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DOTr: Passengers' safety first, over revenue for MRT-3

By Merrowen Mendoza on August 21, 2019 under News


DOTr MRT-3 wishes to clarify and give context on recent reports regarding findings of the Commission on Audit (COA) on MRT-3's performance in 2018.

Reason for lower revenues

Revenues require ridership, ridership requires trains, and it is unfortunate that the number of reliable and safe trains available to MRT-3 in 2018 went down due to years of neglect, bad maintenance practices, and failure to undertake scheduled overhaul and upgrading works. Years of mismanagement of MRT-3 resulted in the compounded degradation of MRT-3, which DOTr MRT-3 has successfully halted and stabilized in 2018, and which is being reversed with the 26-month comprehensive rehabilitation of the railway by Sumitomo-Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) from May 2019 to July 2021.

DOTr MRT-3 strongly highlights that revenue maximization is not its primary objective, and current DOTr policy does not condone gambling with passengers' safety in exchange for higher revenues. This is why since the MRT-3 Maintenance Transition Team (MTT) took over after termination of Busan Universal Rail, Inc. (BURI) in November 2017, measures have been taken to only deploy trains that are safe and reliable. This means that since 2018, MRT-3 only deploys trains that are not likely to break down during operations, because breakdowns result not just in passenger inconvenience, but more importantly, breakdowns expose passengers to safety risks, especially in cases of unloading incidents between stations.

No to force deployment of unreliable and unsafe trains

Previous MRT-3 Management's apparent practice of "force deploying" trains, regardless of their reliability and safety, is what led MRT-3 to earn the label "MRTirik", shown in the hundreds of unloading incidents that hounded the system from 2012 to 2017 (2012: 292, 2013: 281, 2014: 222, 2015: 417, 2016: 586, 2017: 463).

Current DOTr MRT-3 Management's policy of deploying only safe and reliable trains (i.e., not force deploying trains) and putting passengers' safety first over revenue, have resulted in unloading incidents drastically going down to 57 in 2018 and 16 in 2019 to-date.

The previous practice of force deploying unreliable and unsafe trains may have been driven by the commercial considerations of earlier maintenance providers, who get paid based on number of deployed trains, regardless of whether those trains break down during operations. For example, BURI gets paid so long as they deploy 18-20 trains, even if those trains break down during operations and expose passengers to unsafe conditions.

In November 2017, DOTr put a stop to the above gambling with passengers' safety, with the termination of BURI, and the implementation of safety first policies. These policies include not force deploying unreliable and unsafe trains, even if this lowers ridership and revenues, because current DOTr policy does not condone putting a price tag on passengers' lives and safety.

Overdue overhaul

MRT-3's trains are designed to undergo "general overhaul" every eight years, similar to how cars are required to undergo periodic tune-up after running a certain distance.

Starting operations in 2000, MRT-3's trains completed their first round of general overhaul in 2008 under Sumitomo-MHI. The trains were supposed to complete its second round of general overhaul in 2016, and this was included in the scope of BURI. Unfortunately, almost two years into its contract, BURI was only able to complete the general overhaul of 3 out of MRT-3's 72 train cars or bagons as of November 2017.

Inherited degraded tracks, obsolete signaling system, etc.

In addition to safe and reliable trains, sustaining ridership (and hence revenues) also needs the other components of MRT-3 to be in good condition, especially its tracks and signaling system.

While railway tracks are supposed to last 80-100 years when properly maintained, previous MRT-3 Management unfortunately failed to ensure the proper maintenance of tracks by earlier maintenance providers (for example, with regular rail grinding), resulting in premature rail degradation. Worse, MRT-3's wheel lathe machine remained inoperable from 2014 up to when BURI was terminated in November 2017, resulting in rough train wheels, which added to the accelerated degradation of MRT-3's tracks. The wheel lathe machine was only restored by MRT-3 MTT in March 2019.

A railway's signaling system, meanwhile, is usually upgraded every 10-15 years. While receiving budget from Congress as early as General Appropriations Act 2014, it is again unfortunate that previous MRT-3 Management failed to timely implement the signaling upgrade. BURI was supposed to implement the signaling upgrade, but had not even started doing so when it was terminated in November 2017 (BURI's contract period was January 2016 to December 2018), or four years after Congress gave budget for upgrading MRT-3's signaling system.

Degraded tracks plus an obsolete signaling system resulted in the capacity-lowering combination of lowered operating speed (from 60-kph to 30-kph) and increased headway or the gaps between trains (from 3.5 mins. to 7.5-10 mins.).

Again, following current DOTr MRT-3 Management's safety first policy, speed had to be lowered and headway had to be increased, so that MRT-3 can continue operating without exposing passengers to undue safety risk.

MRT-3 was "run into the ground", now being fixed

In other words, MRT-3 was unfortunately run into the ground these past years, and the compounded effect of neglect, bad maintenance practices, and failure to undertake scheduled overhaul and upgrading works resulted in a downward spiral of disrepair. This was halted, stabilized, and is being reversed by current DOTr MRT-3 Management, first by terminating BURI in November 2017, then by stabilizing MRT-3 with industry standard maintenance practices by MRT-3 MTT from December 2017 to April 2019, and recently, by starting the comprehensive rehabilitation, repair, and restoration (not just maintenance) of MRT-3, with a single-point-of-responsibility contract (unlike previous years' fragmented approach), together with its original designer, builder, and maintenance provider, Sumitomo-MHI.

Backed by the Japanese Government through a 40-year, 0.1% interest p.a., 12-year grace period Official Development Assistance (ODA) loan, Sumitomo-MHI officially assumed responsibility for MRT-3 at 00:00H of May 1, 2019, and is on track to completing rehabilitation works within 26 months, or by July 2021.

By July 2021, MRT-3 ridership is expected to increase from the current workday average of 320,000 up to 650,000, or near its peak of 622,880 passengers carried on a single day on August 17, 2012, addressing concerns raised by COA in its recent report.

In the meantime, the DOTr will remain committed to its passengers' safety first policy, and will not gamble with passengers' lives and safety, in exchange for increased revenues.