Riding a train, tempting the fates



Try telling young Filipinos that the Philippines was the first to build 30 years ago, an elevated light rail transit system in Southeast Asia. Their eyes would probably bulge from disbelief: in the past years they have heard only of queues and derailments, inefficiencies and tales of corruption, when it came to the country’s mass transport system.

Construction of the Light Rail Transit Line 1 began in 1981 and was completed three years later, running from Baclaran to Arroceros; a year later it reached up to Monumento. Singapore’s metro system was finished in 1987, Thailand in 1999, and Indonesia is just beginning to build its own mass transit system.

We ought to have a fully integrated mass transport system by now—with numerous interlinked hubs and intermodal connections—if the master plans created decades ago and the projects in the pipeline were allowed to be completed, and vendetta politics were not included in the equation.

Instead what we have today are three lines that are aging, overused, and poorly maintained.

Lives are put at risk everyday, the most recent one being a derailment incident involving a Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3 coach. It had broken down and was being pushed by another train when it broke loose and hit the Taft Avenue barrier.

Thirty-eight people were injured, some seriously. Many of them seemed to be workers whose wages are by the day. They took the MRT to get to their place of work. Instead, the MRT has injured them that they can’t work. Will government pay them the wages they’ve lost?

An injured young worker was interviewed by a TV reporter and said, translated from Tagalog: “We won’t ever use the MRT again. A lot of people have been killed there. We’ll just use the bus even if it takes us longer going to work.”

We got lucky this time that no one died but what about next time? Will the press have to invent a new morbid term, coffins on tracks?

Whenever accidents of this kind happen, I am appalled at the sheer lack of accountability and command responsibility. The faked remorse of spokespersons and transport officials don’t count.

Besides, hearing them talk, you can detect the belligerence. They don’t really care about the Filipino commuter; if they did, they would have worked on the upgrading and maintenance of MRT from Day One.

You can almost predict the responses by now: the transport department will conduct an investigation into the incident (although this early they are pinning it on the poor hapless coach driver). Top officials will blame yet again the previous administration while conveniently forgetting that they had four years to work on all these transport problems.

The sullied Senate will also conduct its own public hearing, a typical knee-jerk response of politicos to crises that are just oozing with headline and sound-bite opportunities.

An efficient and organized mass transportation system is an absolute necessity for a rapidly growing urban center such as Metro Manila. It is the best way to move a huge number of people (and cargo, if hard rail lines are included) across long distances with ease and less cost.

If the rail lines are improved on, with additional coaches and proper maintenance, a good number of Filipinos are willing to give up their cars and take the train to get to their destinations. This will mean less traffic on the roads, less pollution, and less road accidents. At the same time, it will mean increased productivity and business growth.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any relief in sight for the next two years.

The coaches that were ordered for MRT-3 will arrive in 2015 or 2016, depending on which report you read. The other mass transit lines and extensions have only just begun work or are scheduled to start next year.

Marcos had LRT 1 in 1984; Ramos did all the heavy lifting for MRT 3 but Estrada opened it to the public in 1999; and Arroyo inaugurated MRT-2 in April 2004. I don’t know if Aquino will be able to inaugurate in two years any mass transport line that people will forever identify with him.

If you’ve been following the news you’ll learn about all the graft and corruption surrounding MRT-3, which is being managed by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC).

MRT’s former general manager Al Vitangcol this year was fired (some claim he is just on leave though) from his job due to his alleged involvement in bribery, corruption, and conflict of interest. Some reports suggested that he was just another scapegoat, seeing that the current supplier of the coaches seems to be backed up by the same people involved with the earlier dubious deals.

But has anyone been charged or jailed with all these apparent shenanigans going on at MRT/DOTC? Nope.

Is there a loud cry from the middle class, those former street protestors, about how the government is giving them a bum deal? Very little, and mostly from those in social media.

Are Filipinos so inured to corruption and incompetence that our common reaction is just to shrug our shoulders and move on? Sadly, yes.

The present government, of course, blames somebody else for the poor upkeep of MRT, the private consortium Metro Rail Transit Corporation, which built the railway under a Build-Lease-Transfer agreement. It is claiming that MRTC is blocking its moves to improve on the MRT line.

This blame game is now sounding old and tired. Most citizens would rather that the government used all its power to fix the trains and other infrastructure, instead of wasting all its time and resources removing political opponents and changing the Constitution to allow term extension.

If there’s a smart politician out there, here’s an election campaign strategy: you only need to promise to finish all the planned mass transport lines and you will get the votes of all the weary Metro Manila commuters.


Please follow our commenting guidelines.


  1. I envy with how other asian nations developed their transportation. For years now my second homecountry-South Korea, were way far from Philippines 40 years ago. But right now PHL is 40 years way far from South Korea. Their transportation especially trains have tremendous contribution to their economy. Commuters arrived to their destination on time.
    I remember couple of years I went to Manila to process my Korean visa, when I came back to my room I wiped my nose with tissue to my surprise it turned black color. Pollution contributed stress to our daily work. Our politicians don’t experience what we middle class people experienced on the streets because they just take their luxury cars bought from our taxes.
    I hope all filipinos should wake up whom they should vote to take care our country.

  2. …this is one legacy we owe to Marcos, LRT Line 1 built by the Belgian govt on a BOT agreement. Both Lines 1 & 2 are govt owned. Maintenance is given to private contractors but the parts are provided by the govt. The first batch of LRT engineers trained by the Belgians maintenance contractor, TechniRail have put up their own maintenance companies are now the top maintenance contractors in the country. They have the skill and the expertise and in fact maintaining other LRT systems in other Asean member countries. The problem is the govt who provides for the parts. MRT 3 which plies the stretch of Edsa was privatized by FVR via the consortium of (MRTC) Sobrepena, Araneta, Ayala, etc. It is not well managed and maintained. The original Czech coaches are dilapidated because even procurement of needed wear and tear parts are relegated to a private contractor who will not move unless paid. the coaches are small compared to the coaches at Lines 1 & 2. During the past few years of the GMA administration plans were already afoot to buy MRT 3 by the govt. The MRTC corporation is blocking all efforts of the govt to take over. The current barrage of media attacks on MRT 3 which partially is being managed by the DOTC especially on the interim maintenance and procurement of parts by PhilTrams is said to be being stoked by MRTC. I was the media officer of the Belgian owned TechniRail for 3 yrs. and therefore have a fair knowledge of the LRT system. In the planning board they designed for the govt there are other lines that should have cris-crossed MMla , i.e.:Line 4, 5, 6 & 7. In fact Edsa should have a seamless line connecting Line 1 to MRT 3, it was never done due to political squabbles.

  3. Its all so simple but filipinos dont seem to be able to comprehend this. Its you the peoples fault. You keep electing people who care about themselves. You dont hold them accountable for their actions. You complain today & thats it, as you think ive complained its ok. Look at how we get changes in other countries. We elect the right people to run our countries, if we make a mistake & elect the wrong person, we remove them from office. Now i will give you an insight into one miostake in the waiting thats a certainty, manny pacquiao will run for a congressman & you will elect him. But look at this, he has a tax problem with the bir, he has a tax problem with the irs, yet you will elect him. Do you need me to write it in small words for you. He is not an educated man, only a fool would want him to be a top representitive of their country. The foolish filipinos make the same mistakes year in year out. So yiou need to get the filipino educated & to understand what the country needs. & most important to hold people accountable.

  4. victor m. hernandez on

    Pope Francis posed a challenging question: What are the values that you are willing to die for?
    With all the problems on mass transport system, and the inefficiencies and corruption involved in running it, I am dumbfounded, paralyzed and powerless. I feel inutile.
    The present crop or crap of government, and private business are too engrossed making money, and sitting on their fat asses to maintain the status qou.
    A priest in his homily says: the politicians will not save us from this predicament, only God can. But God help those who help themselves. What are the values we are willing to die for: Truth, and Justice.