Jarius Bondoc | The Philippine Star | August 18, 2017

The MRT-3 manager for expansion and operations is gone. But the bungles attributed to him linger. Deo Manalo was among the transport officials behind the P3.8-billion indent in 2013 of 48 coaches from China. In breach of contract, the units arrived late, defective, without basic signaling, and untested for 5,000 km. More defects are being discovered only now:

• The coaches are 3,300 tons too heavy. Specifications were for a weight of 46,300 tons for the 48 coaches. What Dalian Corp. delivered totaled 49,600 tons. The tonnage carefully had been calculated for the tracks to carry daily not only the 48 new coaches but the 72 existing units as well. The overweight (900 tons would have been tolerable) will wear out faster the tracks and consequently all the coaches’ wheels. Rides will be bumpy, maintenance costlier, and track replacement oftener.

• The under-chassis are unfit for the existing giant pit jack at the MRT-3 repair yard. Dalian deviated from the specified dimensions and features to be copied from the 72 older Czech-made coaches. The new units cannot be driven up the hundred-million-peso jack for periodic inspection and upkeep of the bogey frames, wheels, and brakes. There is no space at the depot to install a new jack just for the faulty trains. Mechanics have no elbowroom to repair or replace crucial under-chassis parts.

• Test runs of 26 coaches so far belatedly fitted with signaling showed myriad smaller defects: leaky air-conditioners, creaky doors, flickering lights. Those can easily be remedied, but not the overweight and under-chassis mistakes. Returning the 48 coaches to China for remake – as had Singapore, Hong Kong, and Pakistan – is easier said than done. MRT-3 first must prove the flaws independently. Technical consultants don’t come cheap, at least P45 million.

Shabby contracts to which Manalo et al had locked in the DOTr are tough to untangle. Cohorts long have left: transport chief Joseph Abaya, undersecretaries Jose Lotilla, Rene Limcaoco, Juanito Bucayan, Catherine Gonzales, and Edwin Lopez, and MRT-3 ex-general managers Honorito Chaneco and Roman Buenafe. Manalo has been sent back to his original agency, North Rail. For two years now their Dalian trains have been inoperative. With no quick fixes in sight, half-a-million daily MRT-3 riders will continue to suffer train shortages, rough rides, long queues, and frequent breakdowns of the old units. Manalo et al shouldn’t have tapped Dalian to begin with; it had no track record making motorized light railcars, only engineless heavy ones pulled by locomotives.

The Dalian coaches were brokered by ruling Liberal Party-mates of Abaya, predecessor Mar Roxas, and then-President Noynoy Aquino. The LP men also were behind the sloppy MRT-3 maintenance since 2012. The present deal, a separate P3.8 billion for 2016-2019, is with inexperienced, undercapitalized Busan Universal Rail Inc. With trains breaking down thrice daily from disrepair, unfulfilled overhaul of 43 old coaches, and unnecessary total replacement of the newly upgraded signaling, it is obvious that BURI should be rescinded. Yet that too is next to impossible. The LP brokers and their DOTr patrons had seen to that. So they have the temerity to lie to and insult Congress investigators, defy present U-Sec. for Rails Cesar Chavez, and sue the exposers of MRT-3 irregularities. (Upholding press freedom, the Sandiganbayan recently refused to gag The STAR and this writer from any more exposés. Presiding Justice Amparo Cabotaje-Tang and Associate Justices Sarah Jane Fernandez and Bernelito Fernandez ruled that continued exposés were "imbued with public interest.")

Chavez has withheld P36 million from BURI’s P550-million lump sum billings for recent months. No payments can be made for un-purchased parts or undone works. For that, BURI is blaming him for the worsening breakdowns. Yet in effect it is admitting shortage of the required capital to fulfill that huge a contract. Chavez also wants to scrap the needless P888-million signaling replacement. BURI is threatening to sue. Chavez is giving BURI one last chance to begin the long-delayed overhaul of 43 coaches. Yet, although it is in violation of deadlines, BURI is resisting the deduction of penalties and liquidated damages.

U-Sec. Reinier Yerba is studying the legalities. Firing BURI would require hiring a replacement on emergency. But no new firm might enter if DOTr doesn’t advance the $50-million outright cost of manpower, equipment, and parts. Procurement laws forbid such advanced payment. That makes BURI secure despite poor performance.

A way out could be legislation. Rep. Jericho Nograles is urging colleagues to withhold any more budget in 2018 to pay BURI. The contract is void from the start, he says, because the original 2015 bidder was Busan Transport Co. of Korea, not the namesake consisting of four Filipino dummies. The Commission on Audit also has pointed up numerous sloppy works.

Damned if it does, damned if it doesn't. The DOTr must replace BURI the soonest, to ensure safe, reliable rides. If it does that, it risks lawsuits. That’s how craftily the government has been tied down. And it's the people who suffer.