Jarius Bondoc  | Philstar | February 1, 2017

The MRT-3 wants its Chinese train supplier paid despite gross deficiencies. All 48 new coaches have been delivered as of mid-January – but inoperative.

The commuter railway's temporary manager Deo Leo Manalo has endorsed a 70 percent payment to Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corp. That amounts to P2.7 billion of the P3.8-billion purchase price.

The Dept. of Transport (DOTr) is hesitant to pay, due to lacking components, tests, and papers.

The Chinese coaches still are being fitted with the all-important on-board signaling. That electronic system tells the control center where every coach is at any time, and keeps safe distances between trains.

Dalian should have installed the signaling at its China factory, but didn't. The DOTr had had to negotiate last Sept. 2016 with its original signaling provider, Bombardier of Canada. Only then did Dalian belatedly start working. Signaling comprises P300 million of the P3.8-billion contract.

After installation on the 48 new coaches, the signaling would need to be tested for fail-safe. Part of the test is interoperability of the Chinese coaches with the older 69 units from the Czech Republic, and with the tracks and the control center.

MRT-3 is under pressure to field the new trains with the old ones, in order to take in more passengers and ease Mega Manila's road traffic. It is rushing the signaling in six of the Chinese coaches. Manalo aims to run two three-coach trains by end-February, as promised to the Senate during last year’s budget hearings. DOTr insiders doubt if he’d meet his deadline. Sec. Arthur Tugade said recently he expects the first Chinese trains to be operational only in April.

Even if the signaling works, there's still a more basic issue. Not one of the 48 Chinese coaches had been test-run for 5,000 kilometers at the factory. Such test-run is for safety, reliability, and durability. By world standards, it should have been under varying speeds (10-65 kph), curves, slopes, and weather factors. Emergencies should have been simulated, in which the coaches automatically should brake, the doors open, the alarms blare, the lights turn on, and the air-conditioners blow full blast. Without such test, the coaches cannot be certified safe, much more officially accepted by the government for payment to commence.

Then-transport chief Joseph Abaya signed the Dalian contract in 2013 under questionable circumstances. Dalian has no experience making commuter coaches that run on their own, only railcars pulled by locomotives.

In 2015 Abaya and then-MRT-3 general manager Roman Buenafe accepted the first Dalian prototype even if motor-less, and the second even if lacking bogey wheels. In the first half of 2016 they accepted 14 more with wheels dismantled from passenger compartments. Those were clear signs that the signaling and test-runs were incomplete, in breach of the P3.8-billion contract. Buenafe's predecessor Al Vitangcol exposed a five-percent kickback, or nearly P200 million.

After Abaya left in June 2016, Buenafe and U-Sec. for Rails Noel Kintanar accepted Dalian's deliveries of more substandard coaches. At one point, consumerists invited to try the coaches for size found the seats too narrow, and the metal braces, posts, and handrails too thin. Then Buenafe and Kintanar too left in Oct. and Nov. 2016. Manalo accepted the last few deliveries.

Dalian has not turned over the history manuals of the 48 coaches. Each manual should contain the make and serial numbers of all the parts, including signaling. As well, the completion dates and findings of the 5,000-km test-runs. An independent assessor has yet to advise DOTr if Dalian complied with the contract.

The test-runs belatedly can be done in Manila if the DOTr waives the Dalian factory as venue. But that official document needs to be shown before Dalian can be paid 70 percent.

At this point none of the 48 coaches has been certified in safe running condition. Dalian should even be penalized for faulty and delayed deliveries.

There's yet one other hitch. Even if the test-runs and signaling are completed, the 48 new coaches still won't be able to run with the 69 old ones. Electricity is undersupplied. The railway's present generators can power only 24 three-coach trains, or 72 coaches at a time, at 3.5- to 5-minute intervals. More than that, the trains simply would conk out.

MRT-3 needs to power 24 four-coach trains, or 96 coaches, at 2.5-minute headways. Only in mid-January did Manalo sign up an installer of new generators.

Along with the supply of new generators is the expansion of the depot to accommodate the 48 new coaches. Right now 16 lie under sun and rain at the MRT-3 turn-back tracks at North Avenue, Quezon City. Another 16 are squeezed into the repair yard of the older coaches below. The last 16 are crammed into the LRT-1 garage at the other end of town in Pasay City.

The contract for power supply upgrade and depot expansion is for 15 months. It would take till mid-2018 for all 48 Chinese trains to run, if at all safe.