Subsidy cut infuriates riders of overcrowded system with a checkered history
ON January 5, despite a storm of protests from angry commuters, civic groups, and several lawmakers, the Aquino Administration pushed through with an increase in fares on Metro Manila’s three commuter rail lines, the Light Rail Transit Lines 1 and 2 (LRT-1 and LRT-2) and the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3).
The fare increase, which is based on a formula of P11 base fare plus P1 per kilometer traveled, increases the average fare for LRT-1 and LRT-2 riders by P4.70 and P5.60, respectively, and for MRT-3 riders by P7.92, according to MRT director of operations Renato San Jose. For a typical working commuter regularly traveling the MRT-3 between Taft Avenue and North Avenue, the increase in the one-way fare from P15 to P28 will add an average of P462 to monthly transportation expenses—nearly the equivalent of day’s pay at Metro Manila’s recently-increased minimum wage rate of P466 per day.
The numerous critics of the Administration’s move, whom President B.S. Aquino 3rd in a statement last week sardonically dismissed as being “full of complaints but not solutions, and just trying to look cute,” question the fare hike on several grounds.
The most glaringly obvious disconnect is the poor condition and reliability of the system, particularly the MRT-3; while the government quickly modified its original justification for the fare hike to acknowledge the need for comprehensive improvements, asking commuters to pay higher fares before much-needed upgrades are made is seen by some as callous. And because the government seemed to be uncoordinated in its message—at one point in the days leading up to the implementation of the fare hike, three different government officials were publicly offering three different explanations for it—suspicions have been raised about the government’s true intentions for the estimated P2 billion in savings it will realize.
Those suspicions have not been allayed at all by the seemingly underhanded way in which the fare hike was imposed as well. It was announced by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya on December 18 with the release of DOTC Department Order 2014-014; not only was this announcement made at the height of the busy pre-Christmas season, it was just a day after DOTC officials appeared at a Senate hearing on maintenance and safety problems with the MRT-3, where they failed to mention the impending fare increase.
Senator Grace Poe, who chairs the Senate sub-committee on transportation, later characterized the fare hike as “treacherous” and “Judas-like,” for its timing and manner of implementation, and because it is not at all clear the increased revenues would be used for much-needed repairs to the accident-prone system.
Flirting with disaster
Although the newest of the three lines, the LRT-2 which travels between Santa Cruz in Manila and Santolan in Pasig City, has not experienced a major untoward incident, both the LRT-1 and MRT-3 have suffered a number of serious breakdowns.
The most serious incident was the bombing of an LRT-1 train in Blumentritt Station on December 30, 2000, one of a string of five attacks that day across Metro Manila known as the Rizal Day Bombings. The bombing, which killed 11 people and injured 60 others, could not really be blamed on the train system itself—although LRT-1’s management did come under fire for “lax security measures,” according to contemporary news reports—but it was a tragic ending for what was a troubled year for the city’s oldest light rail line. Operations of the line were suspended between July 25 and August 2 of that year when employees of the line’s original operating contractor Meralco Transit Organization (METRO) Inc. staged a wildcat strike, prompting the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA) to refuse to renew METRO’s contract when it expired on July 31 and take over the day-to-day operations.
The most serious recent incident occurred on August 13, 2014 when a disabled MRT-3 train being pushed to Taft Avenue Station by another train became detached and overran the end of the track, almost reaching the street outside before coming to a stop. At least 38 passengers were injured in the accident; a passing motorist on Edsa narrowly escaped injury when a light pole toppled by the runaway train struck his car.
That incident followed months of controversy hounding the management of the Metro Rail Transit Corporation, allegations of bribery and other illicit dealings that will be covered in more detail in the second part of this special report. With the Taft Avenue crash sharply focusing public attention on the sorry condition of Metro Manila’s busiest transportation system, the MRT-3 suffered a string of failures: On August 23 and again on September 1 operations were halted due to a breakdown of the radio communication system; the very next day, on September 2, passengers were alarmed when a train was permitted to travel between stations after suffering a failure that left the train’s doors stuck open; a month later, broken rails between the Guadalupe and Boni Avenue stations forced a shutdown of the southern half of the line for most of a day; the same incident was repeated—in exactly the same location—on December 8. On January 1 of this year, another broken rail, this time near Ortigas Station, forced a temporary shutdown of the northern half of the line.
The older LRT-1 line is generally regarded as being better managed and maintained than its counterpart, but it has its own dubious record of breakdowns as well. In one memorable four-day period between March 28 and March 31, 2011, the LRT-1 suffered five separate incidents which interrupted operations: Two passengers suffered minor injuries when panic ensued after smoke started filling a train approaching United Nations Avenue Station; the following day, a door fault on a train at Carriedo Station temporarily halted trains on the entire line; the same incident—in the same station, but involving different trains—happened twice on March 30; and on March 31, a minor stampede at the Vito Cruz Station was triggered when a passenger in a crowded carriage accidentally pressed an alarm button. To make matters worse, the train line was more crowded than usual that day due to a strike and demonstration by jeepney drivers protesting an increase in fuel prices.
Some of the problems have been attributable to the LRT-1 line’s close proximity to surrounding buildings. In December, 2007, January, 2008, and again in July, 2008 fires, one in a residential area and two in large commercial buildings adjacent to the line, interrupted operations. An incident in 2009 in which steel debris from a construction site fell onto the tracks and catenary lines supplying power to the trains at the height of the morning rush hour created considerable chaos, and in July 2011 another neighborhood fire closed the line south of Central Terminal for several hours, again stranding thousands of morning commuters.
While no one has actually died on board a light rail train since the 2000 bombing, a common sentiment among commuters is that a more serious accident is “just a matter of time.” The view of MaryAnn Oposo, who travels daily from Bacoor to her workplace in Ortigas, is typical. “After that accident [at Taft Avenue], I try to avoid riding the MRT,” she said. “Even at the best of times it’s just too crowded, but now I worry that it’s not even safe. It costs me a little more, but if I can, I try to ride the bus or FX [commuter van]instead.”
An aging and overworked system
The maintenance of the light rail system is made more complicated by its extremely heavy use. The LRT-1, which has a design capacity of about 460,000 passengers a day, averages between 470,000 and 518,000 passengers a day; according to performance data provided by the LRTA, the line’s peak-hour load factor averaged just over 105 percent through the last five months of 2014. The MRT-3, which was only designed to carry 350,000 passengers a day, typically carries between 560,000 and 570,000 a day. Only the LRT-2, which operates higher-capacity “heavy rail” trains, normally operates at less than full capacity; it carries an average of about 212,000 passengers a day, a bit less than 60 percent of its design limit although passenger numbers are steadily increasing.
While the entire system is essentially profitable—an aspect of the issue which is discussed in greater detail in the next installment—routine operation of the rail lines in overloaded conditions has made maintenance challenging. That, at least, is the point of view offered by the system operators and the DOTC.
Critics contend, however, that poor maintenance is less a result of technical challenges than of corporate greed, bad management, and insufficient government oversight. As this special report will show in part two on Wednesday, critics who have elevated their challenge of the recent fare increase to the Supreme Court may not be entirely correct, but far from “looking cute” have nevertheless raised a number of key financial and administrative issues that have yet to be satisfactorily answered by the Aquino Administration.