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Mass transport meant to be subsidized

/ 12:08 AM December 24, 2014

Although it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to everyone!

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The Department of Transportation and Communications under Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has a strange Christmas and New Year gift to the riding public: Starting next year, commuters will have to pay almost double in fares to be able to ride the packed MRT and LRT elevated trains. This is not only a cruel joke; it also adds insult to injury.

Think of it: Commuters will have to pay almost twice what they are paying now just to fall in long lines extending from the platforms, down the stairs and on to the sidewalks and streets for at least half an hour, then jostle for cramped space in the crowded trains that often break down and expose them to death or injury. What a way to meet the New Year, no thanks to Mr. Abaya and the DOTC.

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It is ironic that the fare increases come right after a report that the MRT 3 train system is so badly maintained that many parts of the rails are broken, exposing the trains to possible derailment and the passengers to the risk of death or injury. This has actually happened a number of times. But instead of replacing the broken rails and fixing the glitches in the system, the DOTC is fixing the problems by raising passenger fares. It is as if the DOTC wants commuters to stop riding the trains and relieve the pressure on the MRT management.

The fare increases will not be so painful if they are imposed after the train system is improved. But no, the DOTC says: Pay up first, improvement later. Its press releases seem to fix the blame on the “private owners.” Wrong. False.

The trains may still be privately owned (by MRT Holdings), but they are being operated by the DOTC and maintained by a provider that the DOTC has hired. In fact, the DOTC wants to take full ownership of the train system. The government has ordered two government banks to buy shares of stocks of MRT Holdings. The corporation is now majority-controlled by the DOTC.

But note that MRT3’s problems began when the DOTC took over its operation, dismissed its maintenance provider, Sumitomo of Japan, and hired a new one (the reason is not clear, but we can guess). That’s when the breakdowns started. The DOTC delayed buying new trains although the system badly needed more trains and the old ones are already rundown and dilapidated. The MRT manager was even accused by a foreign ambassador of trying to extort a multimillion-peso bribe in exchange for the purchase of trains from his country. When the scandal broke out, the manager resigned (or was dismissed).

The government claims it is paying billions of pesos to subsidize the train operations. The administration’s mantra is: Why should taxpayers of the Visayas and Mindanao pay for the operation of a train system that only Metro Manilans use?

It forgets that Metro Manilans and other taxpayers also pay for aid to the Visayas and Mindanao during disasters. It forgets that Metro Manila pays the bulk of all taxes paid—and that mass transportation is meant to be subsidized by governments.

All over the world, trains are subsidized by governments because they are the cheapest means of mass transportation of people and cargo. It is one way for a government to return to the people the taxes they pay. In the United States, Europe, India, China, Japan and other countries, taxpayers subsidize the trains that transport the biggest number of people and cargo.

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Our Philippine National Railways should have been supported the same way, but a succession of presidents beginning with Ferdinand Marcos neglected it and reduced subsidies. The PNR trains and rails have deteriorated, and are now reduced to a fraction of what they used to be.

Trains used to run the whole length of Luzon from San Fernando in La Union to Legazpi in Albay. Now the infrequent trains run only from Manila to Quezon. Much of the rails have been stolen; the railroad right of way has been occupied by squatters. The Arroyo administration tried to revive it with the North Rail project, but that was derailed by accusations of graft and corruption.

Other big islands used to have train systems, too. Now they are all gone.

Yet many of the transportation problems of Metro Manila and the whole country can be alleviated by trains. The traffic jams in the metropolis can be eased with more commuter trains. The highways can be relieved of heavy traffic if there are more trains to transport people and cargo.

The port and traffic congestion caused by giant delivery trucks in Metro Manila going to and from the ports can be eased by the railroad.

There are railroad tracks going through Caloocan to Tutuban to the piers. Flatcars used to transport cargo from the piers to Caloocan and from there to north and south Luzon. There is actually no need for giant truck trailers to go through the narrow streets of the metropolis. Merely by relocating the squatters and reclaiming the railroad tracks, these can be used again to ease the port congestion. But our officials are either shortsighted or afraid of squatters, which is why they are not doing any such thing.

The next president should pay attention to this pressing problem.

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TAGS: Department of Transportation and Communications, DOTC, Ferdinand Marcos, Joseph Emilio Abaya, mass transport, MRT-3, Philippine National Railways
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