Don’t change horses in midstream
A number of columnists have commented on the maintenance contract of MRT-3, and for good reason. Its maintenance is in disastrous (potentially fatal) condition.
I’m not going to apportion blame here as there are two sides to this story, as in any other story. What I’m going to do instead is point out two things that are highlighted by this disaster. And yes, it is a disaster. Just ask the people who wait in line for an hour or more just to get to the platform. In any civilized country, it takes only a few minutes. And that’s the least of the problems concerning this disaster.
The two things I want to concentrate on are: 1) You don’t give up a working system for an untried, untested, questionable one to save a few pesos, and 2) The government must now act very fast and very determinedly if it is not to have blood on its hands. No, I’m not exaggerating to make a point. The rails are in such a deteriorated condition that the collapse of a section is a distinct possibility. Then a train goes plunging down to Edsa, as Jarius Bondoc has pointed out, too.
But back to No. 1.
The saga of MRT-3 is creating a lesson that the government may well want to take on board: Don’t go for the cheapest deal, or with friends; stick with proven competence. There seems to be a habit in the government of considering only the up-front cost, not the overall cost, over the life of the system. Or the risks that can occur if cheaper deals are made. I know it’s difficult, but a way must be found to not have to accept the cheapest deal. I never buy the cheapest; you get what you pay for, and quality costs. It’s the same in services, too: You put low-cost technicians on a job, you get low-class work.
Sumitomo and Mitsubishi, two well-known companies of excellent reputation, were thrown out of MRT-3 for a cheaper source with few credentials. The inevitable happened: The system has broken down, with potentially fatal accidents now looming on the horizon. Whatever up-front gains the government may have made are being rapidly wiped out by the emergency rehabilitation work. The eventual cost will be far higher than those initial savings. And the dislocation of the public and deserved condemnation of the government will do the President and his party no good at all.
MTR Corp., the group that efficiently runs the Hong Kong railway system, was asked to do an asset audit of MRT-3. It was not a full examination of the service, just of the facilities used in the system. The results are horrific, and I can do no better than quote verbatim from its report (the English is not the best, but you’ll get the message):
“Of all the systems surveyed, the track condition is most alarming and requires immediate attention. There is insufficient stock for replacement. Machine rail grinding is also not done. In fact, the running speed was restricted to 40 kph from 65 kph to reduce the safety risk posed to the passengers. It can potentially cause train derailment leading to substantial casualties in a high usage system like MRT3. The lack of remediation will make those defects become more severe.
“The Rolling Stock asset condition is unsatisfactory. Traction motors have exhibited the most failures and it should be reviewed if overhaul or full replacement would be required.
“The wheel lathe and all track maintenance vehicles are out of order. The tamping machine and ballast machine, which are used for rail track maintenance, are out of order.
“The reliability of the door system and ATP (Automatic Train Protection) equipment also needs to be improved. Failure of door systems could be disastrous all train doors should be closed before a train starts to move and remain closed all the time. These should be a fail-safe design with no single point of failure.
“The physical and operating condition in the signal equipment room is poor. There is obsolescence of key components. A system replacement can be considered. The PABX system is working at full capacity and towards end of life.
“The 3 weeks interval between scheduled regular maintenance is too wide apart. Maintenance is task based without addressing the need to replace critical or obsoleted parts and subsystems in a timely manner.”
There was more, and as if it isn’t bad enough, it’s actually worse because MTR Corp. wasn’t asked to do a full audit of all phases of the operation. For instance, a maintenance review was not called for, yet maintenance—or should I say lack of it—is obviously one of the most serious weaknesses.
This all happened because Sumitomo and Mitsubishi were replaced with a “cheaper” deal—a cheaper deal that is going to cost far, far more, and introduce risks that weren’t there before. For instance, soon after the new contractor took over, there was a fire in one of the coaches. Since then two other accidents have happened. None did under Sumitomo.
The message is clear: When there’s someone qualified to do the job, the job gets done. When a questionable choice is made, trouble starts. When something’s working, you leave it alone.
Which brings me to No. 2. The President must step in. He must cancel the existing maintenance contract, and legal suit be damned. I’ll demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in support of him, and I’ve no doubt half a million or so people (the current MRT-3 ridership) will join me if APT Global files a case. And award the contract back to Sumitomo, with the recognition that there’s a huge initial cost to put the system back into safe, usable condition.
The time for open bidding for a supposedly better deal is long past. It’s time for fast, decisive action. And a time to learn from the mistakes of the past and choose what gives the best long-term benefit with the least risk.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.