By Francisco S. Tatad | | May 12, 2014

The MRT3 situation has become  a national shame,  and the waiting  passengers’ lines  stretch  interminably outside the stations from Taft Avenue Pasay to North Avenue Quezon City. To this, Malacanang’s first response was to tell complaining passengers to take the bus instead,  if they could not spend a portion of their lives waiting for a ride.  The Pinoys did not

have the revolutionary fervor of the French to storm the Bastille after Marie Antoinette told them to eat cake instead of bread. But this has caused enormous anger everywhere.

Now  the Department of Transportation and Communication says it has rejected the long standing offer of the original Czech train provider to provide 52 mass rail coaches  and signed up the little-known Chinese firm Dalian Locomotive and Rolling Stock Company instead to provide 48 trams.  DOTC says this would save the taxpayers P3.348 billion in cost, and hopefully end the train shortage---in two years.  It is a cruel joke, but it is supposed to make us grateful for the new level of official ineptitude and incompetence.

The rule of thumb for light rail vehicle systems, according to the experts, is that the supply must anticipate the demand, taking into account, among other things, the time needed to fabricate the needed LRVs, which is usually two years.  The government  obviously never  considered this.

Projecting an increase in riders’ capacity from 350,000 to 660,000, the Metro Rail Transport Corporation (MRTC) says as early as 2000, it has tried to persuade the DOTC, under their Build, Lease and Transfer Agreement, to acquire additional LRVs. That was the year MRT3, first commissioned in 1999, became fully operational.

But the National Economic and Development Authority intervened to say that the 350,000 ridership  must first be attained before they could authorize the acquisition of additional LRVs.  This target was achieved in 2003, but the DOTC failed to act even then.

In 2006-2007, the DOTC pushed for the purchase of second-hand LRVs as an emergency measure.  In 2008,   the DOTC had a change of heart and decided to acquire brand-new LRVs.  But this quickly fizzled out  when the DOTC and MRTC got involved in an arbitration case over delayed  equity rental payments in Singapore.

In 2010, the rentals problem was solved after representatives of the Development Bank of the Philippines and  Land Bank of the Philippines joined the MRTC Board.  The board then made a renewed push for the acquisition of new LRVs, under the administration’s Public Private Partnership Program. Again the DOTC failed to respond.

On Oct. 18, 2011, two years before we ever heard of the Disbursement Acceleration Program, whose constitutionality is  being assailed before the Supreme Court, after Aquino used it to bribe members of Congress to impeach and remove Chief Justice Renato Corona and railroad the Reproductive Health Law,  the Department of Budget and Management released to the DOTC P4.5 billion  for the “construction, rehabilitation and improvement of transportation and communications infrastructure projects, including acquisition of equipment; MRT3 Operation and Maintenance (EDSA LRT III).”

This release was from the DAP through Special Allotment Release Order (SARO) A-11-01469.

On Dec. 28, 2011, the DBM advised the DOTC through Notice of Cash Allotment  (NCA) No. NCA-BMB-A-11-0023872 that P4.5 billion has been credited to its Land Bank of the Philippines account, “for the implementation of the capacity expansion of MRT3.”

On Dec. 29, 2011, DOTC Assistant Secretary Dante Lantin advised Administrator Rafael S. Rodriguez of the Light Rail Authority in a letter that his office had issued a check for P4.5 billion and deposited it to the LRTA account at Land Bank Baclaran branch “for the implementation of the MRT3 System Capacity Expansion Project.”

The amount shall be deposited with the Bureau of Treasury and “recorded as trust in the LRTA book of accounts,” the letter said.

So while Aquino and his Budget Secretary Florencio Abad simply ignored the loud  public demand for an accounting  of the projects that had been funded by the DAP, and while the media focused on the story of a reported attempt by MRT-3 General Manager Al Vitangcol’s group to extort $30 million from the Czech train manufacturer offering to  supply new trains,  this P4.5 billion, which provided the first smoking gun on the DAP, went unreported and untouched.

Likewise,  on Oct. 26, 2011, DBM released P1,867,512,203  to the LRTA for the “implementation of the rehabilitation of LRT Lines 1 and 2.”  The release was covered by SARO No. F-11-01568, same date, “in accordance with the FY 2011 Disbursement Acceleration Program as approved by the President per Memorandum dated Oct. 12, 2011.”  Like the P4.5 billion DAP release, the other smoking gun went unreported and unused.

Thus, despite the lapse of time and the availability of DAP funds, neither the MRT3 capacity expansion nor its maintenance operation moved. With the same resolve that the DOTC resisted acquiring new LRVs for capacity expansion, it resisted engaging a technically and financially qualified maintenance provider after it got rid of Sumitomo Corporation/TES Philippines in 2012, for reasons of its own.  For more than 12 years, Sumitomo Corporation/TES Philippines kept MRT3’s 73 cars in good running condition, with no major accidents.  The accidents started only after the DOTC assumed control of maintenance.

A few days before the end of the Sumitomo contract, the DOTC required  MRTC to bid out the maintenance of the system to a qualified provider. But given the limited time  to conduct due diligence and publish the proper notices to interested parties, MRTC says it was compelled to let DOTC appoint an interim maintenance provider for six months, later renewed for another three months.

This turned out to be Philippine Trams Rail  Management & Services Corporation and Comm Builders and Technology, Inc (Ph Trams-CB & T), a joint venture, with no previous experience in maintaining a $750-million public utility, and no record of its corporate existence at the Securities & Exchange Commission, as of Nov.  9,  2012.  The award was made without public bidding, contrary to law, MRTC officials point out.

On August 22, 2013, the DOTC awarded a one-year maintenance contract to Autre Porte Technique Global, Inc. (APT Global), for P685.04 million without submitting the Terms of Reference to MRTC for its consideration and approval.  MRTC  believes this was in violation of their BLT Agreement and other previous agreements.

Since 2012 a number of incidents have taken place. The first notable incident  recorded  on Nov. 3, 2012 involved successive explosions and fire at sections C and A of the middle car. One year later, two cars collided inside the depot on the evening of Nov. 26, 2013. On March 20, 22 and 24, 2014, intermittent signaling failure was experienced, at first with no effect on revenue service, but ultimately prompting shuttling service between Shaw Boulevard and North Avenue on one side, and between Shaw and Taft on the other.

Then on March 26, 2014, a train after leaving the Guadalupe station experienced ATP braking, causing some passengers to fall on the floor. Those injured were  brought to the hospital.  The most recent involved the tripping of 750 V high-speed breaker at Magallanes and Taft Traction Power substation, causing several revenue service trains to stop in between Magallanes and Taft, with a total service interruption of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

Throughout this period, MRTC has been insisting that an independent third party technical audit be undertaken to determine the true status of MRT3, relative to the safety of its operations.   This has been without any success.  Although the lack of a mass transport alternative continues to draw long lines to MRT-3, public confidence in the system has clearly been shattered.  This can only be restored if the needed trains were acquired, and a qualified maintenance provider is put in place to assure the public that the signaling system and everything else are working again.

Now, the DOTC’s proud boast is that by rejecting a long-standing bid by Inekon---the successor firm to CKD Tatra, which originally provided the trains for MRT-3 in 1999--- to supply 52 new coaches at  $3.3 million each, and awarding the contract to  Dalian to provide 48 coaches at $1.8 million per,  the government would be saving a lot of money and filling the train shortage in two years.

At the outset the legality of this award is contested by MRTC.  In a letter to Aquino, MRTC Directors Rafael R. Perez de Tagle Jr. and Rogelio J. Bondoc Jr. point out the award to Dalian violates  the 1997 Revised BLT Agreement between DOTC and MRTC, which provides that the DOTC cannot operate LRVs in the MRT3 system “unless such LRVs are (i) supplied by MRTC or (ii) acquired by DOTC after MRTC has been afforded with a right of first refusal.”

But to start with the most egregious claim, the supposedly  enormous savings to be made from the contract with Dalian seems to be pure hype, without sufficient basis. What DOTC has agreed to acquire from Dalian are 20-meter trams, smaller and therefore cheaper. The trams are the lowest type of LRV, while the 30-meter long mass rail cars, which were originally configured into MRT-3, are on top of the LRV hierarchy.   Assuming the 48 trams could fit into the system without any serious problems concerning compatibility, these could project a maximum increase in ridership of 200,000 only, while with the 30-meter mass rail cars could increase ridership by at least 400,000. For obvious reasons, the pressure for a fare increase will also be stronger with the tram than with the much bigger LRV.

If this is striking enough, even more so is the technical view of experts who say that for obvious technical reasons the Dalian purchase could be erroneous altogether, and could result in a complete waste of billions.  The taxpayers won’t be saving P3.348 billion as claimed, these analysts believe; instead, they would be flushing the entire purchase cost down the drain.  Why? Because the trains being bought may not be compatible with the existing system.

“It’s not just a matter of buying more trains,” the analysts point out.  “You have to consider the type of track, the number of stations, the signal system, and the power configuration of the trains.  The dimensions of the new trains must conform to those of the system. They must maintain the same protocols for signaling, they must have the same coupling configuration. Although the new trains may be configured to communicate with the existing (Adtranz-Bombardier) system, just because they have a different coupling, they may not be able to connect to the existing trains.

“Moreover, the new trains will need a different maintenance line, since they will have a different configuration, and no commonality of spares with the existing trains. From the point of view of operations, the rail drivers will have to undergo a new proficiency certification since the cockpits of the two trains will be differently  configured.  In order to fit into the maintenance yard, the train must have a double articulated bogey, a kind of four-wheel steer. The new train, given its price, may not be double articulated, even though it claims in the Terms of Reference to have complied with the requirement.

“Finally, the new LRVs from Dalian will all be 19 – 19.8 meters in length (, while the current terminal bay configuration is designed for the CKD’s 30-meter length cars.  This means that aside from the floor height difference, the new cars will not snugly fit into the terminal, but will leave a gap larger than the three-inch maximum gap allowed between cars. This creates a completely avoidable safety issue, since a passenger’s foot might slip into this gap, and one such accident would be one too many for the entire system.”

Experts believe the government has lost too much time already on this mass transport problem. But it will not be helped by trying to paint a lemon as an orange.