By Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | March 2, 2015

Only half of MRT-3 trains remain running. That’s why riders have been waiting longer hours at stations since Transport Sec. Joseph Abaya raised fares last Jan. 4. More trains are bound to conk out. For, Abaya keeps contracting his Liberal Party mates for the shoddy maintenance.

Documents obtained by this writer show grim figures. MRT-3 has been fielding only 13 to 14 trains on average during workday peak hours in the past two months. It was way below the minimum of 20 trains required from the maintenance contractor.

At best the contractor was able to run 15 or 16 trains on peak hours, records show. That was still 20-25 percent short of the required 20. There were days when only 11 or 12 trains – a little over half – ran during peak hours.

Peak hours are 6-9 a.m. and 5-8 p.m. workdays, when riders rush to work or school then home. An MRT-3 train consists of three coaches, with full capacity of 1,188 passengers at 396 per coach. The report period was Dec. 22, 2014 to Feb. 27, 2015 (last Friday). Abaya raised the MRT-3 fares 70 percent last Jan. 4 with no concomitant improvement in facilities or service.

When the present LP-controlled maintenance outfit took over, 72 of the original 73 coaches – 24 trains – were in running condition. Two-and-a-half years later, only half remain working, though in spurts.

The contractor did not provide spare parts, so 30 coaches that can form ten trains frequently broke down, reports show. Sixteen coaches, or at least five trains, no longer are working. MRT-3 general manager Ramon Buenafe did not answer calls and texts to explain the situation.

Compounding the train lack are the dilapidated tracks. Merely rotated instead of replaced for metal wear, portions of the rails have been crushing under the weight of overloaded coaches. Train operators have been forced to run at only 40kph, instead of the old 60-65, and must slow down to only 10kph where the crushed rails merely have been welded with fish clamps. The slower runs prolong the passengers’ waiting lines at stations.

MRT-3 was set to shut down 12 hours last weekend, supposedly for replacement of some rails. Where they got the brand-new tracks, if any, is a wonder. This writer exposed last year the illegal transfer of tracks from the government-owned LRT-2 for laying at the private but government-run MRT-3. It was virtual theft and misuse of multimillion-peso government property. LRT-2 managers hurriedly retrieved the tracks when state auditors wrote for explanations. By then, though, three LRT-2 tracks already had been embedded at MRT-3.

Poorly maintained too are the three other components of Metro Manila’s main commuter railway: signaling system that electronically interconnects coaches within a train, trains with each other, and all to the control center; power supply to the trains and communications; and the stations’ elevators, escalators, and ticket vending-validating machines. Frequent breakdowns and accidents add to the riders’ agonies.

MRT-3 was serviced for 12 years, 2000-2012, by Sumitomo. In Oct. 2012 Sec. Abaya, U-Sec. Jose Lotilla, and then-MRT-3 general manager Al S. Vitangcol suddenly terminated the Japanese firm. In lieu was hired two-month-old, undercapitalized PH Trams, in joint venture with long-time LRT-1 manpower servicer CB&T. Why the experienced latter needed a seemingly worthless partner to get into MRT-3 later became clear. PH Trams consisted of LP members, an uncle-in-law of Vitangcol, and a high official of a government agency. In ten months PH Trams collected P517.5 million.

PH Trams personalities were linked by the Czech envoy in mid-2013 to an earlier $30-million extortion attempt on a Czech train maker. Abaya, Lotilla, and Vitangcol hastily replaced PH Trams-CB&T with Global-APT.

Same dog, different collar. Global’s authorized representative was the same PH Trams chairman Marlo dela Cruz, LP-Pangasinan leader. Dela Cruz reportedly claims closeness to acting LP president Abaya and to the latter’s LP and DOTC predecessor Mar Roxas.

Global is a resurrected company of a high official of the Philippine National Railways. That official should not even have been appointed to the PNR, since his wife is a supplier of train parts to the DOTC. Like CB&T that partnered with dela Cruz, APT is the long-time manpower provider of the LRT-2.

Only Vitangcol has been removed since May 2014, when this writer exposed the connections. Sen. Grace Poe the other week called on officials responsible for the government train mess to resign. No one has.

Insiders say that the role of Global, like PH Trams before it, was to purchase and stockpile the necessary spare parts. Both never did.

APT’s job, like CB&T’s, is to provide the manpower. It has only been sending a few remaining servicers for patch-ups. Seasoned technicians resigned last year due to frequent delayed salaries.