MRT as in More Rail Troubles

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2015 - 12:00am

While national attention is focused on the tragic Mamasapano incident, our day-to-day commuting public continues to bear with the deteriorating services of the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3). For the past several weeks now and even yesterday, the MRT-3 got disrupted again due to its latest track system troubles.

Last Tuesday, three passengers suffered minor injuries when two MRT-3 trains made sudden stops near the GMA-7 Kamuning and Santolan stations. The three lost their balance while standing along with other passengers in filled coaches.

At times, hundreds of its daily commuters get stranded in the middle of the track. From jammed doors not closing to faulty breaks, among other problems, disruption of MRT-3 services is no longer caused by the usual simple computer glitch.

Perhaps by sheer luck, there has not been a repeat of the most serious accident last year when one of the MRT trains jumped off track while running at ground level in Manila. God forbid if there will be another freak accident.

This happened on Aug. 13 last year when MRT-3 overshot the Taft Avenue station and slammed into a stonewall. At least 36 passengers were injured but no one was seriously hurt. Fortunately, no one was killed. After investigations, the accident was blamed on human error.

Even before this accident, operations of MRT-3 have been hampered by series of breakdowns ranging from non-working communications system, floods along tracks, broken rails, just to mention some of its perennial troubles.

The MRT-3 services a total 16.9-kilometer stretch along EDSA. The rail system had a fleet of 73 modern and air-conditioned rail cars built by CKD Doprovni System of Prague in the Czech Republic.

Constructed as part of an integrated strategy to alleviate traffic congestion along EDSA, MRT-3 started operating in July  2000 to carry as many as 350,000 passengers a day. The convenience and faster travel attracted more commuters to take this mode of transport than be caught in heavy traffic on the busy stretch of EDSA. It now services around 540,000 passengers per day, or about 55 percent over its designed capacity.

The deteriorating services of the MRT were coming out on the heels of a much earlier scandal on alleged $30-million extortion attempt by then MRT general manager Al Vitangcol on the procurement of a new train supply contract with Czech firm Inekon Group. It was former Czech ambassador Josef Rychtar who exposed the alleged extortion attempt. 

The last we heard is that the National Bureau of Investigation looked into these allegations. Subsequently, the NBI recommended to the Department of Justice criminal charges to be filed against Vitangcol et.al.

Vitangcol was sacked in May last year amid reports that he had awarded a P517-million maintenance contract to a company controlled by his wife’s uncle. We’ve lost track of that case.

On Jan. 4 this year, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) implemented fare increase of the MRT-3 as well as the Light Rail Transit Lines 1 and 2 (LRT-1 and LRT-2). The DOTC announced the immediate effectivity of the increase in the P11 (base fare) + P 1 (per kilometer) formula for fares at the LRT-1 and 2 and the MRT-3.

The unilateral action by the DOTC to raise the fares of LRT-1 and 2 and MRT-3 caught many by surprise. The fares in all three commuter train services are state subsidized. A DOTC official announced yesterday they will launch the “automatic fare collection system” in September this year when the three rail lines will be using a common smart card to supposedly facilitate passengers using these facilities. That remains to be seen.

But for the meantime, the DOTC justified the fare hikes as something that must be done now to improve train operations. With increasing operating costs while their income not rising commensurately, the DOTC cited this as main reason that crippled their ability to invest in large-scale improvements for the three mass transport facilities.

A day after the fare hike took effect, MRT-3 general manager Roman Buenafe was named permanent MRT general manager. When he took office, Buenafe said he found out only 14 of the 20 train cars of MRT-3 are actually operating to explain the longer queue time for passengers.

DOTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya revealed the Metro Pacific Group has submitted an unsolicited proposal to take over MRT-3 from the government and invest $524 million to expand its operations. Abaya was quoted saying the government is not keen on accepting an unsolicited proposal even as not a day goes by without the MRT3 suffering from one or another service disruption.

Abaya could only heave a sigh of relief that these latest MRT accidents were not getting much reportage in media, unlike last year. Roiling over the MRT-3 extortion scandal, Abaya has also failed to substantially appease the public over the daily travails of commuters for the long queues they go through to get a ride on MRT-3.

At the height of this issue, Sen.Grace Poe quietly — and without media fanfare — took the MRT just to personally experience what commuters go through.

Poe took over as chairperson of the Senate committee on public services from Sen.Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. when the latter was suspended while undergoing trial at the Sandiganbayan on his alleged involvement in the “pork barrel” scam of Janet Lim-Napoles.    

Sen. Poe is currently deep into legislative investigation into the Mamasapano incident where 44 troopers of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police were killed in action last Jan. 25. The Senate committee on public order that Poe also chairs has been busy trying to piece together what went wrong in this SAF operation.

Although much of the interest of the nation is in the Mamasapano massacre, the problem of MRT — as in More Rail Troubles — must not be glossed over. Or, does it need another freak accident to jolt the government into acting on these safety issues of the MRT?


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