June 7, 2015 | Business Mirror

It doesn’t matter who does what, as long as passengers riding Metro Manila’s main train line will have some relief in the shortest time possible.

Thus said officials of infrastructure conglomerate Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC), which has a pending proposal before the transport department to fix, rehabilitate and modernize the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT 3).

MPIC Chairman Manuel V. Pangilinan said his company is open to partnering with other parties—like MRT Holdings Inc. (MRTH) Chairman Robert John L. Sobrepeña—for this endeavor.

“We’re always open to talk with them,” he told the BusinessMirror in an interview.

David J. Nicol, the CFO of the listed infrastructure giant, said separately that his company will review the proposal of the group of Sobrepeña and compare it with MPIC’s unsolicited offer.

“I think, for the moment, Metro Pacific has some proposals to the MRT, and the government seems interested. We just need to find a way to work together; and so the general focus is on how to quickly improve the service without getting to stark on who is making which proposal so that we can get some action to it,” he told the BusinessMirror. Sobrepeña was the first to float the possible partnership with Pangilinan for the upgrade of the MRT Line 3.

In an earlier interview with the BusinessMirror, Sobrepeña said: “It could be a joint undertaking between the two of us. It’s something that we are proposing, and we look forward to working with them.”

He reiterated that desire to work with the Pangilinan group on Monday. “Yes, of course [we are open to that partnership].”

Nicol acknowledged that it will take a lot of effort to improve Metro Manila’s most congested railway line, which, according to Sobrepeña, was mismanaged by the government.

Manila gave birth to the 17-kilometer mass-transit system in 1999 — almost a decade after it was first conceived — with the primary purpose of decongesting the capital’s main artery, the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (Edsa).

The build-lease-transfer contract was awarded to Metro MRT Corp., whose parent company is the MRTH, two decades ago, when it acquired the company’s original contractor due to its botched agreement with the government.

The 25-year contract essentially provides that the private partner builds the line, the government leases the transport system and the infrastructure will be transferred to the state at the end of the concession period.

When it was built, observers, at first, thought it was a flop, as its average daily ridership only hits the 40,000-passenger mark back then. Despite this, the private company that built the train system still insisted to the government that major expansion programs must be undertaken to prevent congestion in the railway line.

The state, however, refused, saying that the train system must first hit the 350,000-passenger mark before it does anything as drastic as an expansion of the line. It hit its rated capacity in four years’ time, but still, the government failed to approve proposals to add capacity to the train system.

As the years went by and the Philippine economy grew faster, the train line’s passengers increased until it hit its crush load, which, in layman’s term, is its maximum capacity. Still, the government failed to hear the cries of both the consumers and the private partner for modernization.

This led to worse situations along Edsa, as the train line snakes through the middle of the thoroughfare, eating up at least three lanes in the process.

“A lot of work has to be put into all of this,” Nicol said.

Metro Pacific’s proposal involves an investment of $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. The group revived its proposal before Congress in 2014.

On the other hand, Sobrepeña’s proposal involves an $800-million investment that will be spent in three phases.

Under the three-phase proposal, the private sector will start fixing the train line’s immediate problems, namely, the system’s dilapidated rails, outdated signaling system and its failing train cars.

The next phase involves the upgrade of the whole system, which costs about $400 million. It involves the replacement of all elevators, escalators and the makeover of the stations.

The private proponent will also buy 48 new cars to double the capacity so 1 million to 1.2 million passengers could ride the train system daily.

The third phase involves the linking of the MRT to the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Line 1’s Monumento Station. All these, according to Sobrepeña, could be completed in a matter of three to three-and-a-half years, almost half of a term of a president.

The only catch to this proposal is this: the government has to agree to pass on the management of the train line to the group of Sobrepeña through an operations and maintenance contract.

The Aquino administration has repeatedly ignored the proposals offered by several private parties, but has proceeded with its own P9.7-billion rehab program. -Lorenz S. Marasigan