The appearance of my Thursday column (“Lousy Food and Trains That Don’t Run”) in its online form Wednesday evening evidently impressed a few of my regular readers with its timeliness, as it just so happened to be the same day as the second major breakdown of the week for the ill-starred MRT-3 line along Edsa.
In that incident—I would write, “the latest incident,” if it were not for the very real chance that there will be another major “technical problem” before this column sees print—10 passengers suffered minor injuries when three southbound MRT trains made sudden stops after an automatic emergency braking system was activated.
Fortunately the injuries were minor, and the affected trains were underway again within a few minutes, but the MRT is so close to the breaking point now that even that minor delay was enough to jam every station along the line with waiting passengers, and create the now-familiar blocks-long lines outside some of the busier stations. And while no one was seriously hurt this time, the fact that anyone was injured at all was a warning: If something is not done immediately to restore the MRT to a functional state, there will be a “problem” with tragic consequences—if not on one or more of the trains themselves, then in the overcrowded stations.
The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and the Metro Rail Transit management have been doing their best to downplay the severity of the problems the government-run line is suffering. Under ordinary circumstances, that is not necessarily a bad approach, but “ordinary” circumstances are those in which problems are quickly identified and corrected. That is certainly not the case with the MRT; and as an unsurprising consequence the credibility of both the MRT and its parent agency are completely shot, leading some to openly question whether the never-ending series of breakdowns might have some nefarious purpose behind it, such as making it easier to sell a proposed rate hike to the public.
At this point it is difficult to see the problems of the MRT as anything other than just what they appear to be, symptoms of a system that is rapidly falling apart because of overuse. On the other hand, it is no secret that the Aquino Administration, with its enthusiasm for privatization no matter what the results or long-term costs, has long wanted to drop the government fare subsidy for the light rail system and find a private investor to take it off the government’s hands. These are not objectives that encourage the government to expend much effort to upgrade and maintain the system, and it shows—not only in the visibly poor performance of the MRT, but also in the competence and commitment of the people managing it, which is the direct result of politicizing the management of highly technical agencies.
No matter what the Administration does, it will take time to return the MRT to a functional state with added sufficient capacity to account for at least a few more years of growth.
That is unavoidable at this point; the best-case scenario is that positive effects of upgrades may be felt in two years, if they were begun immediately—but by then, the government will be within the pre-election “midnight” time period in which entertaining project contracts is either prohibited outright or at least universally frowned upon, meaning that improvements to the MRT will stop almost as soon as they are begun. From the perspective of the current Administration, in effect, the MRT is already “not their problem.”
It is distressing enough that the 500,000 or so commuters who rely on the MRT every day are facing the prospect of a minimum of four years—if they’re lucky—of being consigned to unreliable and most likely dangerous transportation, but when the economic costs of the dysfunctional MRT are taken into account, the discomfort of half a million stranded commuters seems mild by comparison. We can form an inexact picture of the scale of the MRT’s economic impact by considering the average income in Metro Manila, which is roughly P390,000 per year.
At present, the MRT carries about 47,000 passengers per hour in both directions. Realizing, of course, that not everyone riding the MRT is commuting to or from a job, and making an allowance that MRT commuters may, on the whole, represent an average income that is slightly lower than the official estimates, let’s assume that roughly a third, or about 15,000 passengers per hour, are actually working commuters. Every hour of delay caused by the MRT—whether by breakdowns of the trains themselves or simple overcrowding of the system—costs a little over P2 million in lost wages alone. As a rule of thumb, the Pareto rule can be applied to a wage-to- productivity estimate for a broad population, which adds another P8 million in business losses.
In other words, for every hour MRT passengers spend standing in stalled trains or on overcrowded platforms, P10 million—which is most likely a bare-minimum figure—goes up in smoke.
The MRT gets most of the attention because its assorted troubles affect so many people, not only along the line itself but also for commuters on Edsa, that special highway of agony the MRT shares space with. But the sad reality is the public transit system all over Mega Manila seems to be grinding to a halt. The next president, whose task it will be to appoint the people to sort out the mess, will have his work cut out for him. As the Liberal Party, the party with the closest thing now to an effective “let’s get people elected” organization, has already announced that their choice to succeed the incumbent President is the one largely responsible for letting the mess become as bad as it is, the prospects for seeing anything remotely resembling a workable transit system, to say nothing of something so grand as the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s recently presented “dream transport plan,” seem very dim indeed.