Like a kitchen dragging a village

… a woman who was washing clothes in the river during the hottest time of the day ran screaming down the main street in an alarming state of commotion.
“It’s coming,” she finally explained.
“Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it.”
– Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Yup.  Choo-choo train.  And it’s to be dragged into the Senate, today is it, to become public fodder in yet another unnecessary national drama.  The concern?  The looming fare increase.

Public perception over the matter is a right, of course, but in as far as what’s presented in the news much of the arguments are formed without the right information. For example, the poor are dragged into the picture to back the argument for ‘who should pay for public transport?’

The concern while valid has nothing to do with the MRT and LRT issue.  One reason is, ‘poor’ can be further broken down into different income levels, but what the nation and the international community are really worried about is the poor living on less than USD2 a day, those without livelihoods and assets, without access to basic infrastructures and services, and the like.  In other words these are the poor who don’t utilize or have never gone inside a rail car of the MRT.

This brings us to the question, who then are using the MRT and LRT hence the ones affected by the fare increase?  It’s the working middle class.

I’ve been riding the railway for several years and it’s not even regularly used by the so-called working poor or the masses because they ride the buses, usually those units without air-conditioning, and jeepneys.

The working middle class are relatively more mobile, that is, they can pay for the higher cost of getting to where they need and want to be.  They have plenty of options: the vans, taxis, MRT and LRT, even buses and jeepneys.  They won’t think twice about having their credit cards swiped to pre-pay for plane fare in order to travel quickly and conveniently whereas the working poor would have to save up for inter-island boat fare or bus fare in order to go home once a year for that needed vacation with their families in the province.

So please let’s not chain the entire village to this particular national issue.  As to the question of who should pay for public transport, I believe kindergarten pupils would have a ready reply to that: one peso = one candy.  In other words, users pay.

The real issue in this MRT 3 brouhaha has it’s roots in the preponderance of government to sabotage itself.  How?

First, MRT 3 was put up under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model of Build-Lease-Transfer, with the specific agreement that MRTC is responsible for the design, construction, testing, commissioning and maintaining the system; upon completion, MRTC is obligated to lease the system for 25 years to the DOTC, who will operate the system, with MRTC (through Sumitomo) providing the maintenance; at the end of the 25-year lease period, the ownership of the system will be transferred to the government.

Second, after the railway completion in 1999, DOTC became and still is the Operator of MRT 3 (until 2024, supposedly).

Third, somewhere along this 25-year lease period, was it 2012, the DOTC messed up the capacity of MRTC to maintain the system by replacing Sumitomo (with CB&T-PH Trams Joint Venture (labor) and DOTC supposedly providing the spare parts)).

Fourth… issues resulting from the third form a recurring pattern in the country which falls under the broader heading of ‘doing business in the Philippines’.  And the nation has heard enough of the recommendation, from local business groups and foreign investors alike:  the government to honor it’s contracts, it’s own signature so to speak, and deliver it’s side of the agreement. And one more thing, tips as part of doing business everywhere are factored in by businesses but can we please not ask for the entire vault.

Fifth, where are the LGUs in all these?  What role do the LGUs play in the railway transport within the Metro?  Do they for example share in the infrastructure cost?  Urban railway master planning?  Innovative transport policies?  How many cities in the Metro does the MRT 3 line pass through, yet the public has not heard from them.

Sixth, the fare increase is a separate issue from the contractual obligations of the government to it’s concessionaire but nonetheless related although as to how it is in concrete terms is, as the public says, unclear.  To date, the reason given is that it was long overdue and would help channel savings to infrastructure projects and other government services outside Metro Manila.

I’m not particular about the reasons for the increase because I’m not sure if the general public has the attention to go deep into the complicated institutional, financial and legal arrangements of the MRT 3 BLT scheme. For instance, a study has shown that with lower train density, vertical separation (infrastructure-operation) tends to reduce cost, while with higher train density vertical separation increases cost. Is this finding sufficient a reason to rescind the BLT contract and government to assume all the works? But even after knowing these things, then what? Does it help resolve in the short term what directly affects end-users, which is the issue of the fare hike? I don’t think so. I’d rather that a plan is provided the public as for example, how xx amount (which is taken from the fare increase) would be spent on xx MRT 3 improvements over xx years.  And then the Operator/DOTC to actually deliver on every one of those.

The price increase is inevitable given that the urban railway transport in the country is still a monopoly i.e. State-owned.  Where else would the State source it’s money to continue operating it’s assets?  But then future increases will eventually reach the point where the amount is truly burdensome on users.  To transform the system into one that is level with world class railways, government has to privatize and open the way for more competitors to go in (because privatization without competition only maintains the status quo, that of monopolistic prices as seen in the country’s privatized utilities market) and it has to work on this sooner rather than later.

Meantime, in the present arrangement i.e. vertical separation (DOTC and MRTC), independence of MRTC which is inherent in PPP/BLT must be ensured and performance indicators (i.e. efficiency of the MRT as a public transport) developed by both parties and made transparent. That way, it’s clear what each one is accountable for and the public knows what to monitor for.  Also, is there a rail regulator in this country?  There must be one and the way we’re always clawing at each other’s throat it’s imperative that the regulator is independent of DOTC and the government.

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