Jarius Bondoc | Philstar | August 31, 2016

Cracks are endangering the wheel system of four MRT-3 railcars. Discovered only last week, the cracks could lead to fatal train derailment. It's unclear if the damaged railcars have been pulled out of daily runs for major repair. The MRT-3 management has said nothing about the peril to 550,000 daily riders. Indications are that it has not been informed by the maintenance contractor.

Worst off is Car No. 04, where long metal cracks were detected in all four pairs of bogey wheel frames. First to be found with hairline faults was the front bogey frame of Car No. 48. Cars No. 11 and 64 have cracks in the swing arm brackets of the rear wheels. Photographs and diagrams have been provided to The STAR.

The cracked bogey frames that hold up the wheels and brakes could crush under the weight of passengers (394 per car at full capacity). The train could jump off the tracks and crash onto a station or down the busy avenue below. The cost to lives and limbs is incalculable.

Only 19 railcars were inspected, insiders say. There was no word about the 54 other units bought from the Czech Republic in 1999. Other cars likely also have cracks from metal fatigue.

The old MRT-3 management commits to new Transport Sec. Art Tugade to have 20 three-car trains running every day on peak hours. Before that, 14 cars already were out of commission due to poor upkeep. On any given day, four to six cars must be pulled off the tracks for inspection and repair. The discovery of cracks on four cars further reduces the MRT-3 cars in operation – unless management riskily still field those.

The maintenance contractor since Jan. 2016, Busan Transport of Korea with four Filipino dummies, is required to submit Daily Status Reports on the condition of the railcars. No mention of the cracks have been made in recent DSRs. Car No. 48 was found with a big crack on Aug. 13; two days later it was not reported to have undergone repair.

Insiders say the cracks developed due to non-overhaul of the railcars. An overhaul, using high-tech examination equipment, would detect even minute metal wear and chipping.

Busan et al have not initiated such major work. They have not even stockpiled basic spare parts for periodic replacement, in violation of the P4.2-billion maintenance contract.

Neither did Busan's predecessors, PH Trams in Oct. 2012-Aug. 2013 and Global Epcom in Sept. 2013-Dec. 2014, perform the requisite overhaul. From documents and sworn accounts, the influential parties behind Busan's Filipino dummies are the same owners of PH Trams and Global Epcom.

Former transport chief Joseph Abaya and the holdover MRT-3 management had awarded the multibillion-peso contracts. President Rody Duterte, during the election campaign, named and denounced the contractors led by Marlo dela Cruz and Eugene Rapanut of the then-ruling Liberal Party.

Major overhaul of the railcars is required every seven to eight years. The last such work was done on time in 2007-2008, by Japan's giant Sumitomo Corp., the MRT-3 maintenance provider in 2000-2012. Similar overhaul should have started in 2014, and is now overdue.

The bogey frame cracks temporarily can be fixed by special welding, It is not known if Busan has hired a specialist for the work.

Meanwhile, the MRT-3 has been unable to put into operation the eight or so new railcars purchased from China. Contrary to the supply terms, the units have been arriving with passenger compartments and bogey wheel systems unassembled. They have not been test-run for 5,000 km under varying speeds and slopes.

Not one is equipped with an automatic train protector. The ATP is an integral part of the railway’s signaling, which electronically connects trains to each other and to the monitoring and control center.

International safety rules forbid commuter trains from running without ATPs, yet MRT-3 general manager Roman Buenafe dangerously did so last April.

The motor compartments of the Chinese railcars are defectively designed and made. The defects hinder maintenance and also could collapse the passenger compartment. Rapanut brokered the Chinese deal allegedly with a five-percent kickback to transport bigwigs. Singapore last month returned to China hundreds of similarly defective railcars.

There is even no space at the present depot for the 48 railcars ordered from China. MRT-3 management has been closing down some stations in order to assemble the arrivals. Only last month did it hold a bidding to expand the facilities.

Many of the 73 old Czech-made trains also have busted ATPs. Instead of demanding repair by Busan et al, the MRT-3 fields those as the middle of three cars that make up the trains.