Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | May 24, 2017

Last Tuesday the MRT-3 commuter trains broke down four times, forcing riders to get off along the tracks, and risk lives and limbs hobbling to the nearest station. Wednesday it broke down twice. Yesterday, as of this writing, it already had broken down twice during the morning rush hour.

The daily failures were usual. They have been going on since Jan. 2016, per transport department records. Last Monday the Senate had inquired into the railway's sloppy upkeep. No one from the maintenance company or the past administration that hired it took responsibility. Supposedly it's all because of their age that the trains are falling apart. If that is so, then why did the contractor sign up with those past officials to service the MRT-3 for three years, 2016-2018? Why did they not just shut down the decrepit railway? Obviously they didn't do that because, after secret negotiations in 2015, there was easy money to be had -- P3.8 billion from taxpayers and train fares. And to hell with the passengers' safety and comfort. Earlier, for a separate P3.8 billion, that same contractor had sold to the same officials 48 brand-new coaches from China. Oddly none of those are operational. No one is answering for that too.

Blabbering in that Senate hearing was ex-transport secretary Joseph Abaya. In a prepared opening statement he claimed that reports of trains without engines were fake news. He needs to be walked through the events of late 2015. In end-Aug. he had thumped his chest on TV news that the first prototype of the Chinese coaches had arrived in Manila, whereupon it was pulled into the depot by two older units. Days later this column exposed why that supposedly fully functional model had to be assisted in: it had no traction motors. Abaya had to go on-cam again, scratching his head that time, admitting he had yet separately to buy the motors from Germany. He did not explain then why he was paying for engineless trains. In last Monday’s hearing he ignored the fact that the MRT-3 expansion project manager then, presently its operations-in-charge Deo Leo Manalo, had stated under oath ahead of him that the first unit indeed was delivered without motors.

Everything Abaya said thereafter, the senators no longer could believe. Quickly he exited, for he was flying off to a religious pilgrimage, to the Holy Land, a senator remarked. Judas Iscariot once walked the Holy Land too, that senator added.

Officers of the maintenance contractor, Busan Universal Rail Inc. (BURI), claimed to be properly servicing the MRT-3. If the trains keep conking out, they said, it's because of two maladies they purportedly had inherited. One supposedly is the shoddy work by preceding contractors. The other is the transport department's failure to replace the dilapidated tracks.

Those alibis tell a lot, in light of who the senators know to be the two mysterious P3.8-billion dealmakers for BURI: Marlo dela Cruz and Eugene Rapanut. Dela Cruz was the authorized representative of the two immediate past maintenance contractors, PH Trams and Global Epcom. From 2012 to 2015 those outfits scrimped on proper work and spare parts, and so the MRT-3 fast deteriorated. If BURI now blames them, then it is in effect blaming itself. Having been exposed in the past, dela Cruz tried to hide himself in the BURI deal, though not enough since his brother Bong, who handled procurement in the past for PH Trams and Global Epcom, still handles it at present. The BURI lawyer who keeps denying that would choke swallowing the documentary evidence.

BURI on-and-off managing director Rapanut, meanwhile, was the same broker of the P3.8-billion Chinese trains. Instead of in the Chinese factory as the contract specified, the 5,000-km test-runs were done on the MRT-3's already dilapidated tracks. Whether the test-runs were made under the required varying speeds, curves, and slopes, is beside the point. (They weren’t.) Manalo swore at the hearing that those were done every night during MRT-3's off-hours throughout 2016, when the tracks should have been under inspection and repair. Former MRT-3 general manager Al Vitangcol has reported to the Ombudsman that there was a five-percent kickback, almost P200 million, in the Chinese deal. That likely was why the supplier got away with contract breaches. If BURI now blames the train breakdowns to the bad tracks, then it is blaming its own man.

Abaya, the ruling Liberal Party president while he was transport chief, skirted during the hearing revelations that dela Cruz and Rapanut were his LP-mates.