OPINION: Trains on Track for Disaster in the Philippines

Credit: Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)
Why you need to know

Riding the MRT in Manila is becoming more expensive, difficult and dangerous, yet the government is set on repeating the public-private partnership arrangements that led to the problems in the first place.

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Train travel, a perennial inconvenience in many a capital city, appears to be getting even worse in the Philippines. The train system in Metro Manila has been a bane for commuters for as long as I can remember. Sure, it’s fast and gets you where you need to be quicker than any other mode of transportation, but only if you can get on the train in the first place.

It can take up to two hours to actually board a train during the morning and evening rush, the service constantly breaks down, the cars are packed and malfunctions have made it so dangerous that a woman recently lost her arm while waiting on a platform.

While there are several train lines in the Philippines’ capital, like the state-owned yet privately run Light Rail Transit (LRT), as well as the original Philippine National Railways (PNR), the line that attracts the most ire is the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3. The line, which runs an orbital north-south route on the east side of Manila, suffers a glitch of some kind an average of 44 times a month. When it gets really bad, like last September, a single week can see 29 delay-inducing incidents. What can you expect, when the trains carry 550,000 passengers per day on lines that are only equipped for 350,000 people?

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Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Motorists drive through a heavy traffic flow near a passing MRT Line 3 train along the main highway EDSA in Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Almost everybody in the capital has their own MRT horror story. I once rode the train on the cusp of the evening rush hour. t was already packed and when we arrived at one of the stations, a throng of people tried to burst in. They were visibly haggard, had probably been waiting for hours – tired and with a long ride home. But it was physically impossible to accommodate even a quarter of the people wanting to get on. Those inside the train, rammed up against the door, were yelling “defense, defense” as if facing off against an onrushing rugby or football team. Scuffles ensued.

A couple of weeks ago, two MRT Line 3 cars decoupled and commuters had to walk a kilometer to the next station. Even if there are no major incidents, you can arrive in line at 5 a.m., get on the train at 7 a.m. and still be late for your 9 a.m. office hour.

The issue, as in any city teeming with commuters, is a constant in the public consciousness, but problems are mounting after years of weak maintenance as a result of poorly conceived public-private contracts. Crucially, it’s happening as the government draws up proposals for new train line to be run along the same lines in the next year or so.

Pointing fingers

The MRT is owned by the MRT Corp. and operated by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), which has outsourced some of its key maintenance functions to South Korea’s Busan Universal Railway Inc. (BURI).

The recent mishaps triggered the November resignation of Cesar Chavez, Undersecretary for Railways in the DOTr. Good on Chavez, who says the move was a “simple case of delicadeza” or the proper thing to do given the failure of his agency to deal with the mess – showing a sense of civic responsibility that is too often lacking here.

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Credit: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Guards check for injured passengers after an MRT train derailment on the BURI-maintained MRT Line 3 in 2014.

Chavez was instrumental in exposing anomalies in parts procurement and maintenance by BURI in September. The company had bought 4 million pesos (about US$80,000) worth of uncertified and unaccredited equipment, and asked the DOTr to pay for it.

Chavez angrily explained that, “BURI is asking the government to reimburse it for its deficiencies, compensate it for its failures and pay it for its non-performance.”

Early in November, BURI's contract was terminated. But the damage had already been done. Commuters had suffered multiple malfunctions as a result of the company’s shady dealings. Various civic organizations and transport groups then filed a criminal case against the DOTr and BURI for graft and corruption.

Renato M. Reyes, Jr., secretary general of the left-wing Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (“New Patriotic Alliance”), colloquially known as “Bayan”, who led filing of the charges said: “The DOTr dealt favors in the form of exclusive contracts to a technically and financially incapable group (BURI) for maintenance service. They turned it into a cash cow, milking profits while millions of commuters suffered.”

Guaranteed failure

It begs the question: Why is the government spearheading further privatization of public service and at what cost? Part of the problem is a contractual obligation to pay guaranteed profits out of the public purse to private stakeholders in the MRT.

Guaranteed profits are a major facet of MRT deals involving maintenance services or rental fees paid to MRT Corp. According to Manila-based think tank IBON, “the government paid a 54.5 million-peso monthly maintenance fee to BURI in 2016. But during that year, MRT Line 3 [which BURI maintained] had 2,619 instances of trains being removed from service, 63 service interruptions and 586 incidents of passenger detraining or an increase of 20 percent, 26 percent and 164 percent, respectively, compared to 2014.”

Additionally, it said that the DOTr has facilitated rental payments of up to 610 million pesos every month to MRT Corp since the year 2000. This is to pay off the 15 percent guaranteed “return on investment” stipulated in their agreement. Around 85 percent of the fare a commuter shoulders pays off this contractual obligation, according to IBON.

Fares have actually doubled in the last five years. While the trains are getting worse, people have been paying more for a deal that government brokered and more or less upheld for 17 years. Now, the DOTr is looking for service providers to replace BURI, but there is no sign of any fundamental change. The option for the state to shoulder the burden of providing this public service is apparently not on the table, though opposition groups like Bayan are calling for the mass transport system to be nationalized.

In an interview, Angelo Suarez, spokesperson of commuter group TREN (Train Riders Network) who filed the charges alongside Bayan, said: “Trains are breaking down because they’re operated as private businesses rather than public services. Profit takes precedence: a natural monopoly, there’s nothing pressuring [the service providers] to improve other than easily ignored public convenience, rail lines are improved only insofar as improvements mean more earnings, they’re repaired only when repairs lead to bigger margins. Should the government make the call to halt operations for an overhaul, its private stakeholders still rake in profit: the government has entered lopsided contracts that guarantee [private firms] profit.”

“Only by nationalizing the train system will it start functioning as a genuine pro-people service." – Angelo Suarez

Living on a prayer

In response to these persistent problems, current DOTr chief Arthur Tugade appealed to the public to “pray for the MRT.” He added that they should not expect miracles but continue to trust that the department is doing its best.

This did not go down well. The public demanded action and competence amidst growing unrest on the issue. Instead, they were offered a vague appeal to blind faith that dodged accountability.

President Duterte’s new “Build Build Build” initiative is an aggressive infrastructure program that incorporates constructing new train lines and de-congesting areas. But at what cost?

While there are many ambitious projects, one that stands out is MRT Line 7, set to be fast-tracked and completed in two years. This comes after delays stretching r back to 2008, when the deal was initially struck. The problem is that the Duterte administration hasn’t learned from the past. The MRT Line 7 deal is yet another Public-Private Partnership granting the conglomerate San Miguel Holdings Corp. a controlling interest and a contract to operate the line in a 62.7 billion-peso deal.

Additionally, one of the areas set to be hit hard by the construction of the new train is a 200-hectare plot of land used by farmers from Tungkong Mangga, San Jose Del Monte, in the nearby province of Bulacan. On a recent trip, one of the affected residents said he was ready to die for his land. “When they start to take our land, I will die trying to defend it. Maybe then people will listen,” he said.

More train lines seem like a good idea in a country with urban areas as congested as the Philippines. But the deals as they stand repeat the structural flaws of previous projects. Will we look back in a decade or so and ask why hardworking farmers are bearing the brunt of higher fares due to the government’s unwillingness to protect public funds? Fares on existing lines have increased as much as 87 percent in the last two years alone, according to IBON's analysis.

Suarez said, “lopsided contracts should be reviewed and eventually scrapped,” as a first step. He goes on to offer an alternative: “Only by nationalizing the train system will it start functioning as a genuine pro-people service. Till then, hijacked by corporate interests, it will keep breaking down, running just enough to make money off commuters extorted by jacked-up fares, and through taxpayers who subsidize the profit of compradors guaranteed by state bureaucrats.”

Nationalization of state industries is not unthinkable – public ownership of the railways has been suggested as part of the UK Labour Party’s opposition manifesto, and in various European countries industries from the postal service to energy and even banks are publicly owned.

Whatever the action, the point is that we must remedy prevailing practices that have reaped few rewards while subjecting the public to misery and frustration. Prayers alone won’t do the job.

Editor: David Green

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