Lorenz S. Marasigan | The Business Mirror | April 29, 2016

PRESIDENTIAL aspirants may differ in their platforms, but they all agree on one thing: The key to solving Metro Manila's vehicular-traffic problem is to build and improve mass-transit systems, such as railway facilities.

One towering problem along Edsa, however, is an almost obsolete train system—the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT 3).

Commuters, on a daily basis, have to brave long queues, the sweltering heat inside jam-packed train cars and numerous delays.

Just this month, passengers were forced to walk on the tracks of the railway line due to a breakdown. This scenario is almost not unusual, and commuters have no choice but to take other modes of transportation along the heavily congested main road.

The government is doing what it deems best to solve these problems. It has prepared a multiyear program to rehabilitate, overhaul and augment the capacity of the 16-year-old train system.

But with two months before the change in administration, several stakeholders now believe that the passing of the brunt of fixing the dilapidated train line will be inevitable.

"The current administration cannot solve the problems with only two months left. These problems will be passed on to the next government," Rene S. Santiago, a train expert, told the BusinessMirror via phone.

Robert John L. Sobrepeña, who chairs MRT Holdings Inc., said issues with rails, train cars and the signaling system should be addressed in haste, as these pose danger to commuters if not improved.

"I would rate the current administration in managing the system with an 'F', or failed, based on the usual rating of fail, poor, pass, good and very good," he told the BusinessMirror in a phone interview.

He based this rating on several points.

"I rated them F for not honoring our agreement, for awarding the maintenance to unqualified providers, for awarding the train procurement to a neophyte manufacturer, for bringing the train prototype to the country not assembled and tested, and for not holding the manufacturer to the test," Sobrepeña said.

The executive was referring to the government’s awarding of the maintenance contract for the train line to several Filipino-run companies, such as APT Global and PH Trams, as well as the Busan Transportation Corp.-led consortium.

He was also pertaining to the awarding of the contract to supply 48 new light-rail vehicles to first-time train manufacturer Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Co. of China.

The Chinese company has just delivered the sixth of the 48 new trains that the Department of Transportation and Communications ordered in 2013.

No test has been done for the train cars, even as the manufacturer was required to run the trains for 5,000 kilometers before being delivered.

Right now, the train line is operating with half of its capacity despite the influx of passengers, leading to long queues and rides like packed sardines. This is also partly due to the fact that the maintenance of the line, according to experts, has been poor since Sumitomo Corp. was replaced in 2012. So what needs to be done, Sobrepeña said, is a total makeover.

"First, we need to repair the entire system then repair the trains, because right now we are only operating with half of the train sets available," he said.

Train cars are being cannibalized, so to speak, due to the lack of available parts.

"We should overhaul the trains and put them back to good use. After that we need to upgrade and add more trains," Sobrepeña said. The train executive has reservations with the new trains, but noted that he is open to using the trains if they will pass their own standards.

Santiago said this capacity-augmentation program is just a publicity stunt on the part of the government.

"They are just publicizing that they are doing something, but in reality it won’t have any effect on the shorter term,” he said. “The contract is there, but I doubt that the trains will run soon."

Santiago added: "There are a lot to prioritize and the next administration has a lot to do."

Badly needed

Foreign groups are one in their call for the next government to give priority to infrastructure development, and one of the crucial facilities that the 2016 administration should focus on is the repair of the MRT.

"Mass transportation is badly needed and the MRT issue has been there for years without solution. It is amazing that the badly treated tax-paying train riders have not rebelled, yet,” European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines External Vice President Henry J. Schumacher said in a mobile-phone reply. “The next administration is going to inherit quite a number of pressing issues."

American Chamber of Commerce Senior Advisor John D. Forbes noted his personal experience with railway systems in neighboring Asian countries.

"I have ridden on light-rail trains in most Asian capital cities. Many experts would rate the Edsa MRT at the bottom. Better advance planning, maintenance and modernization can make it a better experience for the public," he said. Their employees, they noted, have a hard time commuting via the train system. This could have a negative effect on efficiency and productivity.

"Employers, especially in the fast-growing business-processing management sector, need the mobility of their employees," Schumacher said.

Forbes called on top government officials to regularly ride the train system every day to realize how pressing the need is. “The top transport officials should be required to ride these trains every day with a group of media to inform the riding public of ongoing improvements,” he said.

'Let us back in'

Since it is going to inherit the problems of the MRT, the owner of the rail system has proposed that the next administration be more open to dialog and suggestions.

"First, the next administration should deal with the owner who built the infrastructure and work out a solution with us,” Sobrepeña said. “They have to let us get back into the system to analyze everything that went wrong."

Currently, the private company has no say as to how to improve the day-to-day operations of the MRT, which is being managed by the government under a 25-year build-lease-transfer agreement.

"They also have to follow the agreement, which states that upgrades and repairs should be done by the owners," Sobrepeña added.

Along with foreign firms Sumitomo Corp. of Japan and Globalvia Infrastructuras of Spain, Metro Global Holdings Inc., which is led by Sobrepeña, is proposing to "fix" the ailing system through a $150-million investment that involves the procurement of a total of 96 new train cars, and the rehabilitation of the existing 73 coaches, increasing its capacity by fourfold to 1.2 million daily passengers.

Under the proposal, a single point of responsibility will be implemented: meaning the rehabilitation and the 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 costs of the train system 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 to overhaul the line.

The venture would effectively expand the capacity of the railway system by adding more coaches to each train, allowing it to carry more cars 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 daily.

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 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.