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Manila’s Metro Rail System Is a Nightmare

In the last few years, Metro Manila’s commuter rail system has gone from bad to worse. It is now in desperate need of an upgrade as lack of maintenance, fewer trains, and swelling numbers of commuters have pushed the system to a breaking point.

The MRT Line 3, which runs north–south through the center of the city, is the most prominent and congested of the three main lines serving Metro Manila. The MRT has been the focus of Manila’s rapid transit woes—operating well over capacity with about 600,000 passengers on a daily basis vs the intended 350,000 passengers back when the line opened in 1999. To make matters worse, the line now sees an average of 14 trains in use on most days, and sometimes as few as eight trains on exceptionally bad days, in contrast to the 24 trains originally operating on the line.

Manila's MRT station exits

Many of the trains frequently break down, often leaving passengers stranded, and always resulting in almost half of the trains sitting unused, awaiting parts or repairs that don’t seem to get done. Even the tracks themselves are showing their age—with gaps and cracks that now force trains to trundle along at 40 kmh (25 mph), down from the original speed of 65 kmh (40 mph).

Amazingly, the MRT has not yet been overhauled and upgraded to handle this ongoing strain on capacity, not to mention other inconveniences such as leaky train roofs or worse—poor safety standards and mechanical failures. One example of the latter is a report of a train which crashed through a barrier at a terminal station last year, injuring dozens. There have also been communication system glitches, sometimes forcing the entire line to shut down for hours.

Apart from huge delays and increased danger to passengers, all of this has led to worsening crowds and long lines of commuters snaking down the steps well outside of some of the stations. Some people have had enough and are going back to taking buses on Manila’s already congested streets, sometimes spending two hours just to get to work.

In June of last year, these conditions finally resulted in the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) ordering a probe into MRT (mis)management to get answers on why officials haven’t taken proper action to improve safety and efficiency for the line.

On top of that, the DOTC itself is being called out by the senate—in an investigation which was started last fall—to answer for their slow handling of overhauling the MRT line.

Bottom line is that a dysfunctional public–private partnership is the primary the cause.

Jose Regin Regidor, a research fellow at the University of the Philippines’ National Centre for Transportation Studies, comments, “The main or root problem seems to be legal and not at all technical. The technical problems experienced are manifestations of a contract that is a textbook case for how not to do a PPP (public–private partnership) programme.”

The Straits Times explains further:

“The MRT is a build-lease-transfer project, built by a consortium of big property developers. The government, through the transport ministry, operates the line, assuring the investors a 15% return on their investments through a 25-year lease—or about US$2.4 billion (S$3.3 billion).

Things started to fall apart when the government decided to start withholding payments and the line’s maintenance contractor, Japan’s Sumitomo [Corporation], was replaced in 2012 by an under-capitalised local firm, according to testimonies from investors to a congressional committee.

After 2012, the major breakdowns increased in frequency to three a month, according to the investors.

To the government, however, it had been paying enough: US$779 million from 2000 to 2013.

It insists that the private investors should have ploughed some of that money back to upgrading the MRT by buying new trains and overhauling the entire line as early as 2008. Instead, they let the system deteriorate.

The solution of President Benigno Aquino’s government now is to buy out the investors to the tune of 54 billion pesos (S$1.6 billion), which the latter complain is too little.”

So it seems more waiting is in store, as bureaucracy and blaming dominates, and those responsible take their time to figure out how to actually make changes. Meanwhile, commuters will have to either endure or make some changes of their own in how they get around Manila, as the state of transportation here awaits real improvement.

H/T: Straits Times