THE insistence of government to continue its fragmented approach in handling the MRT will not solve the train system’s problems. Continuing this piece-wise privatization and hands-off attitude in such a tightly-integrated system is one of the causes of the increasing breakdowns. Engineers from the scientist group AGHAM, Advocates of Science and Technology for the People, calculated that the MRT train line experiences around 3.48 injuries for every 100 million passenger-miles, compared to the US which has 0.7 injuries.
AGHAM also notes that based on the data given by the DOTC, the monthly average of service interruptions has been increasing. In 2013, it was 2.83 interruptions per month, increasing to around 4 as of July 2014 and 4.3 as of June 2015. It was in February, May, and June of this year where glitches occurred nearly on a daily basis, in a span of 2-3 days.
Fortunately, so far, there has only been one incident resulting in injury for the year.
The science group points out that although these numbers do not take into account the slow, subtle and systemic violence inflicted on passengers in the form of long lines, broken elevators, and delayed trains. More than 600,000 passengers depend on the MRT everyday.
Does the government care about these commuters? Engineer Miguel Aljibe of AGHAM looked at how much the state has invested in mass transport in terms of budget. Collectively, the MRT, LRT, and PNR received only 7.33 percent of the total 2015 transportation budget. Majority of the budget, at 85 percent of the total, goes to constructing roads and highways in a country where only about 1 in 24 families own a car. This mirrors the US which spends a measly 0.08 percent due to a policy promoting vehicular use. In Spain, the situation is reversed, with 70 percent of transportation funds going to rail.
The sheer mass of people using the MRT system should not be seen simply as a source of income but as a solid indicator of the need to provide them with basic transport. In a study, AGHAM said urban rail transit is not only just a public service but is a strategic national asset as well. If the State fails to provide this basic service, it fails in its responsibility to its people. In the case of the MRT, 68 percent of its daily riders earn below the minimum living wage.
AGHAM’s study notes that the construction and maintenance of train systems should generate both direct and indirect employment. Germany’s urban mass transit employs (directly and indirectly) around 400,000 people. Urban rail also makes travel for consumers easier and attracts professionals and tourists to the city. Historically, countries like Belgium enjoyed an economic and tourism boom when the state built its rail network in the continent in the 19th century.
A study of 50 major US metropolitan areas links a city’s economic competitiveness and the “quality” of its mass transit. Public transport is a big factor for tourists while on holiday and is a major issue when choosing their destination.
AGHAM notes that the Philippine government itself estimates P54 billion savings a year in traffic costs due to improvements to the MRT and LRT. This is significant and timely because according to the UP National Center for Transportation Studies, Metro Manila loses about P100 billion a year or 1 percent of the national GDP to traffic congestion.
The AGHAM study underscores the fact that urban rail (and mass transport in general) is a natural monopoly. Limited routes with a limited capacity necessitates a monopoly for an orderly operation. We end up with a setup where a large number of consumers/passengers depends on a single provider/supplier. If one yields this to private ownership, or in the case of the MRT, “private management plus government guarantees,” we end up simply giving up this lucrative monopoly to private hands.
In the context of comprehensive industrial policy, the study notes that a nationalized urban rail line can be developed to benefit stakeholders rather than profit choices. Decisions regarding station location, fuel and energy sources, accessibility (like elevators, escalators, and amenities for PWD’s), expansions, and fare pricing can be done under the principle of maximizing social and environmental benefits instead of corporate interests avoiding the problems encountered in linking the MRT and the LRT-1 line.
A nationalized urban rail can also be used to create demand for locally developed and
manufactured technologies. We have plans for an automated guiderail transit which we can couple with a rule requiring majority of the equipment be manufactured in the country.
The government’s piecewise (mis-)management and long term privatization plans for the PNR, MRT and the LRT place in peril our ability to address Metro Manila’s mobility and environmental problems. Such a misplaced faith in the private sector, and a government defaulting on its duty to the people, puts our train system— and its riders— at risk.