MRT-3 mess the worst kind of corruption

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First of Three Parts

If working-class Filipinos had a capacity for quick mobilization to protest the injustice done to them, without the help of the elites, there would have already been street actions by now on the scale of the EDSA I and II revolts against President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd, the transport and communications department, and its former and present secretaries.

The corruption allegedly involving the maintenance of Metro Rail Transit-3 (MRT-3) is the worst kind of graft.

It has been directly causing the daily suffering of hundreds of thousands of commuters in metropolitan Manila: queuing for hours to get a ride in its jam-packed trains, risking life and limb with the regular occurrence of accidents and derailments.

Before Aquino hoodwinked Filipinos with his tuwid na daan rhetoric, even those with cars would use the MRT-3 for its speed and convenience. But now that they have to line up and wait for hours just to catch a train, many have had no choice but to use their cars again—contributing to the horrendous traffic along EDSA.

I applaud Ombudsman Conchita Morales-Carpio for finally investigating the MRT-3 anomalies, and I am confident that she will withstand the tremendous pressure that is bound to be brought against her.

The corruption she will uncover is very likely to lead directly to the offices of DOTC Secretary Emilio Abaya and his predecessor Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who has had the gall to have started his campaign for the 2016 presidency this early (read about it in my column this Wednesday). These people are top members of the inner sanctum of President Aquino, and so the situation now begs the question that the Ombudsman needs to ask: Did the President know of the corruption at MRT 3 and did nothing about it?

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Why do MRT-3 trains keep breaking down that the train system needs to be shut down for hours at times; why do the trains stop in the middle of the tracks, and why are the trains derailed and jump off the tracks?

Why are there fewer trains now compared with the previous years such that its carrying capacity has decreased, causing the long queues of commuters at the stations?

Why were there no such incidents and queues before, from 2000 to 2011?

The reason is quite simple, and I was astonished when I learned its details, shocked at why we Filipinos allow such anomalies that torture the working class daily, and outraged that mainstream media hasn’t gone to town against this scandal.

The P1.2 billion reason
The reason involves the P1.2 billion—so far—in maintenance contracts given by the DOTC starting October 2012 to two firms that appear to have close ties with President Aquino’s political allies.

These outfits – first PH Trams and then APT-Global – turned out either to be bumbling amateurs in light-rail vehicle maintenance, or decided to skimp on the necessary spare parts to keep the trains running efficiently.

They didn’t import and stockpile the high-quality spare parts needed for the light-rail vehicles and the replacements for the tracks. Parts were, instead, cannibalized from the other cars that were put out of operation, so that only 50 out of the 73 cars operating in 2011 are running now.

One evidence of this is a September 4, 2014 report to the DOTC official in charge of the MRT-3, Renato San Jose, which read:

“When Global-APT JV assumed as (sic) the Temporary Maintenance Provider of MRT 2 on 4 September 2013, there were twenty nine pieces of Stock Rails replacement. Since then, the said number has gone down to two and a half (2.5) pieces. Furthermore, the latest Rail Replacement Summary as of 06 August revealed that in at least two instances, Global APT JV has used old rails instead of new ones.”

This is one reason why the trains’ speed has had to be slowed down: parts of the track had worn out and should have been replaced, but hadn’t because there were no replacement rails. The result: fewer trains have been running, requiring commuters to queue for hours to ride the jam-packed, not to mention, dangerous trains.

Capital costs are huge for a train maintenance operator since the spare parts needed have to be ordered in advance because of the minimum six-months’ time for these to be manufactured and shipped to the country from abroad.

Light-rail system parts aren’t exactly items one could buy at the hardware store or ordered at amazon.com: They’re things made of high-grade steel which mostly only the original builder can provide, and on a “per-order” basis.

A unit of the giant manufacturing Japanese firm Sumitomo that built MRT-3 with Mitsubishi Corp. in the late 1990s, when it maintained the system until September 2012, had a six-months’ inventory of the usual parts needed to be replaced.

Manual signaling system
There is a second reason why the MRT trains’ speed had to be reduced. Its signaling system – its computerized, sensor-based network that manages railway traffic in order to prevent trains from colliding – had been built more than a decade ago by a unit of the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier Inc. The firm informed the DOTC in 2010 that the system had to be upgraded, as there were no longer parts for it since it had become outdated.

The upgrade would have cost P185 million, and included in the maintenance contract. It wasn’t. Why? Was it too big a cost that would eat into the contractors’ profits?

Bombardier engineers who were initially hired by PH Trams to maintain the signaling system reportedly left in a huff in 2013 when they stopped receiving their due fees.

The result: There’s an inadequate signaling system that train operators have resorted to a manual method, using “walkie-talkies’ bought from Ace or True Value, to report their positions, a process that requires much slower train speeds.

Out of the total cost for maintaining the MRT in the past ten years, 60 percent was used for buying spare parts for the cars and rail-tracks, as well as for maintaining the computerized signaling system, while the remaining 40 percent was for management and labor costs.

These means that if the two maintenance operators who got the P1.2 billion contract from the DOTC had not purchased the parts needed for the trains’ maintenance, they could have easily pocketed the 60 percent that should have been used for their parts inventory, which means a huge P742 million income. The Senate committee that has been investigating the MRT problems should subpoena these firms’ books.

What makes this kind of corruption so outrageous is that the grafters were as dumb as they were so arrogant. They thought they could make money by taking over the contract of a world-class, experienced engineering firm that built and had maintained the system for a decade, and that they didn’t need to import the high-grade precision-engineered spare parts for the trains.

I can just imagine what a top DOTC and Liberal Party official told his accomplices: “Pukpok lang naman ang mga kailangan sa mga bakal na gulong at riles na iyan, hindi na kailangang mag-import tayo ng spare parts kaya malaki ang kita natin. Magagaling naman ang mga Pinoy na mekaniko. [A little pounding is all that’s needed on the steel wheels and the rails. We don’t really need to import the spare parts, so we’re going to make a killing on this. And Filipinos are good mechanics.]

Because of such arrogant stupidity and insatiable greed of Aquino’s people, hundreds of thousands of Filipino commuters have been suffering every day going to and from their workplaces.

Continued next week.