Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 7th, 2014

As if the lack of trains to ferry commuters through the length of the Metro Rail Transit 3 on Edsa is not enough, the government is also apparently finding it very difficult to maintain the facility— thus the frequent breakdowns and service cutoffs. Last August, one train even overshot the tracks at the Taft Avenue station, injuring at least 38 passengers.

This series of unfortunate events involving the MRT3 has prompted a Senate inquiry, and at the hearing last week finger-pointing was expectedly the name of the game. A private shareholder in Metro Rail Transit Holdings blamed the government’s failure to renew the original maintenance contractor for the current MRT3 woes. But the head of the Department of Transportation and Communications claimed that the fault lay with the private owners.

Senators at the hearing were told that the termination of Sumitomo Corp. as original maintenance contractor in 2012 was a key factor in the MRT3’s sorry state.

Sumitomo designed, built and maintained the MRT3 system under the principle of a “single point of responsibility,” which supposedly meant that the Japanese firm guaranteed 20 trains “running at any given point in time.” When the government terminated the contract with Sumitomo in October 2012, the DOTC effectively lost the single point of responsibility that has now led to the squabble over who was at fault, the Senate subcommittee on transportation was told. But Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya defended the contract termination, claiming that Sumitomo had raised its price from $1.4 million to $2 million a month but refused to guarantee its work of maintaining the system.

Even the current maintenance operator washed its hands of the blame. At the Senate hearing, the representative of Autre Porte Technique Global Inc. argued that it should not be blamed for the MRT3’s defects because the transit system’s problems—trains stopping in mid-track, losing communication with base due to radio traffic interference, running with doors open, and overshooting the stations, or smoke emitting from a train while it is running—were not linked to maintenance but to engineering issues that fell on the shoulders of the operations department, which is the DOTC.

We share the exasperation of Sen. Grace Poe, who chairs the Senate subcommittee hearing the MRT3 issue. She rightly criticized both the maintenance provider and the DOTC, noting the existence of other, more competent, companies that could do a better job. “I don’t understand why this is happening,” she lamented. We likewise cannot agree that “maintenance” should be limited to wiping the trains clean or sweeping the floors of the stations. In the invitation to bid for the maintenance contract, the DOTC specified that the service provider should be able to maintain “safe running conditions with on-time and reliable performance … while still effectively maintaining cost at a minimum level.”

The MRT3 problem took a turn for the worse when the DOTC’s Abaya and 20 others were subjected to criminal and administrative investigation in connection with the alleged anomalous maintenance contract for the MRT3. Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales ordered the probe on the recommendation of her agency’s Field Investigation Office (FIO). The others who were investigated for alleged violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act were former MRT general manager Al Vitangcol III and the undersecretaries who sat in the DOTC bids and awards committee. The FIO found that the maintenance contract for the MRT3 was awarded on Oct. 20, 2012, to a PH Trams-CB&T without public bidding. It said there was no emergency situation that would justify the negotiated agreement.

But here’s another twist. In March 2013, President Aquino signed Executive Order No. 126 authorizing the DOTC and the Department of Finance to purchase the MRT3. The Department of Budget and Management even allocated P56 billion ($1.3 billion) in the 2014 national budget for the complete government takeover. The move will reportedly result in billions of pesos in savings for taxpayers from the 15-percent return on investment guaranteed to MRT Corp.

Of course, this government takeover is not certain to result in an improved MRT3 because additional trains and a competent service provider are what it badly, urgently, needs. The riding public should not be made to endure the inefficiencies of the government and the maintenance firm that it hired to keep the MRT3 system in shape. Taxpayers deserve better service.