Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | November 8, 2017

"Better late than never" was a lawmaker's reaction to the sacking Monday of MRT-3's shoddy maintenance contractor. From the start in Jan. 2016 Busan Universal Rail Inc. (BURI) had cheated. It never replaced worn out parts on time, and if at all used lousy cheap alternatives. That was why trains kept conking out twice to thrice a day. There were six derailments in four months this year, imperiling riders’ lives and limbs. Yet BURI kept collecting P54.5 million a month, with no sufficient proof of good work. In temporarily taking over the upkeep, the Dept. of Transportation (DOTr) was able to confirm the near-zero inventory of parts in the warehouse. It now has a chance to set things right.

Priority is to keep trains running. Usec. Cesar Chavez activated a transition team consisting of engineers of the Light Rail Transit Authority and technicians of BURI. They are not to forcibly field 20-22 trains on peak hours, but make do with the only 14-15 reliable ones left. (Each train consists of three coaches; BURI had failed to overhaul 43 of the 73 coaches.) Spare parts are to be rushed in and installed by original makers, starting with Bombardier Ltd. for signaling and ThermoKing for air-conditioners. Fewer trains would mean longer passenger queues, and worse traffic in Mega Manila. Authorities must work harder untangling gridlocks, lest BURI orchestrate a media blame-game on DOTr for the mess.

For honesty and efficiency, Chavez wants to publicly bid out in three months a new maintenance service. That's iffy, though. Yet unclear is how much MRT-3 had rotted under BURI and two equally bad predecessors, PH Trams and Global Epcom. Prospectors need to know the state of the trains, tracks, signaling, power supply, and stations. Only then can they make offers. Chavez has sounded out MRT-3's former long-time maintenance servicer Sumitomo of Japan. As well, RAPT Dev. of France that services LRT-1, and Singapore MRT which ex-DOTr bosses had boxed out to favor BURI in late 2015. In those talks the three firms said the commuter rail first needs rehabilitating, before any maintenance can proceed. Advising MRT-3 in 2015, Hong Kong MTR had said such rehab could entail a yearlong shutdown. Sumitomo has proposed to do it in two years, no stoppage, for $150 million, subject to verification of MRT-3's dilapidation.

The DOTr also needs to set policies. Foremost is whether to revert to the "single point of (maintenance) responsibility." Under that old system, Sumitomo in 2000-2012 handled everything: trains, tracks, signaling, power supply, and stations. After PH Trams and Global Epcom used up Sumitomo's 1,200 meters of leftover rails, they stinted on that crucial component. DOTr hurriedly bought 7,700 meters more in 2015, installed in 2016 but insufficient to replace all 68,000 meters. BURI was supposed regularly to grind the rails but lacked the machine, another breach of contract. It conveniently used the chipped tracks as excuse for the frequent breakdowns. Citing records, Chavez retorted that signaling failures were the prime cause, followed only by bad tracks, then busted air-cons and train parts.

Still the DOTr recently held a P1.2-billion bidding for total track replacement, in which BURI emerged as lowest though unqualified. As that is rebidded, another contractor is upgrading the power supply to run four-coach trains from the present three. Meanwhile, the DOTr is contemplating whether to return 48 new but defective coaches to the Chinese maker, or order a separate batch. Any maintenance bidder would have to consider responsibility for the tracks, new power supply, and the junk coaches.

There are other complications. For one, MRT-3 remains privately owned, by its builder Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC). The firm wants to resume responsibility for maintenance, like it did before Liberal Party influence peddlers came in 2012. Although it prefers Sumitomo, MRTC wants at least a say in any new contracting. For, its 25-year build-lease-transfer deal, till 2055, tasks it with overhauling the MRT-3 every seven to eight years. (It did the job in 2007-2008, but was estopped by the influential PH Trams, Global Epcom, and BURI in 2015-2016.) A high government official is said to be inserting a favored firm for the maintenance, but MRTC is resisting. At the same time, an erstwhile LP congressman is lobbying to halt BURI’s termination, angling instead for arbitration.

Consumerists, meanwhile, are asking DOTr to maintain and operate MRT-3 on its own, to the exclusion of private parties. All that should not delay jailing the past DOTr officials and maintenance contractors for the monthly plunder since 2012.