By Lorenz S. Marasigan | Business Mirror | October 5, 2015

WHILE the country’s three overhead railway systems already shifted from the magnetic ticketing scheme to the unified, tap-and-go setup, the builder and owner of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3 is not convinced the migration will make any difference to the train’s messy situation. 

Saturday marked the completion of the rollout of the automated fare-collection system at all of the country’s elevated train lines, with the last one being the 16-year-old MRT, the most congested railway system in Metro Manila. 

With the new system in place, the old magnetic cards—both single journey and stored value—will no longer be on sale.

According to Peter Maher, the chief executive of AF Payments Inc., the new system should not only improve the riders’ buying and paying experience, but should also facilitate seamless transfer between lines with the card’s interoperability feature.

“Train passengers will no longer need to fall in line twice to buy a new ticket when they transfer lines,” he said. 

But according to MRT Holdings Inc. Chairman Robert John L. Sobrepeña, the new system is “pointless” sans the new trains and better rails. He was speaking for the Edsa line specifically.

“It’s pointless that you have a fast ticketing system and, yet, you have a broken down train system. It’s a fast ticket getting nowhere,” he said in an interview with the BusinessMirror.  The government, he said, should have carefully pursued its priorities.

“They should have improved the capacity by adding more trains and repairing the rails first before procuring a ticketing system,” Sobrepeña said.

Government officials were sought for comment, but none was available as of press time.

The government, however, has started the procurement of new train coaches, with the prototype cars arriving last month. Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Co. won the project in 2013 but was supposed to deliver 48 new cars starting end-2015.

But the start of the staggered delivery will likely be delayed, with the first delivery expected in the first quarter next year.

Once the 48 new coaches come in, MRT 3’s trips per hour will increase from 20 to 24 and translate to a 60-percent rise in passenger traffic per hour, per direction.   

This means there will be 37,824 passengers who can avail themselves of the rail service heading one way every hour. Currently, only about 23,640 people ride an MRT service one way every hour. But that number still depends on how many trains are running that day.

Today the rail line’s average daily ridership is already over 560,000, and its highest single-day passenger count is 620,000. It has a rated capacity of 350,000 passengers per day.

Every day passengers complain of long queues caused by the lack of light rail cars, humid coaches and inoperable elevators and escalators. These are all caused by the lack of proper maintenance, rehabilitation and upgrades.

‘Obsolete signaling system’ 

Aside from these problems, the train line also has an obsolete signalling system, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio A. Abaya acknowledged. He blamed the private owner of the railway system for its negligence to upgrade the system.

The signaling system for a train line is crucial in preventing the trains from colliding. It maintains a safe distance between trains and controls their speed: issues with its components may result in fewer operating trains and slower travel. Hence, train coaches cannot move forward without it.

He noted, however, that problems arising from the lack of an efficient signaling system “are set to be eliminated soon,” as his office has awarded the signaling system-upgrade project to Bombardier Transportation Signal Ltd.

“This upgrade of an obsolete signaling system, which should have been done by the private sector owner years ago, is crucial in minimizing operational disruptions. This will improve reliability and efficiency of the rail system for the benefit of our passengers,” the Cabinet official said. 

Under the P53.37-million contract, Bombardier will replace the existing local control system called MAN 900 with the more contemporary EBI Screen 900—a software with the same functionality as MAN 900, but will allow the use of modern personal computers and fiber optic technology—over the next seven months.

Apart from modernizing the software components, this upgrade will also ensure the availability of spare parts needed for the uninterrupted and efficient operation of Metro Manila’s busiest rail line.

Within the first month of the contract, Bombardier will provide the required hardware upgrades and software licenses; install, test and commission support of the new system; carry out the migration of existing data and functions; and train MRT 3 personnel on proper operation and maintenance.

Bombardier holds exclusive proprietary rights to supply new components, as it designed, developed and implemented the entire MRT 3 signaling system when it was constructed.

To improve the train line, the government is rolling out P9.7 billion worth of projects to fix the ailing railway system.

The government is also spending P4.25 billion for the three-year maintenance and the general overhaul of existing train coaches and the replacement of the system’s signalling system.

The agency targets to award the contract within the fourth quarter this year  to enable the latter to take over from the seven multidiscipline contractors currently maintaining the rail line by January 2016.

This long-term maintenance provider will not only undertake the regular maintenance requirements of the system over the next three years, it will also conduct the general overhaul of existing MRT 3 coaches, as well as the replacement of the signalling system.

The general overhaul is needed in order to improve the condition of the 16-year-old coaches and the signalling system replacement will ensure safer operations throughout the line.

The state also wants to buyout the corporate owner of the line.

But several private groups have proposed a different scheme to modernize the train system, which has been under fire for years due to mediocre service. The group Sobrepeña is proposing to do a “quick fix” solution to make the train system safe for the riding public.

Together with Sumitomo Corp. of Japan and Globalvia Infrastructuras of Spain, Metro Global Holdings Inc. is proposing to “fix” the ailing system through a $150-million investment involving the procurement of a total 96 new cars and the rehabilitation of the existing 73 coaches, increasing its capacity fourfold to 1.2 million passengers daily.

Under the proposal, a single point of responsibility will be implemented: meaning the rehabilitation and maintenance of the line will be handled by a single company.

Separately, Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC) is proposing to 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.

On the other hand German firms Schunk Bahn -und Industrietechnik GmbH and HEAG Mobilo GmbH are seeking to place whole train system under a massive transformation program to augment its capacity and to 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 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. 

These proposals, however, are still gathering dust in Abaya’s office.