Compare our MRT-3 with Hong Kong – and weep
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - January 12, 2018 - 12:00am

If not for crooked officials, Filipinos would enjoy world-class train rides.

Since New Year MRT-3 has suffered one breakdown per day. That already is a big improvement, transport officials brag. Last year it was two to three times a day. The dilapidation of Metro Manila’s main commuter railway is legendary. With coaches and tracks crumbling, signaling, power and even station escalators failing, it is the world’s worst.

Only two hours’ flight away, in the nearest foreign metropolis to Manila, is by comparison the global gold standard in train reliability. Serving 80 stations in ten lines, Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway runs by residential and business districts, plus the airport and Disneyland. Each train consists of eight coaches, all spic and span. They arrive every two minutes, speed up to 70 kph, 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. The MTR seamlessly ties in with the heavy rail to the airport, Kowloon, New Territories, and Shenzhen.

Breakdowns? Only one per 360,000 train-km. On-time performance: 99.9 percent.

The Transport Minister of Singapore, where the light rail is also top-rate, can only gape with envy. “Best in class,” he said of Hong Kong’s MTR, compared to Singapore MRT’s one disruption for every 158,000 train-km. One of Hong Kong MTR’s worst years was 2014 when it suffered nine disruptions of less than half an hour. That already stirred public outcry. The next year it was down to five. (See

Manila’s Metro Rail Transit-3 is only 17 km short, with 13 stops. There are only 73 coaches, four of which have been cannibalized of parts to keep the rest slogging. About a dozen more are in various states of disrepair. Only 15 trains, each with three coaches, run per day, at 15-minute intervals, up to 30 kph, 5:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Rides are rough and crammed. Transport officials want to increase the trains to four coaches each. But the 48 units purchased for P3.8 billion from China are so faulty that they have to be rechecked first by a newly hired German analyst.

The cause of MRT-3’s rot amply has been bared in this space. In its first 12 years, 2000-2012, the trains, tracks, signaling, power supply, and stations ran smoothly. Japanese giant Sumitomo, with Marubeni, maintained the system. Then transport officials abruptly fired them. Inserted without public bidding was a six-month-old, undercapitalized political firm – for nearly the same P55 million-a-month fee, but to do nothing. When PH Trams became too hot to handle, the officials replaced it with dormant Global Epcom, under the same political principal. When that too was exposed, in came Busan Universal Rail Inc., with Korea’s Busan Transport Corp. illegally dummying for four unknown Filipino companies. Behind BURI were the broker of the useless Chinese coaches and the PH Trams-Global Epcom influence peddler.

Why the officials removed Sumitomo-Marubeni can only be due to crookedness. Those firms are well experienced in Japan, a top maker of trains, including in Thailand and Vietnam. Tokyo alone, as big as Metro Manila, has 700 km of rails, mostly underground. Greater Manila has only 80 km, including LRT-1 and -2 and a heavy commuter to the edge of Laguna province.

Hong Kong MTR’s business model is worthy of emulation. The government grants it land to develop, in exchange for erecting commuter rails into them – at steady fares. From property development and rental income, MTR operates, maintains, and upgrades the system. The company is answerable to the government, as well as to shareholders since it is listed in the stock exchange. Executives are topnotch.

By contrast, MRT-3 is made to profit a certain private concern. Its Quezon City depot will be expanded into an “uncommon station” with LRT-1 and MRT-7 – to multiply people traffic into a property developer’s mall there. Taxpayer money will be used for the P1.6-billion construction. From that mall will be built a P225-billion subway to another of that developer’s mall in Taguig – again courtesy of taxpayers. Plans have been modified for the route to stop by the Manila International Airport. Why not, if that would mean yet more people chugging into the two end-malls? Additional cost: P133 billion, still charged to taxpayers. In the end MRT-3’s operation and maintenance for the next 30 years will be given to that same developer.

Why would successive transport chiefs give in to vested interests at the expense of the people? The answer lies in two past undersecretaries and a present one, all closely tied to the mall developer. Talk about regulatory capture. The one time there was a publicly trusted Undersecretary for Rails, Cesar Chavez, he left after a year due to non-support from the top and the sickly MRT-3 manager below.

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