By Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | January 6, 2016

NEWSFLASH: The Korean firm that the government announced to be the new MRT-3 maintenance starting yesterday is backing out. Busan Transport Corp. wants to be a mere “technical advisor,” no longer the technology partner of the joint venture.

The Department of Transportation and Communications is disallowing it, since only Busan has the knowhow. Four Filipino partners, as exposed in this column, are into anything but railways: construction, trading, agricultural supply and plumbing.

Heated discussions ensued from Monday afternoon well into the night, then resumed yesterday, DOTC sources said. Busan reportedly is worried about lawsuits it would face, jointly and severally with the four partners, due to the irregularity of the P3.8-billion, three-year deal.

Busan, with P138-billion net worth, holds only four-percent share. The four little-known Filipinos – Edison Construction and Development Corp., Tramat, TMI Corp., and Castan – have combined net worth of only P1 billion, but control 96 percent.

Transport Sec. Joseph Abaya had negotiated the deal behind closed doors instead of open bidding. He claimed it was an emergency, although the funds are to come from the long-planned and -appropriated 2014 and 2015 national budgets. He announced it on Christmas Eve, when the government was on vacation.

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Filipinos who go abroad commute within and between cities we visit. Naturally we compare. The speed and precision of metros and trains in Europe, America, Australia, and Japan make us wonder when we’ll ever match them. The rail superiority of nearby capitals – Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Hong Kong – makes us sulk at being left behind. There, wider tracks traverse mountains, valleys, and islands.

In Singapore the commuter easily can check by smartphone the right subway to take. Alternatively the website suggests the nearest bus stop, number, and ride time. It even states exactly how many minutes till the next bus arrives, usually no more than eight. In that city-state, just a little bigger than Metro Manila, a 20-minute traffic jam already is a national issue.

In the Philippines only the national capital is connected by rail. Even at that, it is so poor. The LRT-1, LRT-2, and especially the MRT-3 have deteriorated in the past three years. Tracks and coaches hardly are maintained, signaling and power systems are shot, elevators and escalators, not to mention toilets, at stations don’t work.

There has been no expansion. A 12-km rail extension south into two cities in Cavite was planned in 2013 for completion in two years. Yet 2015 came and went with no work begun, and all Malacañang has to say for it is a caution to not take presidential promises literally. A mere four-km extension east into Marikina was drawn up as far back as 2010, when President Noynoy Aquino came to office. Work started only weeks ago. A North Rail to Bulacan, eventually to La Union, and a South Rail to Bicol have remained just talk, even if only to revive the trains of the ‘60s.

It didn’t have to be that way. The MRT-3 could have quadrupled by now, with more trains on new routes, had the Dept. of Transportation and Communications been receptive.

In 2010 the Metro Pacific Group bought out the Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC), private owner-builder of the railway, for $110 million. Its vision was to elongate the trains to four coaches each from the present three, with more frequent dispatches every two minutes. Tracks would be built onto Manila’s Port Area and international airport, and far into Cavite. It would connect with the LRT-1 and -2 in more crisscrosses than the present one each, and a soon-to-rise MRT-7 from Bulacan.

The metro would become the main means of rapid mass transport in Mega Manila. Initial investment: $600 million, half of it to buy new coaches alone. In Phase 1, the coaches would double from the original 73 in 2000, to 156 by 2014.

The DOTC under then-Sec. Jose de Jesus came alive. Metro Pacific’s plan would solve most of the government’s problems. Foremost of these was rides and traffic. The past MRTC owner could no longer expand due to capital lack, and two government banks were tied up with stock shares against Bangko Sentral rules. A memo was sent for P-Noy to have the National Economic and Development Authority endorse the proposal for Swiss challenge, under the Build-Operate-Transfer law.

Malacañang just sat on the plan. Metro Pacific resubmitted it when Secretaries Mar Roxas and Joseph Abaya came in. Still no go. Subsequent Senate inquiries showed that the DOTC did not even bother to reply to the firm, in violation of law.

The next time the administration talked big about railways was when Abaya came home in Sept. 2013 from an APEC transport ministers’ confab in Japan. So impressed was he about Tokyo’s subway, he said, that it should be replicated at once in Manila.

It turned out to be mere cover-up blabber. For, The STAR columnist Boo Chanco had gotten wind – and documents – of what Abaya really did abroad: a family junket. The ten-man DOTC delegation that he led listed six Abayas: the Secretary, his Daddy, his Mommy, a brother, a cousin, and a nephew.

Now on their last six months in office, P-Noy and Abaya are talking big again. They’re bidding out – during the election campaign when it’s forbidden – a P65-billion commuter rail in Cavite. Supposedly it would be part of P-Noy’s legacy to make the Philippines First World.

That’s coming from the admin that has just accepted two prototype MRT-3 coaches from China – part of a P3.8-billion purchase – that have no engines!