By Alex Magno (FIRST PERSON) | The Philippine Star | August 23, 2014

It’s the maintenance, stupid!

When MRT services are interrupted three times in one week, this could not be due to repetitive human error. That can only be due to lousy maintenance.

LRT services are not as frequently interrupted by breakdowns, even if their rolling stock is older. This can only mean it is the maintenance of the MRT that is particularly problematic.

The solution is not to slow down the MRT trains, as was done the past few days on orders of those brilliant minds at the DOTC. Slowing down the trains, given that the rolling stock is already depleted, caused the queues to grow longer and the carriages more tightly packed. Life for the commuters just became a lot more hellish than it already was.

Granted, the train that derailed and crashed through the barrier at the Taft station last week was an instance of appallingly stupid human error. The damaged train was not securely coupled to the train pushing it along a downhill segment of the track. The damaged train broke off and free-wheeled on the tracks until it hit the restraining barrier.

Preceding that appallingly stupid human error, however, was a mechanical failure. The DOTC report emphasized the human error and skirted around the maintenance issue as Riles Network correctly pointed out.

We now know why.

The MRT system was maintained for years, with little incident, by Sumitomo Corp. as contractor and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as sub-contractor.  The contract between Sumitomo and MRTC (the owner of MRT-3) was until 2010. That maintenance contract was extended twice to October 2012 because the new administration was scouting for a new maintenance provider.

Nothing was done by then MRT-3 general manager Al Vitangcol for two years. Then, as Sumitomo’s extended contract neared its end, Vitangcol (an appointee of former DOTC Secretary Mar Roxas) gave MRTC ten days to procure a new maintenance provider.

Since it was not possible for MRTC to procure a new maintenance provider within the limited time Vitangcol allowed, the company opted to allow the DOTC management to do the procurement subject to the presentation by DOTC of its Terms of Reference (TOR) and its approval by the MRTC board.

Vitangcol never presented the TOR to the MRTC board and never secured the owners’ approval. Instead, Vitangcol cited the emergency presented by the lapse of the Sumitomo contract as excuse for skipping public bidding for the service provider. A negotiated “interim” contract (whose terms of reference have not been disclosed) was entered into with PH Trams.

This negotiated contract has since been a controversial one. Its controversial aspects, however, was eclipsed by claims made by the Czech ambassador of a shakedown attempt made by Vitangcol et al on Inekon, the original supplier of the trains.

A new contract was subsequently awarded to APT Global despite MRTC’s objections on the ground the company was not qualified to provide the required maintenance services.

When Sumitomo was maintenance provider, monthly meetings with MRTC were held. PH Trams (and then APT Global) never held such a meeting, keeping the owners in the dark.

On top of that, the new maintenance providers (for some bizarre reason) never disclosed the maintenance log to MRTC. If MRTC could not review the logs, neither may the riding public.

Over the past two years, each time a breakdown happened at the MRT-3, MRTC wrote both Vitangcol and DOTC Sec. Abaya asking for a technical audit of the rail system and demanding to see the maintenance logs. Neither Vitangcol nor Abaya allowed the MRTC the courtesy of a reply to those letters.

Exasperated, the MRTC wrote President Aquino himself on April 2, 2014. That letter was written after a train suddenly stopped, injuring many passengers at the Guadalupe station.

The letter disputed Vitangcol’s claims that driver error was the cause of the sudden stoppage. Rather, that sort of event is likely due to failure in the signaling system attributable to incompetent maintenance. Aquino, like his two underlings, did not even bother to reply to the MRTC letter.

In January 27, 2014, the DOTC was supposed to have made a presentation to the MRTC board regarding the hiring of a maintenance provider. Without even bothering to call up the MRTC, the DOTC officials (led by Usec. Jose Lotilla) who were supposed to make the presentation, simply did not appear.

Then the crash at the Taft station happened. Reporting on that incident, Abaya announced experts from Hong Kong will undertake a technical audit. He conveniently forgot to mention that this has been suggested for two years now by MRTC and will be done at the corporation’s expense.

In 2010, Metro Pacific offered to buy government holdings in MRTC and run the service itself, including investing in new carriages and upgrading the line. That would have saved government the expense and saved commuters the hazards of incompetence.

For the pettiest of reasons (never publicly admitted), that offer was rejected.