Sep 062014

Is it system-related, a case of poor maintenance, bad management, normal wear and tear, a combination, or all?

The series of Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT3) mishaps and glitches since July alone, topped by the Aug. 13 overshooting by a malfunctioning train at the Taft Station that injured 38 passengers, point to the sad reality that the EDSA rail system is not about to get better. Rather, expect worse.

That MRT3 passengers will continue to use the train to go to and from work despite the problems besetting the fastest mode of transportation along EDSA is a foregone conclusion. All the more that our government should immediately pinpoint the cause of the problems and implement solutions because Filipinos deserve a better mode of public transportation, before a fatal accident occurs, God forbid.

The Senate inquiry into the woes of MRT3 was welcome news to MRT3’s over half-million daily commuters as it raised hope that the series of public hearings would jolt public officials into action, whether or not the inquiry was really in aid of legislation.

That officials of the Department of Transportation and Communications seem to be quick in absolving the current interim maintenance provider and in blaming others has become obvious, raising suspicions that there is an unholy alliance between DOTC and PH Trams, as well as its successor APT Global.

In fact, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya and the probe committee that was created to investigate the Aug. 13 incident had dismissed the accident as a mere case of “human error,” though there are doubts as to how such a conclusion can be arrived at that fast.

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But executives of DOTC private partner MRT Holding Corp. (MRTH) and its subsidiary MRT Corp. (MRTC) are of a different opinion, saying that the problems besieging the MRT-3 System, such as long queues, frequent train breakdown, among others, are attributed to the over-all deteriorating condition of the MRT-3 system due to poor maintenance by the current maintenance provider hired by DOTC. ((MRTC is owned by MRT Holdings II Inc. (MRTH-II), which, in turn, is owned by MRT Holdings Inc. (MRTH).

What is bothersome though about the hearing by the Senate Committee on Public Services was the apparent drift of the proceedings to issues, which although MRT3-related, are not germane to the primary concern of Metro Manila’s train riders.

In the absence of resource persons from MRTH and MRTC during the initial inquiry, executives of DOTC and the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) have been able to draw attention away from the main issue which is the poor maintenance of the train system under the Aquino administration to peripheral ones, such as: first, the Equity Value Buyout (EVBO) or takeover plan by the Aquino administration and the urgency for a capacity upgrade; second, the arbitration case that the private partner filed against the government in 2008 for DOTC’s non-payment of rentals and other violations of their BLT agreement; and third, the Temporary Protection Order (TPO) that the private partner sought in pursuit of the arbitration case it filed last summer in connection with the DOTC’s unilateral acquisition of 48 new trains from a Chinese supplier.

The planned buy-out is obviously a diversionary ploy, considering that the P53.9-billion buyout budget that has been floated since last year by Abaya and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima is not enough for a 100 percent takeover, as this will only cover payment of the economic rights held by state-run Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) and Land Bank of the Philippines (LandBank). What about the cost of purchasing the stocks of private owners, specifically MRTH, MRTC and the Metro Pacific Investment Corp., which bought into MRTC in 2010? Let’s face it, our government cannot afford the buy-out. And even if it could, there are other more urgent and important uses for the money.

As emphasized by MRTH spokesperson David Narvasa, the EBVO  will not address the problem of safety. Instead, this problem can only be addressed by getting a qualified maintenance provider.

With no representatives from its private partners during the Sept. 1 hearing, the government’s transport executives blamed MRTC for the maintenance problem in supposedly failing to acquire new light rail vehicles (LRVs) to augment the current fleet from the time it started operating MRT3 in 1999.

On the contrary, MRTC has made five proposals to purchase additional LRVs at no cost to the government since 2002, but all proposals were rejected by the government.

 To make matters worse for MRT3, DOTC dumped Sumitomo Corp. as maintenance provider and hired, under dubious conditions, PH Trams- CB&T consortium, and then later Au Porte Technologies (APT Global)—whose main qualifications appear to be their owners’ close ties to Abaya, ex-DOTC Secretary Manuel Roxas II, and fired MRT general manager Al Vitangcol Jr.

DOTC hired these maintenance providers without first consulting MRTC or submitting the contract’s Terms of Reference (TOF) for MRTC’s prior review and approval, in gross violation of their Build Lease Transfer (BLT) agreement forged in 1999.

The unilateral moves by the DOTC to select interim O&M operators without first consulting MRTC (in violation of the BLT deal) has prompted MRTC to repeatedly demand a technical audit of the MRT3 system—to ascertain not only the actual condition of the accident-prone rail system, but also the competence of the interim upkeep contractors.

The DOTC/LRTA finally agreed to the MRTC-requested technical audit only after the Aug. 13 accident had injured 38 riders and stirred public uproar.

Contrary to the DOTC/LRTA contention that the MRTC has been at fault for failing to acquire new LRVs, MRTH’s Narvasa revealed that MRTH/MRTC  had repeatedly proposed upgrades in anticipation of reaching the 350,000 design capacity of the MRT, but the DOTC had ignored all proposals. 

Instead, he said, the government chose to acquire 48 LRVs from Dalian Locomotive. Whether or not these trains will be compatible with the existing structure of MRT3 remains to be seen since the supplying company allegedly has no experience in making double-articulated trains. 

It appears that DOTC executives would rather do the train acquisition themselves than let their private partner do it is obviously due to monetary reasons, as could be gleaned from the Rychtar/Husek charge that Vitangcol and his gang had tried to extort $30 million from Inekon in exchange for the supply of new MRT3 trains.

Vitangcol himself has alleged that the DOTC contract awarded to lone bidder Dalian Locomotive was probably a done deal three years before the public bidding for the P4.5-billion capacity expansion project took place in 2013.

Senate probers should keep their eye on the ball and focus on the immediate problems of MRT3. And if indeed, there is doubt as to the deal with Dalian, then the probe should include that. And better yet, include the possible disqualification of PH Trams-CB&T venture and APT Global from the Oct. 13 bidding for MRT3’s O&M contract, given their poor maintenance record.

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