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MRT-3 may collapse anytime

Second of three parts

That warning was made back in September 2011 by TES Philippines (TESP) Inc., which has been the maintenance operator of the Metro Rail Transit System Line 3 (MRT-3) since 2000. The firm is a joint venture of Sumitomo and Mitsubishi Corporation, the two Japanese companies that built the light-rail mass-transit infrastructure in the late 1990s.

President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd to date has failed to implement the solution the TESP said was the only solution to prevent such collapse: Immediately supply an additional fleet of trains and upgrade the electrical and electronic systems supporting it.

We are just plain lucky that the relevant incidents that have occurred so far have only involved trains that had stopped mid-way between stations, car doors that had remained opened even as the train had sped away toward its next destination, and a car that got derailed, plowing its way into a busy thoroughfare in August. But given the bad state of MRT-3 since 2011, according to the firms that built it and had maintained it for a decade, it is a disaster waiting to happen.

I thought it was another case of incompetence bordering on criminal negligence by this student-council government, as former Senator Joker Arroyo vividly described this Administration. It is appearing, though, to be the consequences of a case of a botched extortion attempt.

Don’t blame us, operator said in 2011: Photo of memorandum to DOTC


I cannot find enough words to express my outrage: The solution had been delayed for three years now because the Czech firm, Inekon Group, which was supposed to supply the new fleet of trains, refused to play ball, and protested the alleged attempt by transport and communications officials to extort $30 million as bribe for the $174 million contract to push through.

The DOTC did finally find a supplier to replace Inekon – a Chinese firm, but which reportedly has no experience in building the kind of double-articulated light-rail system that the MRT-3 uses. But even if it manages to manufacture the cars, the next question is, when will the delivery be? Late 2015, the DOTC says. No way, industry sources say, predicting that it will be in 2016 at the earliest, after Aquino steps down.

And I’m sure DOTC Secretary Emilio Abaya would vouch that this Chinese firm didn’t have to pay a single centavo of bribe money for the P4 billion supply contract it got without any bidding. The Chinese just don’t do that kind of hanky-panky.

With the increase in ridership in the four years since that 2011 warning was made, and the reduction of train cars from 72 to just 50 running now, this Administration has criminally subjected our commuters to the risk of death and injury if the MRT trains do collapse.

In a detailed six-page memorandum dated 21 September 2011 to Honorio Vitasa, then general manager of the transport and communications department’ MRT3-EDSA Line unit, maintenance operator TESP President Kiyoshi Morita said that the train cars’ “overloaded condition exceeded the maximum allowable ridership, which will give mechanical and electrical stress to equipment and damage (sic) the total train system.”

Eventual Collapse
“Eventual collapse of the rolling Stock System and even the Wayside system may happen if drastic and immediate changes will not be made,” Morita warned. (The rolling stock refers to the light-rail vehicle cars, while the “wayside system” refers to the tracks and the electrical/electronic systems to keep the cars on it.)

Morita provided statistics which showed that ridership increased from 11.5 million in August 2005 to 13.8 million in the same month in 2011, which is way beyond the number of passengers the light-rail vehicles were designed to carry. On weekdays, according to Morita, the average ridership had increased from 417,000 in 2005 to 510,000 by 2011.

Using Morita’s annual figures from 2005 to 2011 to derive the annual average rate of increase of 7 percent annually in daily ridership, MRT-3 would now be carrying—dangerously—625,000 passengers daily, nearly double the 350,000 people it was designed to transport per day.

Morita in his memorandum explained: “Since the year 1999, TESP has already made many countermeasures and changes to prevent the recurrence of many failures. Seemingly and theoretically and based on the maintenance manual, these improvements will result in better performance of the trains.”

“However, with this overloading situation, it is very difficult to recover the peak performance of the trains in spite of the many changes that it has implemented because this is beyond the capacity of the trains to perform normally and recover after serious stress,” the memorandum read.

He explained: “Please note that even if overloading is experienced only for a few times, the elevated stress will weaken the electrical and mechanical properties of the equipment. In the case of MRT-3, the number of passengers onboard the trains exceeded daily, except Sundays [emphasis in the original], the maximum number (394) allowed per car.

“Consequently, failure resulting in the abnormal removal of trains, and a major incident will be experienced,” according to Morita, who put that sentence in bold and underlined it for emphasis.

Morita, though, was writing in that peculiar Japanese way of understating things.

What he really, obviously meant for “abnormal removal” was the derailment of a train or a portion of it (which had already actually happened)—a grave disaster if a car on an elevated portion of the tracks were to be derailed and fall on cars and buses along EDSA, which is what the Japanese executive was likely referring to when he used the term “major incident.”

“Worse,” according to Morita, “breakdown of the vital equipment may occur at almost the same time and this will affect the secondary and minor equipment. At this point, any good maintenance may not be enough to recover the regular performance of the trains, and safety will be compromised. Also, maintenance will be too costly and impractical to perform, while the recovery and safety may not be “assured.”

To the junk shop
Again, the Japanese executive was being polite. What he obviously meant: “If breakdown of the system finally happens, you’d be better off just selling the MRT to the junk shop.”

Morita explained that temporary solutions, which his firm in fact had been doing, involve shortening the cycle for the cars’ preventive maintenance periods, and taking measures to reduce the number of passengers on the cars.

However, Morita emphasized: “These are not enough to solve the problem on the deterioration and early ageing of the equipment, which was already evident. Eventually because of the steady increase in passengers, the Rolling stock and the wayside equipment will again experience many failures and troubles.”

Morita recommended: “We need to pursue the capacity expansion project of the MRT3-system to provide additional trains for revenue service. By adding more trains at the main line, we will relieve the present MRT-3 trains from overloading and prolong the life by having lesser electrical and mechanical load on the trains. We need to upgrade the wayside equipment to accommodate the changes and slow down the system’s deterioration.”

Morita concluded his memorandum by emphasizing his warning: “We reiterate that the train and the system of the MRT-3 are designed for a maximum capacity of 394 persons per car. If more passengers than the maximum capacity ride the train even for a short time, the train system might be damaged. The overloading would have detrimental effects resulting in the shorter life of parts and early deterioration of the trains and may lead to a breakdown and the total collapse of the Rolling stock.”

So, did this Administration heed Morita’s warning?

Yes, and no. And the story behind the “yes” and the “no” will outrage you, enough for you to wish that this Administration would go to hell ASAP, I guarantee that. Read about it on Friday.