By Marlen V. Ronquillo | |  May 10, 2014

In developed economies, the state’s mandate to  provide  mass transport to  citizens  efficiently and at the most competitive cost  is on the top tier of their policy concerns.

Mass transport as a policy concern takes an extraordinary  level of  importance in countries such as Singapore, a small, densely population  place with no urban sprawl.

More, these  developed economies work on the premise that promoting mass transport is part of the state’s social contract with its citizens, as important as promoting education and providing universal  health care.

The Philippines is a sorry outlier. Despite the boast that the country is one of the best performing economies in the world, it is all gaps, mediocrity and failure in the state’s fulfillment of  the social contract. The education sector is mediocre. Health care is inadequate. The worst has yet to be described: mass transport  in a metropolis that is one of the most populous and chaotic in the world.

Mass transport in Metro Manila is a Slough of Despond, with the MRT 3  as its public face. And the MRT is decrepit, dangerous and running off-track. The fielding of so-called articulated buses is the ultimate admission of MRT’s giant failure.

And there is a plethora of evidence that suggests that the   government bureaucrats and state institutions that oversee the MRT are to be blamed—squarely and unequivocally —for the near-breakdown of the MRT  infrastructure and the now-familiar three- hour  wait for trains. And we may add this: trains  that often break down hallway through the short metro trips.

And attempts by these state apparatchiks to  pass or to shift  the blame elsewhere would not wash.

And the only other news story that has been played more prominently than the harrowing experiences of MRT 3  riders and the inefficiency of the system is this:  the alleged attempt by some MRT apparatchiks to demand bribes for a botched coach-supply deal. The  alleged bribery story exposed by a  diplomat,  by all benchmarks,  is so far the biggest scandal to rock the  current “daang matuwid” administration. It allegedly involves corruption in high places.

So  how  decrepit is the  state of the MRT 3? The data will make you sad for this country.

The MRT, according to available data, has a running total of 12 to 15 trains, way below the minimum requirement.  The minimum requirement is 20 trains. Each train has three coaches. The last time the minimum requirement was fulfilled is now history.

The private operator has claimed to have done what it could possibly do to ease the acute train shortage and the breakdown of the trains  that are still in operation. First, it requested the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), (the cabinet body that oversees the government functionaries who supervise the MRT), to get a third party technical audit of the entire MRT system.  The idea was to hire the best technical people to carry out an independent, in-depth audit, outside of the sway of the  government functionaries.

The DOTC, for one perplexing reason or another, has refused a third-party audit on why the MRT trains have gotten to degenerate that much. What are the things and issues that the DOTC bosses do not want a third party to  find out? Is it the shoddy maintenance work? Is it the  massive  failure of the MRT’s service and maintenance  work?

Take note of the fact that the DOTC is now effectively in charge of the overall service and maintenance of the MRT trains. For reasons also baffling and mysterious,  the consortium that maintained the trains for 10  straight years until 2012 was not given a renewed contract.

The DOTC, in an act of supreme pettiness, does not even allow the engineers and technical people of the private operator to enter the MRT depot. What gives? What is the DOTC hiding? Why is  the private operator banned from entering the MRT depot, which it technically owns until 2025?

Next question. Why was there no anticipatory move, such as beefing up the MTR trains to meet the surging traffic?

The private operator said  that from 2000 up to 2010, it has proposed five train purchase programs. The first one, made in  year 2000, was turned down by the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) on the grounds that the traffic was not yet that big and an expansion was premature.

The last and 5th  proposal was made in November 2010. The private operator proposed a modernization program, and sweetened the proposal as “no cost” to the government. The DOTC responded by buying trains from a Chinese supplier.

On March 26, 2014, what happened at the Guadalupe station was not a minor glitch, the kind the MRT users were used to. A train with its three coaches had an emergency brake stop, injuring most passengers on board. Eight of the injured were rushed to a Makati hospital for treatment.

That was  not a mere communication system breakdown, nor a brief stoppage.  That was a real accident with many people injured. There are now real worries that the deterioration of the MRT trains has taken a fast, fast clip.

Will heads roll? Will there be policy and operational changes? Or, would it be the same old stories of negligence, indifference and corruption?