POSTSCRIPT / August 22, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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LRT system flaws are enough to kill it?

WHAT went wrong with the Light Rail Transit ferrying commuters between Caloocan and Baclaran? What lessons can we learn from the LRT experience that could serve the EDSA Metrorail (MRT) and other lines being built to move Metro Manilans more efficiently?

For perspective, we asked a former chairman of Metro Inc., the erstwhile LRT operator, to tell us in hindsight about some of the problems. He obliged, but asked to remain anonymous. We reproduce below some of his remarks.

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“DURING the time of President Ramos, ‘people empowerment’ was a catchword which we tried to pursue at the DOTC. In the plans to privatize the system, employees were to be given the opportunity to own part of the private company that would operate the system.

“Metro Inc. was bought by the government from the Meralco when it was found that there was some legal impediment to Meralco’s continued operation of the system. It was sold for only one peso in exchange for LRT’s assumption of the separation benefits of the employees.

“In other words, government’s cash outflow for the transaction was only one peso, but they assumed the liabilities of Metro to their employees by establishing a fund to cover the eventual separation and/or retirement benefits of the employees. Now that the employees were terminated for cause, LRT, which owns Metro lock stock and barrel, is left holding the separation/retirement funds. Must be a sizeable amount since they acquired Metro Inc. in 1986.

“During my incumbency, there was also a CBA deadlock where the employees threatened to strike. Negotiations were being prolonged when conducted intermittently. With so many talking points, not everything could be tackled in one setting. Invariably, when talks resumed, there were other negotiators present and new items or variations of what had been previously agreed on would crop up.

“The idea was to tire and frustrate the government negotiators into agreeing with union demands for a new CBA. When we realized this, we decided to play their game and had the union agree that we would hold only one more meeting to reach some final agreements. Only five negotiators from each side were allowed to participate and no substitutions were permitted.

“After 48 hours of non-stop negotiations inside the conference room beside the Office of the Secretary, final agreements were made and signed for a new CBA.

“Privatization of the LRT-1 system is the only alternative to prevent running it down to extinction. Two things are working against the continued operation of the system: economic and operational procedures.

“Under economic, we have the fare and the loans to central government that will never allow the system to get out of a very deep hole. And because there is no financial autonomy to the system operator, the operational aspects of the system are seriously affected.

“During the second half of the nineties, the fare from end-to-end was only P6 per passenger. Financial reports of LRT showed that revenues amounted to only half of all expenses charged to the system. Fares had to be raised to P13 per passenger for the system to be economically viable. Some politician would always rise to prevent any efforts on the part of LRT to increase the fares then. And so, its slow but sure deterioration was on the way.

“Revenues then were barely enough to meet the operating requirements for salaries and wages, power and administrative expenses. Nothing was left to amortize the loans nor pay for the mounting interest charges. There was no way of knowing whether the original foreign loans for the LRT were already paid. What was left were LRT accounts with the central government which continued to increase due to compounded interest– interest on unpaid interest on unpaid interest, etc…

“This serious financial predicament of the system had its repercussions on the maintenance and operations subsystem. The required preventive maintenance cycles could not be implemented and this resulted in huge systems losses.

“The maintenance requirement for the system is very similar to that of an airplane. You must change the parts before failure occurs, otherwise, the losses would be very much larger than the cost of the unreplaced part. Nobody wants to wait for the airplane to fall before repairing a defective part!

“The LRT is a system. At its simplest, it is made up of some 24 (?) trains, synchronized to run from station to station so that there is a regular interval of arrival and departures made at each station. From the moment it starts in the morning until the last trip at night, the trains have to keep moving while the controllers inject or eject trains into or out of the system to match the ridership demand for each hour.

“If one train bogs down, all the trains in the system stop and losses due to foregone rides are immediately experienced. In most instances though, adjustments are made so that at least half of the system from Baclaran to the Manila City Hall or from the City Hall to Monumento is kept operational.

“The amount of parts inventories have also been affected not just due to the shortage of funds for such purpose, but also because of COA rules applied to the system. Most parts are imported from Europe and there are many parts that have already gone out of production.

“Only special orders in quantities or lot sizes much larger than what can be consumed in one year may be ordered. This is almost impossible to procure. So, the next best thing was to cannibalize the two or three spare trains that were part of the system to keep the other trains running. When maintenance could not complete the trains required by the system, serious overloading of trains occurred.

“There was a time when we had to limit the number of passengers boarding on each station. This was that time when not all trains were able to be deployed due to cracks that were noted on the carriages to where the wheels were attached. Hairline cracks were noted in a lot of these carriages which must have been caused by a combination of overloading and misaligned or rough tracks which caused the trains to vibrate a lot.

“I don’t know whether the emergency repairs made were able to extend the life of those carriages or whether we were able to order for their replacements.

“The trains may already be running, even if only during peak hours, but the system cannot be allowed to continue operating without a complete set of operating personnel. Otherwise, an imbalanced system would only lead to more losses and even endanger the riders.

“Unknown to most riders, the system does not shut down when all the trains are back in the depot. Maintenance work on the line commences when the trains are not running. There is a year-round schedule of changing the overhead power lines that provide power to the trains; replacing the rock ballast that cushions the railroad tracks; grinding of rails to keep them smooth; and a host of other line maintenance jobs that have to be accomplished according to predetermined schedules.

“Otherwise, serious disruptions would be experienced by the system when failure occurs specially during peak loads. Of course, the trains also need their daily, weekly, monthly and periodic maintenance schedules.

“An incomplete complement of trained operators and maintenance personnel would mean running the system with some subsystems not operating or operating below their rated performance. Eventually, it will take its toll on the whole LRT system.

“There may be a few things to validate, especially on the number of trains, the spare trains or cars and the dates. I did not even mention the number of passengers carried daily because I was unsure. I wanted to relate this to the amount of revenues foregone daily if the system is shut down.

“This was a major consideration we took when we negotiated with labor during my term. This plus the unquantifiable effects of traffic jams when the LRT cannot service its regular riders.”

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ON another debate, that one on caffeine, we’re not ready to declare a winner yet — not because we are ourselves a (light) coffee drinker, but because the literature on the subject keeps swinging to and fro. Depending on who you’re reading, coffee/caffeine is either bad or good for the health.

This is not the last word on the subject, but the CBSHealthWatch reports that “a can of soda may do more than quench your thirst and satisfy your sweet tooth.”

A new study reportedly suggests that the caffeine in soft drinks can produce physical dependence and lead to headaches and fatigue, which are withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping caffeine use.

In the study, CBS reports, researchers at Johns Hopkins University challenged the claims by the soft drink industry that adding caffeine to soft drinks is done purely for taste. They found that the majority of people who claim to be soft drink connoisseurs could not tell whether a soda contains caffeine or not.

Americans consume a huge quantity of soft drinks, which include any carbonated, flavored beverage, and 70 percent of them contain caffeine. On average, each American consumes nearly 600 cans per year.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 22, 2000)

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