Magallanes station to ground-level Taft stop. And more so, with 500 persons aboard adding to the dead weight. Such super heavyweight broke the coupling, to begin with.

Global-APT, as maintenance servicer, should have had at least one tow train as basic tool of the trade. Yet it had none.

Abaya adds that the driver of the first train didn’t apply the brakes. Fine. But he should also find out who in the MRT-3 control center ordered the two drivers to couple and tow away without unloading the 500 or so passengers of the stalled train? By SOP, the MRT-3 should have led them away from the train and tracks onto the nearest station, in this case back to Magallanes 50 meters away. In not doing so, they breached safety rules, and endangered the passengers’ lives and limbs. The non-braking was but a consequence of this first safety breach of non-evacuation of passengers. The root of the problem is the MRT-3’s taking over the running of the rail system from the private builder-operator, instead of remaining as regulator. Officials of the Dept. of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and MRT-3 forced their way into actual operations precisely to award the contract to Global-APT’s dela Cruz. Dela Cruz not only is a compadre of Abaya, but also a campaigner for DOTC predecessor Mar Roxas in the 2010 vice presidential race.

Voltage drop of the catenary, as supposed immediate cause of the train stalling, is unlikely, MRT-3 insiders say. For, if true, the second train should have stalled too, but did not. Initial accounts have it that passengers felt the first train wobbling, and saw electrical sparks inside the LRVs. They pressed the emergency-stop button, but the train went on, meaning the brakes too already had failed.

This simply means that LRVs 3, 73, and 8 were improperly maintained, thus the electrical and brake breakdowns. Insiders say those LRVs have been breaking down frequently. They should not have been dispatched, to begin with. And if faulty catenary and/or electricity cable caused the stalling, it was again due to non-maintenance. Any which way, Global-APT fouled up.

The truth about MRT-3 is out. The 560,000 daily passengers may not grasp the complexities of rail upkeep, but know that they risk lives and limbs with every ride. For the MRT-3 is a disaster waiting to happen. As amply reported (Gotcha, 28 May 2014), trains could ignite, collide, or derail and drop onto cars and pedestrians below the elevated tracks any time. Just that, passengers have no choice but to take the rickety train, for it’s the only rapid mass transport along traffic-jammed EDSA, Metro Manila’s main artery.

MRT-3 is not being maintained, but serves simply as a milking cow of DOTC officials. In Aug. 2012, Abaya, Undersecretary Jose Perpetuo Lotilla, and then-MRT-3 general manager Al S. Vitangcol awarded a $1.15-million-a-month maintenance contract to the joint venture of PH Trams and CommBuilders Transport (CB&T). The chairman of PH Trams was Marlo dela Cruz. One of five other incorporator-directors was Arturo V. Soriano, Vitangcol’s uncle-in-law. Three others were Wilson de Vera, Manolo Maralit, and his wife. In Apr. 2013 Czech ambassador Josef Rychtar exposed Vitangcol, dela Cruz, de Vera, and Maralit to have attempted to extort $30 million from Czech train maker Inekon Corp., MRT-3’s original supplier. Inekon chairman Josef Husek corroborated the event of July 2012. The sixth PH Trams incorporator Director was Federico Remo, then executive vice president of the government-owned Philippine Export-Import Guaranty Corp.

No public bidding, only closed-door negotiations were held then under the guise of emergency contracting. PH Trams was only two months old, with no experience in railway maintenance. Yet its contract lasted for ten months, for a total take of P517.5 million, 848 times its meager capital of P625,000.

When PH Trams’ controversial contract was about to end in July 2013, DOTC-MRT-3 simulated another “bidding.” This time, Global and APT won. In official records, Global’s and the joint venture’s “authorized representative” is again dela Cruz. The yearlong contract is again $1.15 million a month. Global reportedly is co-owned by a high official of the Philippine National Railways.

Signing the Global-APT contract award were Abaya, Lotilla, and Light Rail Transit Corp. general manager Honorio Chaneco. A former classmate of Abaya, Chaneco was then MRT-3 acting GM, in lieu of Vitangcol, on leave while under investigation for the $30-million extortion.

Vitangcol was sacked on May 26, 2014, upon exposure in this column for illegally contracting a half-billion-peso deal with his uncle-in-law. Chaneco has taken over MRT-3 full-time, while still running LRT-1 and LRT-2. APT is the long-time maintenance contractor of LRT-1, and CB&T of LRT-2. Why did both firms have to partner with dela Cruz to get into MRT-3?

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459, or The STAR website http://www.philstar.com/author/Jarius%20Bondoc/GOTCHA

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