The message is loud and clear from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC): No increase in the fares of the elevated Metro Rail Transit (MRT) unless there is improvement in its service. No improvement, no increase.
Ordinary commuters have long seen that MRT service has to be improved before the DOTC took notice. One just has to go to any MRT station to see this. Long lines of commuters waiting to buy tickets snake down the stairs to the streets. Those waiting in line know just how long they have to wait to buy a ticket and get a ride. And when the train stops at the station, they have to push and shove their way in and stand packed like sardines in the coaches until they mercifully get to their destinations.
Even those who don’t take the MRT know the hell that MRT commuters have to endure just by looking up at passing trains. These are so packed with people that they look like they are about to burst.
Any ordinary business operating the MRT will take the opportunity to buy more trains and coaches to accommodate the tens of thousands of commuters who want to take the trains but oftentimes cannot because of overcrowding. More trains, more passengers; more passengers, more income, more profit. Right?
Wrong for the MRT operators, who are no ordinary businessmen. They have a sweetheart deal with the government. They are guaranteed by the government a minimum profit. If they earn less than that minimum, the government pays the difference. This removed the incentive to improve service to earn more. Why invest more and work harder when you get a guaranteed net profit in the present situation?
The government gets the subsidy from the taxpayers. Yet the government wants to discontinue paying the subsidies that benefit the taxpayers. P-Noy’s administration claims it is unfair to taxpayers outside Metro Manila when their tax money is used to subsidize the rides of Metro Manilans. But that is only one side of the issue. Metro Manila taxpayers also pay whatever the national government spends in the provinces for infrastructure, for the congressmen’s Countrywide Development Assistance, otherwise known as the pork barrel, and for relief aid during times of calamities.
P-Noy and his boys ought to know that all mass transit systems in the world are subsidized by the government. That is what they give back to the taxpayers in exchange for their taxes. All the rail systems in the world are subsidized by their governments because the rails are the cheapest means of transportation available to the masses. The government is paid back by the development of the economy and the increased income of the commuters who therefore pay higher taxes.
To reduce the subsidies, the government and the operators want to increase fares. That is rewarding inefficiency.
Besides easing the overcrowding with more trains, the MRT operators should safeguard the lives and limbs of their passengers. There have been several accidents lately that have jeopardized the safety of MRT passengers. Recently, fire broke out beneath one of the coaches of a northbound Metrorail train near the Kamuning station in Quezon City, prompting the passengers to scramble for the exits. Two women were injured. Maintenance lapses caused the fire. More and more often, trains halt between stations also because of maintenance lapses. Other breakdowns in the aging train system occur more frequently. The signaling system is in bad shape as well. A malfunctioning signaling system can result in train collisions that can kill and injure hundreds of passengers.
This is no surprise as the Edsa MRT 3 system’s passenger load has increased through the years to a level almost double the design capacity of 350,000 passengers daily. The MRT now has 600,000 passengers daily, with more left behind at the stations because the trains cannot accommodate more. Some trains don’t even bother to stop at stations because they are already full. Can’t the operators increase the frequency of the trains during rush hours and let these trains and their crew rest during the lax hours?
But why the maintenance lapses? It has been 12 years since the MRT started operations, and unlike the LRT on Rizal Avenue, it has not had one single rehabilitation program.
For a long time, the “interim” maintenance contractor of MRT was the Japanese firm Sumitomo. While its contract says it is “interim,” it was extended repeatedly so that Sumitomo in effect became a long-term contractor.
Recently, Sumitomo’s contract finally expired and a new “interim” contractor for six months was appointed. The appointment of Comm Builders & Technical Philippines Corp. is still shrouded in legal issues, but the DOTC Bids and Awards Committee (BAC) pronounced the need as “urgent,” and that seems to justify the whole thing in the government’s eyes.
But the DOTC should ensure that the six-month interim contract (beginning October 19) remains just that: an interim contract, and should take steps for a proper procurement for a long-term maintenance provider. It is crucial that this long-term maintenance provider is put in place within those six months. The government should avoid a repeat of the extension upon extension of the original six-month contract of the interim provider that characterized the Sumitomo interim contract.
In short, the government should now start the bidding process for the long-term maintenance provider so that they can already get credible, qualified bidders by January 2013 and avoid the deadline rush, which marred the Sumitomo contract expiration a month ago.