By Lorenz S. Marasigan | Business Mirror | March 7, 2016

It was the government’s ignorance, incompetence and inaction that led the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT 3) down a spiraling slope, its former general manager alleged, saying the government would not have had to spend P9.7 billion to fix what could easily have been prevented.

The public, according to Al S. Vitangcol III, should blame the government for mismanaging Metro Manila’s main rail line, as officials appointed by President Aquino repeatedly failed to do their job in improving the facility.

When he was appointed general manager of the train system, Vitangcol learned that the contract for the infrastructure’s maintenance provider was to expire in a week. Knowing the intricacies of procurement under state rules, he suggested the extension of Sumitomo Corp.’s contract to October 2012. That contract was extended and the transport department, then headed by presidential aspirant Manuel A. Roxas II, was expected to solicit bids.

Under the build-lease-transfer (BLT) agreement, MRT Corp. (MRTC), not the transport department, was obligated to procure the maintenance provider. But the transport department took on the responsibility and thought nothing wrong with the arrangement, as long as they engage a private company in doing so.

Hence, the search for a suitable maintenance contractor was the job of the government. But due to painfully slow procurement, Vitangcol decided to meet with the board of the rail company to flesh out the details on how to move forward.

The private company, however, informed him that while it was willing to take the responsibility, it was not in the position to do so, as the transport department already assumed the obligation.

Confused, Vitangcol sought Transportation Undersecretary Rene K. Limcaoco, who told him the procurement should be undertaken by MRTC.

“So, I had to ask the transport secretary. Five months before the expiration of the contract, I asked him for his directive as to which party should undertake the procurement,” Vitangcol told the BusinessMirror. “But he never acted on it.”

Two months then passed and no procurement was undertaken, MRTC Chairman Tomas T. de Leon wrote a letter to Roxas, asking his office to permit the private sector to bid out the maintenance deal.

“But Roxas did not sign it, and it all started from there—when they never acted on anything,” Vitangcol said. “I was stripped of the power to procure contracts with values higher than P5 million, so I couldn’t do it myself.”

The rest, then, is now called the present, where the MRT operates at sharply lower capacity, even as ridership numbers continued to rise.

“Their ignorance, incompetence and inaction created this so-called emergency. They created the emergency themselves,” said Vitangcol, currently facing graft charges for allegedly entering into a dubious contract while he was general manager of the train system.

The government resorted to emergency procurements due to the failed bidding of a number of contracts, including the multibillion-peso maintenance contract recently awarded to a Filipino-South Korean consortium.

The MRT is in a chronic state of decay, its 16-year-old trains already maxed out of their rated capacity, and the rails evidently having difficulty in handling hundreds of thousands of passengers per day.

Commuters, on a daily basis, complain of long lines, long waiting hours and humid trains, among others. To prevent any more aggravation, the government is spending P9.7 billion to improve the train line. This includes the procurement of new train cars, the modernization of the different disciplines of the MRT, and a maintenance provider. But this track, according to Vitangcol, seem flawed.

“There should have been a clear-cut program to be followed. They ordered 48 trains, but where will they place them? Prior to the projected arrival of the trains, they should have expanded the depot facilities first. I proposed it during my time,” he said.

Second, the power substations should have also been upgraded.

“These substations can only fire up to 20 trains at one time. It will conk out with more trains,” he added. “The objective of the capacity expansion is to add more trains. But it will look as if they just replaced the old ones, given this situation.”

Likewise, the rails of the train system should have been replaced, as well. Experts from Hong Kong have concluded the tracks of the MRT are prone to breakage.

“There must be a systematic rail replacement program, which I proposed, but up until now, they have yet to do it,” Vitangcol said.

Manila gave birth to the 17-kilometer mass-transit system in 1999 —almost a decade after it was first conceived—with the primary purpose of decongesting the capital’s main artery, the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (Edsa).

The BLT contract was awarded to  MRTC two decades ago, when it acquired the company’s original contractor due to a botched agreement with the government.

The 25-year contract essentially provides for the private partner to build the line, the government leases the transport system and the infrastructure transferred to the state at the end of the concession period.

When it was built, observers, at first, thought it a flop, as average daily ridership hit only 40,000 passengers back then. The private company that built the system warned that major expansion programs must be undertaken to prevent congestion in the railway line.

The state, however, refused, saying the train system must first hit the 350,000-passenger mark before it does anything as drastic as an expansion. The line hit its rated capacity in four years and still the government failed to approve proposals to add capacity to the train system.

As the economy accelerated and ridership leap frogged, the line hit its crush load, or it’s maximum capacity. Still, the government refused to hear the cries of both the consumers and the private partner to modernize the line.

Several private companies are proposing to fix the mess at the MRT. But the government has, thus, far gave them a cold shoulder.

Together with foreign firms Sumitomo Corp. of Japan and Globalvia Infrastructuras of Spain, Metro Global Holdings Inc. is proposing to “fix” the ailing system through a $150-million investment that involves procuring a total 96 new trains, the rehabilitation of existing 73 coaches and increasing capacity by fourfold to 1.2 million passengers daily.

Under the proposal, a single point of responsibility will be implemented, meaning the rehabilitation and maintenance of the line will be handled by a single company.

There are two other proposals pending before the transportation department—one from Metro Pacific Investments Corp., and another from German firms Schunk Bahn-und Industrietechnik GmbH and HEAG Mobilo GmbH. Under its proposal, Metro Pacific will shoulder the upgrade cost and release the government from the bondage of paying billions of pesos in equity rental payments.

The group of businessman Manuel V. Pangilinan, which earlier entered into a partnership agreement with the corporate owner of the MRT, intends to spend $524 million and overhaul the line.

This would effectively expand the capacity of the railway system by adding more coaches to each train, allowing for more cars in service and at faster intervals. The multimillion-dollar expansion plan would double the capacity of the line to 700,000 passengers a day from the current 350,000 passengers.

It was submitted in 2011, but the transportation agency’s chief back then rejected the proposal. The group revived its proposal before Congress in 2014.

On the other hand, Schunk is seeking to place whole train system under a massive transformation program to augment its capacity and to provide a safe and comfortable travel to commuters from the northern and southern corridors of Metro Manila.

The P4.64-billion proposal, submitted in February last year with Filipino partner Comm Builders and Technology Phils. Corp., calls for the complete overhaul of the 73 light-rail vehicles of the MRT, the replacement of the rails, the upgrading of the line’s ancillary system, the upgrade of the track circuit and signaling systems, the modernization of the conveyance system and a three-year maintenance contract. Under the amended build-operate-transfer law, the government has to inform the proponent whether it accepts or rejects an unsolicited proposal within 120 days.