Alex Magno | Philstar Global | October 10, 2017

In Tokyo over the weekend, I had another one of those painful opportunities to admire this city's infrastructure buildup and rue what has become Manila's major embarrassment, its dysfunctional mass transport system. In this city, they plan infra for the next generation, not the last.

I observed in great detail a genuine light rail line that flew high above the elevated toll roads and across the river. The structure supporting the system seemed as light as the trains. There was no walkway for commuters to pass in case the train breaks down like the MRT-3 regularly does. It never occurred to the Japanese engineers that such an event would ever happen. The trains running on this line were nifty and nice.

A few years ago, I recall, the Japanese agency responsible for looking after the rail system issued a year-end apology for cumulative delays of something like 26 seconds. That may seem surreal for Manila's harried commuters who think of hours of delay daily.

The Japanese are very proud of their rail system. That is the key to an efficient logistics network, running down the archipelago like a metal spine. Before anybody thought of doing so, they built high-speed trains running between Tokyo and Osaka.

It will take us many decades to even approximate the reliability and speed of Japan's rail system. The PNR system simply deteriorated to its present state. The MRT-3, which now breaks down several times a day, is nearing that decrepit state.

Using the MRT-3, in its present state, is an act of faith. You never know exactly when you might board the train. If you succeed in that first hurdle, you are never sure the service will not break down.

While we argue about the adequacy of the maintenance contracts to keep this system running, people rarely speak about this system's fatal flaw: it was obsolete the day the system started operating.

The Czech company that built the trains now in use is not a maker of light rail system. This company had a venerable tradition making trams. Since trams fell out of fashion, the plant operated irregularly. They were shut down when there were no orders pending. Today, that company has gone completely bankrupt.

Why we asked a tram manufacturer to produce trains for our light rail system boggles the mind. Jun Abaya is not the first one to contract trains out to a manufacturer unfit to produce what we need. That was done the first time around.

Abaya, of course, compounded the problem. He signed a P3 billion contract for new trains to replace the ones dying out because they do not serve the purpose for which the system was designed.

Abaya held us all in suspense when the new trains were trickling in. He made it sound like the solution has been found. Now we know the Dalian trains are useless. They could not be run on the existing track. They are too bulky and heavy – not mentioning they do not come with engines and a functioning signaling system.

We are now trying to return those trains. It could take decades to complete the legal procedures for delivering back those useless trains and recovering the money we paid for them. It is a wonder Abaya is not yet in jail.

In the meantime, we have not yet ordered new trains. What we need, actually, is an entirely new system. Continuing with the mismatch between track and train will court more breakdowns in the future. Instead of investing money in new infra, we will likely be flushing down billions just rehabilitating this existing unimaginably congested line.

Rodrigo Duterte ran and won by a massive landslide because he promised us change was coming. Now, those of us forced to live with the decrepit MRT-3, just want to be told when relief is coming.

The current service provider takes the flak for the incessant breakdowns in the MRT-3 service. The poor guys of Busan Universal Railway Inc. (BURI) were contracted to do maintenance work on a fundamentally flawed system. The key performance indicator set in the contract is to ensure that between 18 and 22 trains are in operation on any given day. If the number of trains on the revenue line falls below 18, BURI pays a penalty.

That is a harsh contract – especially because the DOTr is under to condition to pay a penalty when the agency fails to pay the service provider on time. Government is many months behind the payment schedule agreed with the service provider. How can the maintenance contractor deliver quality service if government is way behind its payment obligations?

To date, BURI has not failed in assuring 18 trains were deployed each day. That is the most important measure, not the sourcing of spare parts.

Duterte understands the importance of bringing MRT-3 to fighting form. If he fails in this, he loses legitimacy. The recent SWS surveys show ominous signs Duterte's political support might be eroding.

He cannot subsist on simply being a different sort of leader. He must try to be a president that delivers.

Last year, Duterte appointed retired general Rodolfo Garcia to be the MRT-3 general manager. It will be the daily commuters who will rate him for job performance.

Sure there are well entrenched syndicates at the MRT-3 and the DOTr, fretting about how much gravy they take from the trains instead of how much trains they can deliver for the convenience of commuters. The manager's first task, however, is to deliver convenience no matter the odds.