Yesterday was a Monday and commuters jammed the MRT-3, as usual. At around 8:20 a.m., somewhere in the northbound line in Cubao, Quezon City,
a train stalled because of what the Department of Transportation called “technical problems.” It was the first of three such incidents, quickly followed by two more a little later at the Magallanes station, in the same rush-hour morning.
DoTr classified yesterday’s breakdowns as Category 3 problems, the second-worst in their rating system, which meant that the trains that broke down were not put back in operation. They followed 14 similar serious problems on the line that began on May 15, according to the MRT website.
The million or so Metro Manilans who rely on the commuter trains every day are aware that traveling by rail these days is a touch-and-go deal. They may or may not make it to work or school on time on any given day.
But there seems to be some hope on the horizon as far as the MRT-3 is concerned: Japanese keiretsu Sumitomo has expressed a desire to return to the job of maintaining the breakdown-prone Edsa line.
Sumitomo did a fine job of ensuring that the MRT-3 trains and everything else related to the railway system worked, until it was unceremoniously replaced as overall maintenance provider by the Department of Transportation and Communications in 2010, early in the Noynoy Aquino administration. That’s when the previous government came up with the highly-suspect scheme that effectively ruined the Edsa line by eliminating Sumitomo’s single-provider system.
According to highly-placed sources in the Department of Transportation, which replaced the DoTC, top transport officials of the Duterte administration have already been informed about (and are now studying) Sumitomo’s planned return. Transportation Secretary Arturo Tugade’s go-ahead is needed to approve the plan of Sumitomo to once again take over the most patronized of the three existing commuter train lines in Metro Manila.
Sumitomo’s contract expired early in the Aquino administration and was extended several times for six-month periods by DoTC Secretaries Mar Roxas and Joseph Emilio Abaya. Eventually, Abaya gave out chopped-up pieces of the maintenance contract to companies with suspicious track records and capitalizations, eliminating the “single point of responsibility” that experts said caused the MRT-3 to deteriorate rapidly to its current broken-down state.
The DoTC under Abaya has always maintained that the old Czech-made trains of the MRT were the reason for the frequent breakdowns. But Sumitomo has always kept the same rolling stock that Abaya and his men wanted to replace in good running order, leading to suspicions that some DoTC merely wanted to purchase new trains and make hefty commissions from the purchases.
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According to sources close to the negotiations, the proposal calls for Sumitomo returning to work on MRT-3 maintenance and operations under the old “system guarantee” scheme through the Metro Rail Transport Corp., which originally contracted the Japanese firm. MRTC’s plan, stated in a letter to Tugade, calls for an investment of P7.5 billion to rehabilitate the system, with Sumitomo doing the work, in 24 months.
The proposal will not cost the government any money and will not require government guarantees. It will require an increase in fares, though, with a provision that the eventual fares will not be more than the cost of a trip of the same distance in an air-conditioned bus on Edsa, and a return of operations and maintenance work to the private firm MRTC.
MRTC-Sumitomo’s plan will entail the rehabilitation of 73 existing light rail vehicles (LRVs) of MRT-3. This compares to the current contract of Korean maintenance provider Busan, through its local joint venture BURI, of rehabilitating only 48 LRVs.
MRTC commits to show dramatic improvement in the train service a year after bringing back Sumitomo and taking over operations. The Sobrepena-owned company, which still claims ownership rights to the troubled train line despite government’s takeover of maintenance and operations, promises to return the long-forgotten safe, comfortable and reliable service of the MRT-3 during the Arroyo years at the end of two years.
Will Tugade and his team agree to the MRTC-Sumitomo proposal? According to my sources, the government has no doubt that the Japanese service provider can bring back efficiency to the troubled line that was almost destroyed by Abaya during the Aquino years.
But DoTr is torn between the high cost of bringing back Sumitomo and the prospect of keeping the trains running. Other options are also on the table, like striking a deal directly with the Japanese and even with the Czech company which delivered the original MRT trains that are still in use today.
If you ask most commuters, I’m sure they don’t really care who operates the trains, as long as they don’t break down like clockwork. They could even conceivably agree to pay more, if the trains can just get them to where they want to go.
Alternatively, they also want to lynch Abaya and other DoTC officials who ruined what was once such a great way to get around the city, especially when the trains stall. Given the chance, they just might do that yet.