When can commuters find light at the end of the MRT 3 tunnel?

In Photo: Chaos is the order of the day at Metro Rail Transit train stations, as commuters literally have to elbow their way in and out of overloaded train cars during rush hour. Photo taken March 28, 2013.

OPERATING at half of its capacity, the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3 has been subjecting its daily riders to what some have described as their worst commuting experiences in years.

Today, the railway system operates with about 10 trains during revenue hours—exactly half of its original capacity of 20 trains running. This is a breath of fresh air for commuters, who, for weeks, had to make do with just seven trains running even during peak hours.

But even before the train line slumped to this sorry state, it was already touted as the most congested railway system in Metro Manila.

It was previously serving more than half-a-million passengers per day in 2015, when queues were already long, and the trains were constantly jam-packed during peak revenue hours.

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These 20 trains ferry roughly 550,000 people daily, way above its rated capacity of 350,000 passengers per day.

Metro life sans MRT 3 

Commuters also suffered when the MRT 3’s operations were halted for an hour or two, no thanks to several glitches in the power supply of the railway system.

Although the government has organized its different transportation offices to remedy the situation, it was not enough to avert an operation stoppage during peak hours.

One time, the interagency traffic crisis team mobilized a truck to transport people from Quezon Avenue Station to Ayala Station.

A video of people scrambling to get into the truck—one without proper ladder—circulated in social media, showing the real scenario of what life without the MRT 3 in Metro Manila looks like.

This prompted Filipinos to call on the government to stop treating its citizens as such, that they don’t deserve a broken train line.

Service improvement target 

Fortunately, there exists a list of what the government and the private sector are doing to improve the current situation of the MRT 3, Department of Transportation (DOTr) Undersecretary Timothy John R. Batan said in a text message to the BusinessMirror.

Metro Pacific ready to be onboard

For one, there exists the unsolicited proposal of Metro Pacific Light Rail Corp.

The group submitted in 2017 a P30-billion unsolicited proposal that involves the expansion of the capacity of the railway system by adding more coaches to each train, allowing it to carry more cars at faster intervals. It will double the capacity of the line to 700,000 passengers a day, from the current 350,000 passengers daily.

The multimillion-dollar expansion is deemed as an all-encompassing deal, including the improvement of the reliability of rolling stock, the upgrading of power supply, the upgrading of stations and the replacement of rails, which will allow the company to operate the new trains purchased by the government from Chinese train manufacturer Dalian.

Unsolicited proposals are required, under the law, to be subjected to a Swiss Challenge, wherein other groups can offer a similar proposal, and the original proponent can present a counteroffer.

The government awarded the original-proponent status to the company last year.

Ready to implement

DAVID J. NICOL, who sits as chief finance officer at Metro Pacific Investments Corp., said his group is ready to implement the said offer in the next two months, should the government hasten its approval.

“We’ve done all of our due diligence on the line and we could start it as soon as May, if all the regulatory clearances will be ready to go,” he told the BusinessMirror.

The unsolicited proposal for the MRT 3 mimicked the same provisions under its concession agreement for the Light Rail Transit (LRT) 1 operations and modernization deal, which it bagged in 2014 via the Public-Private Partnership Program.

It means that instead of having a different operator and maintenance provider, the group will be the one to do both, something that the Sobrepeña group has been pushing for since the government forcibly took over the upkeep of the facility in 2012.

“From my perspective, we can take it up in May, and we are now in March. So that’s about eight to 10 weeks from now—we could be working on it. Well, that needs a lot of regulatory hurdles by the government, if they want, if they have other things in mind, it might take a little longer,” Nicol said.

Negotiated Japanese deal

ANOTHER one on the table is the negotiated deal with the Japanese government.

From its initial talks with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), the Philippine government is seeking to be granted an official development assistance (ODA) financing package for the overhaul and maintenance of the MRT 3.

“The Japan ODA-financed rehabilitation and maintenance project is intended to ‘fix everything that needs to be fixed’ in the MRT 3 through a well-qualified, experienced and single-point-of-responsibility rehabilitation and maintenance service provider,” Batan said.

The government is currently directly engaging Sumitomo Corp. and its technical partner Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for the upkeep of the MRT 3.

The two companies designed, built and maintained the MRT 3 in its first 12 years of operations.

Sumitomo’s maintenance contract was terminated in 2012, after the previous government decided to take over the said component despite contrary provisions in the build-lease-transfer (BLT) contract with MRT Corp. (MRTC).

“No more of the recent year’s ‘chop chop’ approach in fixing and rehabilitating the MRT 3, which has led to unnecessary implementation difficulties and, in certain cases, implementation failure,” Batan said.

Currently, a team of Japanese engineers are evaluating the kinks of the train line.

“The due diligence study of the MRT 3 is being conducted by the Japanese government to identify the needed rehabilitation works to be done by the new rehabilitation and maintenance service provider,” said Aly V. Narvaez, a spokesman of the MRT 3.

The new rehabilitation and maintenance service provider will be mobilized after securing the loan agreement from Japan.

Sustainable delivery 

The third part involves government action in maintaining the line.

Currently, a maintenance team from the government oversees the upkeep of the train line. Busan Universal Rail Inc. used to maintain the railway system, but its contract was terminated last October due to its alleged failure to properly deliver the provisions of its contract.

This maintenance transition program involves procuring needed spare parts to restore and continue the operations of the MRT 3.

“The Metro Pacific unsolicited proposal for the 30-year operations and maintenance of the MRT 3, the Japan ODA-financed three-year rehabilitation and maintenance project of the MRT 3 and the DOTr’s maintenance transition program are all part of the DOTr’s comprehensive and long-term strategy for fixing the MRT 3, and ensuring its sustainable delivery of reliable and convenient service to the commuting public,” Batan said.

Overlapping, but harmonious 

Batan said the government should have the Japanese companies onboard by May, when it targets to have at least 15 trains running during revenue hours.

“The 30-year operations and maintenance project will ensure that after ‘everything that needs to be fixed is fixed,’ and ‘even while the fix is ongoing,’ a similarly well-qualified, experienced, robustly capitalized and single-point-of-responsibility operations and maintenance concessionaire will deliver reliable, convenient, and measurable service to the MRT 3’s passengers,” Batan said.

The provider will be subject to defined Key Performance Indicators, these KPIs will be closely monitored by the government, he said, and failure to meet them will be subject to financial penalty.

Batan noted, however, that there will be a time when the Japanese and Filipino deals will overlap, but noted that the two can work together to further improve the MRT 3’s operations.

“There will be an overlap in the period between the Japan-ODA financed rehabilitation and maintenance provider and the O&M provider,” he said. “During the overlap period, the Japanese rehabilitation and maintenance provider and the O&M provider will be closely working together, with the O&M provider directly managing the former.”

The Japanese maintenance provider will be mobilized for three years to May 2021.

“The concession period of the O&M provider will be 30 years starting in the fourth quarter of 2018,” Batan said.

Best value 

Nicol noted that his group may be willing to work with the Japanese contractors, as this could mean that the government and the Filipino people will get the best value out of the two deals.

“I think that by combining forces, we can potentially get the very best solution for the public. The reason I said that we should acknowledge the benefit of the long-term financing from Japan, on one hand,” he said.

“On the other hand, I think we should acknowledge that the process that’s been made on the LRT 1 has been quite substantial, and if we look at the news flow even next month, you will see a significant increase even in the track speed—suddenly commuters feel their commutes are a lot faster—and I think, operationally, we have a lot to bring and from a public perspective I think we can get the best value across a combination, possibly,” Nicol added.

Since it started operating and maintaining the LRT 1, the operations of the said railway system has improved markedly. It also made a lot of improvements in the stations, and refurbished almost two dozen train cars that are now working normally.

“I think the government is eagerly wanting to find a solution to this. That’s no question. The question is how they decided the best way to do it—not yet,” Nicol said, referring to the MRT 3.

For now, while these are still in the works, MRT 3 commuters must make do with available options: regular taxis, air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned buses, ride-sharing services like Uber and Grab, point-to-point buses, or brave the long queues of the MRT 3.

 

Image Credits: Ed Davad

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