Last week’s accident at the Taft station of the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (Yellow line) was a reminder of the sorry state of mass transport in Metro Manila. While the Department of Transportation and Communication’s (DOTC) investigation pointed to human error as the main reason for the accident, the statements of DOTC Secretary Abaya on the accident raises more questions than the answer that he provided.
For example, why are the drivers in question still hired as contractual employees when they have been with the company for six years already? These employees would now be facing administrative charges and could possibly be removed from office due to the incident yet every six months (according to Abaya), they face the same problem whenever their contracts are being renewed.
Then there is still the question of why the train suffered a fault in the first place. The DOTC cites the overspeeding of the train beyond what its rails can sustain as it readily cleared Autre Porte Technique Global Inc. (APT Global), the MRT-3 maintenance provider, of blame.
The DOTC’s recommendation was to get the MRT’s personnel more familiar with the safety and operational procedures, which will be audited and monitored by an independent body. They also want to reduce the running speed of the trains to avoid power failures. The long term solution, according to Abaya, was for the DOTC to move forward with its upgrading of rails, trains and signal system.
On the surface, the government was trying to buy back the MRT-3, which the owner, MRT Holdings, was trying to resist according to reports. Yet this buy back is not being done to convert the MRT into a genuine public mass transport system but it is being done so that the Land Bank of the Philippines and the Development Bank of the Philippines can unload their interest in the company.
The government has in fact allotted P56 billion pesos in the 2014 budget for this takeover, which was contained in Executive Order 126 signed by President Aquino. This would have freed the government from the 7 billion pesos subsidy that it has to give the MRTC as part of the government guarantee of 15 percent return on investment.
Despite this guaranteed return on investment, MRT commuters have long complained of long queues, congested train coaches, frequent MRT breakdown, numerous accidents and overall inefficient service. This belies the usual refrain that privatization solves the inefficiencies of public utilities.
Instead of looking for new investors, government should use this opportunity to build a genuine mass transport system.
A comparison of rapid transit systems all over the world shows how underserved our 11.8 million Metro Manila residents are. The combined light rail system in the Metro covers a total of around 50.3 kilometers with 45 stations that serve a total of 3.45 million passengers.
Contrast this with Hong Kong’s MTR system serving its 7.2 million residents: 152 stations admit 4.55 million people daily to travel its 218.2 kilometers of combined light and heavy train tracks.
London’s 8.3 million residents has its Tube which admits 4.6 million passengers daily and has 270 stations and 402 kilometers of tracks. New York City’s subway system has 468 stations, 1,056 kilometers of tracks and transports 5.47 million people daily. The subway transports 65 percent of New York’s population while the London Tube serves 56 percent, Hong Kong’s MTR 63 percent while Metro Manila can only take 29 percent.
In 2014, the Department of Transportation and Communications is among the top 10 agencies with the highest budget. The P48.8 B 2014 DOTC budget is already 31.6 percent more than the 2013 DOTC budget.
Now the DOTC is requesting for a P6.6 B taxpayer support for the MRT as part of its P52.9 budget for 2015. The amount is said to be for the operation, maintenance and subsidy for the 13-station, 17-kilometer MRT 3 line. We, the people, not only assure the MRT its profits, we are also now taking on its maintenance expenses.
The fact that hundreds of MRT commuters who are ordinary employees, workers and students still line up at the train stations even after the incident shows that metro commuters have little choice of the means in which they will arrive to their workplaces and destinations. This fact escapes the Aquino government who assures the public yet does nothing to improve the mass transport system.
Providing basic utilities and other social services like education, health, transportation and making them cheap, accessible and safe to all defines good governance. The government may dismiss the MRT accident as a mere technical issue or human error, but to the Filipinos who face the risk and difficulties of our transport system and are already burdened with economic hardships daily, continuing the situation of a private owned, government guaranteed MRT should be junked.
The government has funds, as the PDAF and DAP issues have shown us. It has also shown that it can allocate billions of pesos on transport with its 2014 and 2015 budgets. Why can’t it then think beyond looking at government as a business and start looking at government as providing genuine services?