WHAT A relief to read that the Department of Transportation and Communications will not hike LRT/MRT fares until their service improves. Commuters are up in arms over the proposed fare hikes not just because they are almost double the current rates, but because the fares just aren’t worth the terrible service.
The question now is: When will those services improve, and how? The Inquirer has published a growing number of complaints from readers about the long waits for trains and the crowding. Left unsaid are the small disasters that occur each day: fainting spells, pickpocketing, sexual harassment. I’m concerned, too, that we are waiting for major disasters to happen. I’m almost afraid to mention what could happen, but here they are: stampedes, fires, passengers running amuck. I might as well mention that with the number of people commuting, in the chaotic conditions of our LRT and MRT, you cannot expect the guards to conduct thorough security checks—and that invites the most unthinkable of disasters.
I’ve been taking the LRT and MRT occasionally for years and have seen how all three lines have deteriorated. But it wasn’t until a trip last month, on a Friday night at around 8 p.m., that I realized how totally degrading and debasing a ride could be. I challenge our government officials to see for themselves, during the rush hour.
I wanted to go from the Philippine General Hospital to San Juan. I could have gone from the Pedro Gil station to the north end of the MRT line but, thanks to the government’s poor planning, the LRT line ends on Roosevelt, which means one more jeep ride to connect to the MRT. So I decided to go in the other direction, from Pedro Gil to Edsa on the LRT line, then switch to the MRT to take me to the Annapolis station. An hour max, I thought.
Two hours later, I stumbled out of the train back at Pedro Gil and returned to PGH.
I should have known from the very beginning that it wasn’t going to work out. First, maybe because I’m so tired from my classes, plus the fact that there are no signs at the station’s entrances, I ended up boarding the station on the wrong side of the street and finding out only after a slow climb to the top with the long line. Back down then, crossing chaotic Taft and another long queue up to the right side of the station.
It wasn’t too long a wait for the train, but it was packed, smelling less of sweat than of a stale weariness. I got off at the Edsa station, walked down to the street and looked for nonexistent signs to take me to the MRT. A vendor told me to just cross the street but I noticed traffic aides at the other side looking like big bad wolves waiting for Little Red Riding Hood.
I walked back up to the Edsa station, crossed a bridge to more passageways with vendors selling cheap made-in-China toys, and was finally swallowed into a mass of people that was moving ever so slowly, as in a funeral procession. I looked at people trudging along in the other direction, also looking very tired, and sad.
No signs or directions again. I would ask people if we were moving toward the MRT. Some said yes, others shrugged, and I realized they didn’t know either. We were packed like sardines, and I wondered if the guy behind me was picking my pocket, doing a security frisk, or… Half an hour later, we had moved maybe 50 meters and I suddenly felt like we were being herded into gas chambers…or that we were already in the chambers.
Trip to hell
As we got to the end of the line, the crowd forked out in different directions. One moved to the right into another bridge leading back to the streets. I took a U-turn with another crowd then spotted, hallelujah ringing through my head, an ever so tiny sign in one corner: “MRT.” I joined the line moving into that corner but as we got closer to the gateway to heaven, we heard a guard calling out that it was only for those holding tickets.
Of course, I didn’t have a ticket and I realized now that the melancholy horde that I had seen moving in the other direction was the line to buy a ticket, and they were going back in the same direction I had come from. A sign should be put up here, I thought, and it should read: “Welcome to Hell.”
I will spare you the details of how I got back to PGH, except to say that at one point, thanks to meditation classes, I switched myself off and floated into the “Twilight Zone.” Older readers will remember that TV show’s theme music: ting ting ting ting, ting ting ting ting. On the way back, I almost bought something from the sidewalk, realizing now that the vendors were catering to parents feeling guilty about getting home so very late.
The problems with LRT and MRT aren’t just a matter of trains. All over the world, mass transit systems involve crowds, huge ones. But at least people move, with the help of signs, maps, and grumpy but helpful staff.
The problem we have here boils down to this: We are really a terribly unkind people, especially to people of lower status. Our transport systems favor those with cars and no one really cares about what happens to people on foot or on bikes, or the LRT and MRT commuters.
Being kind has to be part of the solution, starting with signs and maps that tell people where to go. People need relief, too, from the tedium, the pain. I’ve seen how Inquirer Libre lightens the start of the day for early commuters, and wish there were more copies. So people won’t feel like they’re on a Death March, it might help to put up television sets. I don’t think anyone will want to watch educational films, or government propaganda, so perhaps music videos, maybe even Willie Revillame, can serve as anesthesia. (Am I asking for trouble? I can imagine giant loudspeakers now blaring out sticky tunes.)
Maybe a more genteel alternative is to offer reading stuff. No religious propaganda, please. I know people do read, and appreciate those poems put up by Instituto Cervantes inside the coaches, so why can’t we have them as well as large billboards on the way to the stations?
Some of the LRT and MRT trains have coaches reserved for women, senior citizens, the disabled and people traveling with children, but the problem is getting into the station. So, foremost, we need courtesy lanes and special assistance for these groups just to get in and out of the stations. And for all the other commuters, it will help to put queuing barrier posts—you know, the ones with retractable straps that they use in banks and airports. People shove and push when there’s no sense of a queue.
The LRT and MRT are, for thousands of Filipinos, the face of the government, and right now it is an uncaring, unkind face. If the government can’t do a facelift, then the private sector should, what with all the talk of public service and corporate responsibility. Throw in your ads with the public services, if you will, but do something, soon.
* * *
E-mail: [email protected]