By Federico D. Pascual Jr. | The Philippine Star | August 11, 2015

OF THE SEVEN systems needed to make the Metro Rail Transit Line-3 (MRT-3) run safely and efficiently, signaling is probably the most crucial. In a worse-case scenario, faulty signaling can cause trains to collide resulting in loss of lives and property.

 Yet Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and his managers are not giving signaling its due priority despite the allocation to it of P900 million in 2014 and P81.527 million more in 2015. Are they waiting for a major MRT collision?

The report over the weekend of STAR reporter Christina Mendez on this critical aspect of a deteriorating MRT should alarm Abaya & Co.

She disclosed the alarming report of Stephen Deacon, a foreign expert hired by the Department of Transportation and Communication for the MRT Capacity Expansion project as “a highly technical consultant for signaling and communications.”

Capacity Expansion includes the purchase of 48 imitation train cars copied from the Czech originals by Chinese corporation Dalian Locomotive. Their signaling system, if any, must sync with the MRT system, but the first order did not include an onboard signaling system.

Signaling refers to the Automatic Train Protection System (ATPS) that controls when the train stops and when it moves. Without this computerized system, or if this system fails, trains may collide.

China trains’ signals must sync with MRT

THE CHINESE trains’ signaling system, if any, must be tested for compatibility with that of the existing trains. The body parts of the prototype coaches have arrived, but their engines ordered from Germany by Dalian, are expected only in November for testing.

As quoted in Mendez’s report, Deacon warned that the present state of the MRT’s signaling system makes collision a big possibility, resulting in death and injury of passengers.

Deacon recalled the Clampham Junction collision in South London in 1998 where two trains with about 1,300 commuters collided and a third empty train later ran into the wreckage and killed some passengers who had survived the first crash. Thirty five people were killed.

But we need not look far. Just last May, two Light Rail Transit 1 (LRT-1) trains collided. An operator was hurt and thousands of commuters had to transfer trains. An LRT spokesman blamed human error, saying the second train’s operator switched off the train’s safety mechanism system and overrode it. With a properly functioning signaling system, there should be no need for humans to override the system.

But because the signaling of Line 1 up to Monumento is not compatible with the signaling system of the line from North Ave. up to Balintawak, operators are forced to override the signaling system as they approach the end of the line, then manually turn it on again as the train heads back.

Manual operation opens trains to the vulnerability or possibility of collisions. The same problem may happen with the Chinese imitation trains whose signaling system, if any, might not be compatible with that of the existing trains.

More horror stories on MRT signaling

BUT even without the Chinese trains, Deacon disclosed that the signaling system of present MRT trains is alarmingly poor. He observed that:

• The DoTC-MRT has unskilled signaling crew. Engineers have difficulty configuring the signaling system. He said: “In many countries more stringent controls have been applied, unfortunately not in the Philippines yet, because (Philippines) lacks the quantity of staff with the right skill set.”

• The DoTC-MRT has “unkempt signaling rooms” that he said “should be clean, no dust, air-conditioned… They are unplugging cables from the trains and throwing them on the ground. And on the ground, you got trains coming….”

• The software in use is obsolete. Because the contract with Bombardier, the original signaling system supplier, was not renewed, the DoTC-MRT engineers cannot get replacement parts, because the system is obsolete.

Another report, that of the MTR Hong Kong concluded last November 2014, tallies with the observations of Deacon on the signaling system.

The MTR HK audit also recommended that the MRT signaling system be overhauled. It noted that the overall operating condition in the signaling operating rooms is poor and most likely would be unable to comply with the recommended operating room condition requirements of the signaling equipment supplier.

MRT signal system obsolete — Deacon

LIKE DEACON’S report, the MTR HK audit noted also the unkempt signaling rooms, saying: “The combination of dust and poor air-conditioning is detrimental to electronic equipment. Air conditioning is particularly important, because the life of electronic components is shortened when the ambient temperature is high.”

The MTR HK report said the MRT system is obsolete: “Spares obsolescence is starting to impact the MRT-3 signaling system. TESP has notified DoTC that the last spare part hard disk for the MAN900 signaling system was used on Feb. 18, 2012. This critical item is obsoleted by then and the used spare cannot be replenished. If there is another failure, it will lead to around four hours of service disruption and local monitoring function will be lost… There are other parts which have been obsoleted that require a replacement or upgrade.”

The MTR HK report noted that “a proposed upgrade plan from the system supplier, Bombardier, was sent to DoTC via MRT Corp., but was not acted upon.”

As early as 2010, at the beginning of the Aquino administration, the private owners of the MRT already advised DoTC of the need to upgrade the signaling system. The maintenance was then still being handled by Sumitomo, which sub-contracted signaling to Bombardier.

However, Sumitomo or the private owners could not proceed with upgrading the signaling system without the consent of the DoTC, as per contract. The DoTC has slept on this warning and request for upgrade.