Jarius Bondoc | Philstar | October 7, 2016

Two versions emerged about the sudden departure of MRT-3 head Roman Buenafe last Wed. One was that he resigned; the other, that he was fired.

He also supposedly has two replacements. One is Deo Leo Manalo, an old hand at the Dept. of Transportation, as officer-in-charge of maintenance. The other is newcomer Cesar Chavez, as OIC for operations.

What's happening at Mega Manila's main commuter rail? Why pay two persons to do the job of one man? Whatever the answer is, it reflects the mess the trains are in.

In a final meeting with subordinates, Buenafe rattled off falsities. His spokesman Joel Erestain posted on their website: "The Management of the Metro Rail Transit-3 bids farewell to its feisty General Manager Engr. Roman R. Buenafe leaving behind him an unprecedented achievement of 20 running trains on peak hours, 50 kph train speed and an average daily ridership of 450,000. These accomplishments were on target to what Secretary Arthur P. Tugade's 100 days commitment to President Duterte (sic). MRT 3 will surely benefit from the projects he will pass on to his (sic) predecessor. The public now enjoys and uses social media updates of MRT-3 thru its website and Twitter."

Erestain also posted on Facebook having accomplished "3.5 minutes headway," or dispatch interval between trains. "The good relationship between the management and the maintenance provider was the key in reaching these achievements."

The hours-long passenger queues during peak hours and thrice daily system breakdowns belie those claims. Insiders aver there were only 17 trains, never 20, at peak hours in the last three months. That's because only 58 of the 73 original Czech-made coaches are in running condition. Each train consists of three coaches; it would take 60 coaches to field 20 trains; the numbers don't add up.

The reality is: 17 trains equals 51 coaches; on any given day, six to eight coaches are being inspected and repaired; that adds up to 58 coaches. Abetted by Buenafe, the maintenance joint venture of Busan Transport Corp. of Korea and four Filipino dummies hardly do any work. Contrary to its P4.25-billion contract, it has not stockpiled on basic spare parts. It only cannibalizes old parts from the most dilapidated coaches, for use in the rest. Coaches No. 08, 31, 70, and 73 are the most cannibalized; 11 others are being stripped of parts; again that adds up to 15 unusable coaches; 73 minus 15 equals 58 coaches.

The 50-kph speed was done only last Aug., after which MRT-3 returned in Sept. to 40 kph like in July. Busan itself announced so in the third week of Sept. It even had a lame excuse for the slowness: purportedly the coaches are unsuitable, because too large and heavy for use on elevated tracks. It did not say, however, why for 13 years, 2000-2012, the trains ran at 65 kph, until the upkeep was removed from the Japanese giant Sumitomo Corp, and given to a series of shoddy contractors: PH Trams, Global Epcom, and now the four dummies of Busan. Behind those firms is Marlo dela Cruz, Liberal Party-mate of the contract awarder, then-transport chief Joseph Abaya.

The 3.5-minute headway is impossible. The MRT-3 is 17 km long. A train running at only 40 kph, or even at the falsely claimed 50, takes more than an hour to complete the 34-km round trip. It has to stop at 13 stations one way, turn around at the pivot end, then stop again at 13 stations on the way back. With that, it would take 30 trains per hour to accomplish a headway of 3.5 minutes during peak hours. Thirty trains would need 90 coaches; there simply aren't that many at MRT-3.

There were only 330,640 passengers a day in July and Aug., and 305,040 in Sept. – never the claimed 450,000 ridership. And after their long waits under sun or rain, passengers had to endure rough rides due to worn out wheels and tracks, With thrice daily breakdowns, their trips were uncompleted. Viral in the social media go viral everyday are the horror rides. Passengers alight like zombies in the movie "Train to Busan."

The 10 government appointees to the 15-man board of MRT Corp. would do well to bear the real figures in mind. They represent the Dept. of Finance, Development Bank of the Philippines, and Land Bank in the private firm that owns and built MRT-3. The truth is crucial against the false claims that departing Buenafe gave to Secretary Tugade.

Why does spokesman Erestain echo the falsities? He is a high school classmate of Buenafe and of new Undersecretary for Rails Noel Eli Kintanar. All three are two batches ahead of schoolmates Abaya and ex-administrator Honorito Chaneco at LRT-1 and -2.

Erestain also is a college fraternity brother of Eugene Rapanut, the local rep of Busan, the shoddy maintenance firm. Also of the LP, Rapanut brokered the P3.8-billion purchase of low-quality trains from China. Contracted in 2013, 26 of the 48 trains have arrived as of this week. All have not been test-run for 5,000 km at the China factory for safety, worthiness, and durability. Not one is equipped with on-board signaling. Buenafe had accepted the deliveries despite the contract breaches.

Buenafe did not anticipate the depot space needed for the 48 new Chinese coaches. The first few units arrived in Aug. 2015-Mar. 2016. Only last May did he bid out the expansion of the MRT-3 depot in north Quezon City. Only 13 of the coaches are squeezed into different parts of the depot. Guess where the other 13 coaches are.

Manalo, the OIC for maintenance, allegedly is a minion of former U-Sec. Rene Limcaoco, involved in the China and Busan deals, and the vehicle plate fiasco. Manalo participated in the Chinese contracts and in the imbroglio over the delayed construction of an LRT-MRT common station. He is now messing up with the signaling. (More on that next week).