Amando Doronila | Philippine Daily Inquirer | January 5th, 2015
Train commuters in Metro Manila woke up in the New Year locked into two 2014 decisions: first, increasing fares of the Metro rail system, beginning Jan. 4; and second, a policy of buying out the private owners of Metro Rail Transit (MRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) as the solution to the many issues plaguing the system.
Commuters are up in arms as they realized that they have been chained to decisions that offered no hope of riding safe trains. Their worst fears were confirmed by the MTR Hong Kong Audit report that rated the condition of Metro Manila’s rapid mass transport system.
This “Final Report for Assessment Survey of the MRT 3 System” conducted by the Hong Kong group was issued after its investigation from Aug. 7 to Sept. 5, 2014. The survey was commissioned by the MRT 3. The main objectives were “to identify the existing condition of these systems and to provide recommendation for upgrade or replacement to ensure that the MRT 3 system will remain in good operable condition including safety of passengers.”
The survey produced a 169-page document that was issued on Nov. 6. A copy of the final report was obtained by the Inquirer, in spite of attempts by the DOTC to suppress it. The Inquirer editors decided to publish after determining that the MTR 3 defects were invested with public interest because the continued operation of the Metro rail system, which transports 1.2 million passengers daily, at its present state involved risks to life and death, each time commuters board unsafe trains.
The audit report revealed “of all the systems surveyed, the track condition is the most alarming and requires immediate attention.”
The audit report rated the Manila system as “poor,” the lowest level of rating, defined by MTR HK to mean “major or extensive defects exist” and that “customer requirements are consistently not being met.” From the level of “good and satisfactory,” the train can still be used, but a level of poor “is an indication that the train is already unsafe for regular operations.”
The MTR HK report reveals poor maintenance of the MRT’s tracks and the danger these pose to the riding public.
“The track condition is found to be in poor and unacceptable condition to allow continuous safe operation of the railway up to its designed standard. In fact, starting from 20 August 2014, the running speed was restricted to 40 from 65 kph, to reduce the safety risk posed to the passenger. While it may help to reduce a rail break in the short term, it does not obviate the need to put forward an immediate plan to correct the situation.”
The MTR HK report also states, “With a network length of 33.8 km in MRT3, a number of track defects were observed along the line randomly that relate to the Rolling Contact Fatigue (wheel l burning/shelling).”
Rails must be replaced
The report especially mentioned the unsafe tracks and noted a four-fold increase in broken rails cases over the past three years. It also warns that the public can expect more breakdowns due to rail fatigue. “This cannot be corrected by additional trains,” the report emphasized.
The rails have to be replaced. This is part of maintenance. This neglect has left many in the public wondering why Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya is allowing AFT Global, the present MRT maintenance provider, to get away with not buying new stock rails.
Danger of derailment
More nightmare scenarios emerge from the audit report. It warns: “The increasing loading in 2014 onwards will expedite the fatigue failure of rails, i.e., more broken rails per year is anticipated, if no further preventive maintenance action is taken to tackle the rail defects.”
Worst case scenario: derailed trains. “MRT face the danger of derailed trains if the DOTC and APT Global do not address the problem of broken rails with a permanent and not just a temporary solution of clamps,” according to the audit report. What happens if DOTC/APT Global does not purchase purchase rails?
The audit report reads: ¨The first scenario is that the MRT will operate at an especially slow speed as it traverses the fish plate clamps. From the slower speed of 40 kph, it will have to operate at only 10-15 kph as it traverses the fish plate clamps. If the MRT was being maintained properly, the MRT should operate at a speed of 65 kph.”
The second scenario is that there may be a stoppage of the MRT altogether, if the signaling system faces any glitches. For safety reasons, operations of the MRT would have to be stopped knowing that there are fish plate clamps, as any incidence of MRT breakdowns in the areas where the broken rails are located would be undetected.
The third and worst case scenario is derailment, according to the audit report. The MRT could possibly derail and fall off the tracks. This may result in passenger injury, and even death, depending on where the train is derailed. The audit report cited proof verifying its assessment: three broken rail incidences were reported in just one morning last Dec. 8.
The first incident happened early Monday morning between Cubao and Santolan stations. The second incident happened between Magallanes and Ayala stations. The third incident of broken rails happened again between Cubao and Santolan stations.
Temporary fish plates were installed. However, if there is no permanent replacement of the broken rails, the report emphasized the MRT still faces several possible negative scenarios. “Rails now require immediate attention,” says the report.
22 cases of broken rails
Compared with maintenance by private owners before the turnover from Sumitomo to PH Trams, there were only four cases of broken rails, reported over a long period of time. Compare this to the present scenario where there is a situation of three broken rails in one morning alone.
In the past year alone there had already been 22 cases of broken rails. The urgency of the need to replace tracks was also emphasized in the report. A broken rail is a serious threat to the safe operation of a railway. It can potentially cause train derailment resulting in substantial casualties in a high usage system like MRT 3.
Why is the maintenance provider not buying spare parts? According to the audit report, APT Global has a contract for both service and spare parts worth P57 million a month. They should be buying spare parts. However, it is now coming to light that they are not purchasing rails and in fact have been using stock rails of the LRT, suggesting a mismatch in equipment.
The MRT HK report went on to score the DOTC. It charged the DOTC with “misleading the public by focusing on two things: (1) the buyout of the MRT (as directed by President Aquino); (2) the purchase of 48 new Chinese train coaches in 2015. But they are covering up the biggest problem of all—the maintenance provider not buying spare parts.
A memo of the DOTC dated Sept. 4 revealed that last year (under APT Global) they only had 29 pieces of stock rails left and as of last month had no stock rails left. What does that tell us? “The maintenance provider has used old rails instead of new ones, which is against the contract, and dangerous to the riding public,” according to the audit report.