By Louella Desiderio | The Philippine Star | August 24, 2014

MANILA, Philippines - Operations of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3 were suspended yesterday due to failure of the train line’s communications system.

Light Rail Transit and MRT spokesman Hernando Cabrera said the MRT-3’s operations were suspended beginning 12:05 p.m. In a Twitter post around 6 p.m., Cabrera said train service would not be restored by last night.

It was at 11:50 p.m. that they found out there was a problem with the communication system between train operators and the control center.

“The train drivers can transmit to the control center but the control center cannot give instructions to the drivers,” Cabrera said.

He explained that two-way continuous and constant communication between train operators and the control center is a safety feature of the MRT and LRT systems.

Without two-way transmittal, the train system cannot operate for safety reasons.

Cabrera initially said the repairs are targeted to be completed before 5 p.m. However, in a statement posted on Twitter early last night, Cabrera said: “We have traced the problem and it is the transmitter in Shaw. All trains are being recalled back to the depot. This means that we are definitely not restoring operations tonight.”

“In the past, our protocol is to be able to restore operations by 5 p.m. or the peak hour so we will do our best to restore operations,” Cabrera said.

“At the same time, we want to make sure that we will be able to fix it properly and operations are safe,” he added.

The MRT-3, which runs from North Avenue in Quezon City to Taft Avenue in Pasay City, has been involved in a series of accidents and breakdowns.

Earlier this month, a train of the MRT-3 slammed into a barrier at the Taft Avenue station.

While there were no fatalities, the accident left at least 36 passengers injured and caused heavy traffic in the area.

Initial investigation by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) revealed the train drivers and control center supervisors were at fault.

Following the accident, the speed of the trains of the MRT-3 has been reduced to 40 kilometers per hour.

Cabrera said they are sticking to the 40 kph speed limit as a safety measure even as the queue of passengers became longer.

Cabrera said the overloading of stations was seen as the major contributor to the recent string of trains stalling at the MRT line since last week.

He said the 40 kph speed limit could be removed only after a number of systems rehabilitation and upgrade are done on the MRT systems and components.

“After we complete a number of upgrade projects like the rehabilitation of our old trains, a rail replacement and an upgrade of the signaling systems, we can do away with the speed limit,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera said the LRTA was already finalizing the bid documents for the bidding of the contract for the rehabilitation of the old trains and track replacement before the end of the year.

He said the contract for the signaling systems upgrade and the actual upgrade, as well as the actual rehabilitation of the old trains and the rail replacement, could all be done within 2015.

“By 2015, hopefully, these can all be completed,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera added the delivery and commissioning of the new trains being purchased by the government, supplied by Chinese supplier CNR Dalian, would be delivered by 2016.

“The new train, a prototype, will be delivered in August 2015. This will be tested in the line here. If it passes, we will then issue an official acceptance. Under the contract, the commitment is that they can begin delivering three coaches every month. That’s 48 coaches all in all. One train set is three coaches so that’s 16 trains,” Cabrera explained.

Maintenance neglect

Valenzuela Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian said management of the DOTC and the MRT3 should take the blame for the Aug. 13 accident instead of pointing to its employees.

Gatchalian scored the results of the DOTC probe that pinned the blame on the train drivers and control center supervisors for the derailing of an MRT train, virtually absolving the MRT-3 management as well as the maintenance contractor from any accountability for the accident.

Gatchalian, a senior vice chair on the House committee on Metro Manila development, said MRT officials should learn from the former chief executive of Malaysia’s MRT Corp., who recently resigned after a site accident killed one worker while two more remain missing.

“There would not be a ‘human error’ on the part of the personnel if the management is doing its job of keeping the trains safe for the riding public,” Gatchalian said.

“Just this year, the MRT has suffered glitches which in turn affected the passengers’ riding experience and even sometimes caused them injuries. A vital key to preventing mishaps is the train’s maintenance, which is contracted to Autre Porte Technique (APT) Global,” he added.

Reports quoted the DOTC as saying the contract with APT will likely be extended because there was “no choice.”  – Rainier Allan Ronda, Paolo Romero