Philippine Daily Inquirer | August 16, 2014

How many more mishaps like the one that befell the MRT train last Wednesday should happen before the government undertakes an honest-to-goodness rehabilitation of this worn-out transport system? It’s tempting to call the accident, which saw a train break through the metal railings at the Taft Avenue station and cause injury to at least 38 people, a wake-up call

—except that it is not the first accident to afflict the MRT.

In the last two years, it has had about seven accidents, ranging from trains stopping dead in their tracks to a fire breaking out due to a short-circuit. The Taft Avenue derailment is only the most serious accident in terms of injuries caused, but all those earlier occasions of trouble had the potential to lead to disaster, and were actually red flags announcing that the 15-year-old system is now dangerously decrepit.

A clearer picture of the accident has emerged from the statements of the two MRT drivers involved. James Duque manned the train that stalled because of insufficient power. The MRT control center’s solution was to order another train, driven by Heigen Villacarlos, to come to the rescue by pushing Duque’s train forward to the next station. But, first, Villacarlos was instructed to unload all his passengers at the Magallanes Station before he and his empty train could join up with Duque’s. Villacarlos then attached a coupling between the two trains, but when the trains began moving toward Taft, the coupling reportedly got detached and Duque’s defective train—which was packed with passengers—barreled toward the station and crashed into the steel barrier at the end. Duque said that by the time his train was hurtling forward, its brake actuator and the emergency button were no longer operational; he was apparently as helpless as his terrified passengers.

Here’s what’s baffling in that account. Why did the MRT control center order an empty train to push a packed, and therefore heavier, one? Didn’t anyone consider that the densely loaded train in front could quite easily snap the attachment between the two trains once they get moving, given its heavier weight and more powerful tug? And were the drivers trained to attach the coupling properly? The ease with which it got detached indicates otherwise.

More to the point, is it standard operating procedure for defective MRT trains to be rescued this way—pushed by another train from behind, with fearful passengers inside? What protocols are there for evacuating passengers immediately and safely once a train shows signs of breaking down?

In the wake of the accident, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has insisted that the line is safe, though he says it badly needs an upgrade—a statement that contradicts itself in more ways than one. How safe can the system be when it runs on obsolete software, for instance, or is not maintained properly because the maintenance duties happen to be screwed in the usual legalistic tangles?

Metro Rail Transit Holdings (MRTH), which owns Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC), which runs the MRT-3 line, said the maintenance of the system has been another company’s responsibility since November 2012. “Despite repeated requests to [the transportation department] since the early part of 2013, MRTC and its representatives have not been allowed to conduct a thorough technical inspection of the MRT-3 Depot and the entire train system to determine its true condition,” said MRTH spokesperson David Narvasa.

And yet, day in and day out, to the continuing misery of hundreds of thousands of passengers, the MRT continues to grind. It now carries close to 600,000 passengers daily although it was designed for only 360,000 a day. The experience of merely trying to get inside a coach becomes ever more brutal, and the rides themselves become a cause for worry as the system visibly deteriorates.

Forty-eight new coaches are said to be coming in by 2015, to ease the monumental congestion that has seen huge lines of waiting passengers baking in the morning rush hours. But what good would those new coaches do, really, if the underlying structure—the tracks, the signaling system, the control software, the availability of spare parts, the preventive protocols—remains problematic because of patchwork, spotty maintenance?

A day after the accident, Abaya was quoted as saying: “Riding is a personal decision. I won’t go out of my way to convince the people to ride [the MRT].” This nonchalance, this impertinence, is unacceptable.