POSTSCRIPT / May 20, 2003 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why LRT trains stopped in their tracks yesterday

WELCOME RESPITE: President Arroyo is on a delicate mission to the United States. In her talks with President George W. Bush and her projection to the American people, she stands for all of us.

We must assume that the President is looking after the best interests of the country during her three-day state visit to the US.

It would not hurt if those who disagree with some of her policies, and even those who figure that they may collide with her in the 2004 presidential election, hold their fire in the meantime.

A voluntary ceasefire, a respite from political combat in the President’s absence, may even be good for the health.

* * *

LOST TRACTION: Two times yesterday morning, trains of the Light Rail Transit system suddenly stopped running, stranding hundreds of passengers on the busy Monumento-Baclaran line on the first work day of the week.

Technical reason: Suddenly the coaches “lost traction” at 9:00-9:45 a.m. and again at 10:55-11:10 a.m.

The wheels kept turning, but there was simply no traction, not enough friction between wheels and rails to make the coaches move. No, nobody poured oil on the rails to make them super slippery.

The loss of traction is actually a safety feature that prevents coaches from rolling on (even with their wheels already turning) when there is trouble detected somewhere that might cause an accident.

* * *

MAINTENANCE BUG: What was the trouble? Officials of the Light Rail Transit Authority might belittle it as a mere “technical” problem, but it appears to be actually many things.

By coincidence, the LRTA has refused to renew the maintenance contract of Transurb Technirail of Belgium that expired May 15. Instead, the LRTA is putting together a skeleton crew while bidding out the service. The winning bidder starts working July 1.

Harried commuters ask: So what happens to us during the 45-day gap between May 16 and July 1?

Raiding the 400-strong work force of Transurb, the LRTA has hired some 30 of them in addition to other personnel sourced from elsewhere.

The question comes back: What happens to the service before the winner of the new maintenance contract starts working on July 1?

A hint of an answer is yesterday’s “loss of traction.” Similar technical problems may just crop up, since we cannot just pull people from everywhere, give them tools and dress them up as technicians, and expect them to keep the trains running.

* * *

ANOTHER CLASSMATE: This exercise of hurriedly inserting square pegs into round holes is much like picking an administrator of a major operation akin to the railroad business.

The government appointed a certain Teodoro Cruz, whose expertise is reportedly being a lawyer but who has zero background in operating a utility like Metro Manila’s first light rail system.

His main qualification, some insiders told us, seems to be that he was a classmate of a prominent Atenean who made it big when he landed in Malacanang with his wife.

Hindi naman siguro. Wait till you hear a recitation of his other skills and talents.

* * *

LRT IN THE RED?: The LRT started in 1984 under the Marcos administration with 40 Belgian-made coaches strung together in trains of two to three coaches running the Rizal Ave.-Taft Ave. line.

In 1999, 28 new coaches were purchased from Sweden. Not counting the coach that was bombed (and scrapped) last year, there are now only 64 coaches left running.

But insiders belie reports that some coaches are being cannibalized. Needed parts are still being bought from foreign suppliers, but when delivery is delayed, the parts are first “borrowed” from sidelined coaches and replaced later.

From 300,000 to 350,000 passengers take the LRT daily. At the P12 fare for an end-to end ride, the LRT was supposed to make money if properly managed. Daily revenue from passengers averages P3 million.

Minus the payments to huge debts that eat about 10 percent of revenue, the LRTA was reportedly making money. Before Cruz took over in 2001, we were told, the system had P600 million to P800 million in the bank on any given day.

Now the daily liquidity of the LRTA under Cruz reportedly has dropped to negative P400 million.

* * *

TIP OF ICEBERG: We’re sure Cruz will have an explanation for the losses, the non-renewal of the Transub contract and the use of people whose technical preparation may not be adequate.

But some stranded commuters who learned of the “loss of traction” and the maintenance problem asked why the LRTA did not just extend temporarily the Belgian contract for the six weeks from May 16 to July 1 (when a new contractor steps in).

The LRT administration had extended the same maintenance contract three times in the past to forestall precisely such technical problems.

It seems that “loss of traction” is — pardon the mixed metaphors — merely the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”

* * *

LEGAL ISSUES: Personnel pirated from the Belgian team are being paid at their latest wage levels, which are higher than those of the organic work force of LRTA.

This means that a Transurb supervisor will get more than an LRTA department head. Is this not an admission that LRTA does not have the capability to handle maintenance? Then there are the labor implications of new hires being paid more than old hands.

After the bid winner is announced, what will LRTA do with the people it had pirated from Transurb and other companies? We were told that the emergency hirings numbered around 200.

Anyway, Cruz is a top lawyer, we heard, so he should be able to handle any legal complication. We hope the legal issues do not distract him from his management of LRT operations.

* * *

TRANSURB A WITNESS: The maintenance contractor makes sure the coaches, the equipment and even the signals — that are very important in preventing accidents — are in top condition. Transurb was getting about P28 million a month for this.

It also serves as a checking mechanism in procurement. It tells LRTA the parts needed and LRTA buys. Transurb, being an international company with a solid track record in this type of business, knows how much these parts cost and therefore can smell overpricing a mile away.

Insiders cite instances when the LRT administration bought parts on an emergency basis. This excuse does away with bidding. The problem was that the parts were not requested by Transurb and would be used only years later.

If so, why the emergency purchase? An audit should show how many hurriedly purchased “emergency” parts are lying idle in the LRTA warehouse.

Some parts that were bought as brand-new turned out to be second-hand, according to sources. They also showed purchase orders for two items, but only one item actually being delivered. At an overprice pa raw!

With Transurb being witness to all these alleged anomalies, if true, we may now begin to understand why the Belgian company had to go – and why the trains suddenly had to stop.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 20, 2003)

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