The deteriorating operations of the MRT have people clamoring for a fare reduction in all the light rail lines. Those calls, which are likely to be ignored, come just six months after the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) increased fares, which it justified by pointing out that more than a decade has passed since the last price adjustment. That happened in 2003 when the LRT 1 raised its fare. The fares for LRT 2 and MRT have not increased since they started operating, and in the case of the latter, its fare was even rolled back.
In related news, the Philippine National Railways (PNR) administrators are also seeking a fare increase, which would be the first adjustment in 20 years if approved. The fare hike is supposed to help fund the much-needed rehabilitation of the rail system. But as in the case of the light rail network, it may be expected that commuters would protest the increase given PNR’s poor condition. As of this writing, in fact, its operations remain suspended after the derailment incident near Magallanes in late April.
In general, we agree that subsidies make for a bad policy. As they say in economics, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The true cost of running the railway and light rail systems has to come from somewhere. Typically, they come from taxpayers. But as suggested by what has been reported in the news, safety and maintenance have been sacrificed as well.
This is a case of government using sound economic principles as a cover for the inept management of the rail and light rail systems. In other words, raising the fares to cover the true cost of operations may be the better economic policy, but commuters and the public in general are also right in demanding better service and safety.
Government on a slow track
Under President Aquino’s watch, there have been more accidents in the rail and light rail networks than in the past. He has been quick to blame previous administrations for the problems, but slow in doing something about them.
In fairness to him, some improvement projects are underway. New light rail cars have been ordered, and if all goes according to plan, they should be delivered later this year. At the PNR, work to add a second railway between Sucat and Alabang is scheduled to start in the third quarter. Plus, the Transportation department is looking to revive the PNR line from Malolos to Legazpi City by 2020. While it would have been better to have these projects started earlier in President Aquino’s term, the consolation is that they are in the pipeline.
Going beyond the rehabilitation and development of the train transport system, we hope that President Aquino and his allies in Congress would look into the root causes of the problems in this transport service. First, they should address the incompetent management of the rail systems. Priority should be given to maintenance and safety issues, and the review should be conducted by an independent body. Besides probing operations, it should also audit the advertising income generated in the light rail stations and other pieces of property. How much advertising revenue is actually generated, and how is it spent? We hope that it would contribute to improving public service and safety.
Second, we hope that there would be a deeper probe into the allegations of graft and corruption in the rail and light rail sector. Again in fairness to this government, the Philippine railways have been linked to questionable practices long before President Aquino took office. But regardless of when the corrupt practices started, the focus should be on stopping them.
Last, we urge the government to initiate more development projects before the President steps down in 2016. While he has been going in the right direction in his “last two minutes” in office, much more is needed. So far, for instance, the focus of the projects has been on commuter train service. We have yet to hear programs to develop cargo rail, which would take big trucks off roads and help ease traffic congestion. That highlights the point that so much more needs to be done.