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MRT engineers roll out 22 trains

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Metro Rail Transit Line 3 has reached the maximum number of operational trains for the first time in four years, allowing the system to serve more passengers, reduce the queues and lift its revenues.

Busan Universal Rail Inc., a Filipino-Korean joint venture that won the maintenance contract in January, already restored nine Czech-made trains, bringing the total sets in operation to 22 by the end of November, from just 13 last year.  The system has a maximum capacity of 20 trains.

“By giving the public more trains, I think we are serving more passengers.  Middle of November, we were averaging 470,000 passengers.  That was 25 percent increase since January,” MRT 3 officer-in-charge Deo Leo Manalo says in an interview in Quezon City.

RESTORATION. Metro Rail Transit Line 3 officer-in-charge Deo Leo Manalo at MRT 3 depot in Quezon City

“Our income grew this year.  We were hitting P2.3 billion as of October alone, matching the full-year figure of P2.3 billion in 2015.  That was more than 20 percent up.  It is because we have more trains running this year,” says Manalo.

Data show that the daily average number of passenger trips at MRT 3 increased from 372,020 in January to 461,564 in October. Highest recorded ridership within a month also climbed from 415,819 on Jan. 22 to 509,492 on Nov. 18.

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MRT 3, a 16.9-kilometer light rail completed along Edsa 17 years ago, remains Metro Manila’s most vital mass transit system, as it ferries half a million passengers each day between the northern and southern parts of the metropolis, including employees bound for the major commercial business districts in Ortigas, Makati and Fort Bonifacio.

About 2,000 people are in charge of operating and maintaining Line 3, including 600 security guards, 440 maintenance technicians, 250 janitorial staff, 100 train drivers and hundreds of cashiers and administration and operations employees.

“We serve Edsa which is the main corridor of Metro Manila.  We cover all the CBDs—from North. Ave., Cubao, Ortigas, Makati, Fort Bonifacio all the way to MOA [Mall of Asia].  So easily, we serve the most number of passengers at 500,000,” says Manalo, who led the feasibility study for MRT expansion project in 2012.

“We have to keep it operational by all means.  But we don’t want to sacrifice safety.  MRT 3 has the highest safety standards among light rail systems in the country,” says Manalo, who lived in Tokyo for four years when he regularly took the train on the way to work.

Ensuring that MRT 3 runs smoothly through 13 stations from North Ave. in Quezon City to Taft Ave. in Pasay City is Busan Universal Rail Inc. which won the three-year maintenance contract, starting January 2016, for P3.8 billion.  “It is a day-to-day, hour-to-hour, moment-to-moment maintenance.  Maintenance is a 24-hour round-the-clock activity,” says Eugene Rapanut, managing director of the joint venture company.

A team of Korean engineers from Busan Transport Corp. is in the country to help Filipino engineers and technicians maintain the MRT 3 system and overhaul 43 of the 73 Czech-made light rail vehicles.

Last year, only 13 of the 24 trains were in running condition, limiting the capacity of the system to serve passengers and resulting in hour-long queues at MRT stations.  Manalo says things improved this year. From only 13 trains, each with three cars, in January 2016,  the Busan joint venture was able to increase the number of operational trains to 22 as of end-November.

“Now, we are running 20 trains during peak hours.  We have two trains in reserve.  And we have two trains under general overhaul,” Manalo says.  “Surprisingly today [Dec. 2] which is a Friday, there were no queues at North Ave.”

“Yes, things improved in terms of more trains and reliability.  Reliability has significantly improved in November. There was a large drop in removals or technical problems.  But we are still not perfect.  We have to address several things,” he says.

Busan Universal Rail expects to deploy two more trains by the first quarter of 2017, bringing the total number of operational trains to 24, consisting of 72 light rail vehicles.  Busan Universal Rail Inc. is a joint venture of Busan Transport Corp. which is owned by the Korean city government of Busan and local companies Edison Development & Construction, Tramat Mercantile Inc., TMI Corp. and Castan Corp.

The Busan contract involves maintenance works, overhaul of 43 LRVs and replacement of the signaling system within 24 months.  Twelve Korean technical experts are in the country, including rolling stock, signaling and track specialists from Busan.

The hour-long queues are gone, according to Manalo. “They are giving us more trains than the actual requirement of the TOR [terms of reference],” he says, referring to Busan Universal Rail.

“But in some other aspects, there is a need for improvement.  We need continuous monitoring including those of spare parts, labor issues and quality of work,” says Manalo.

Rapanut says Busan now focuses on improving station facilities. “The next activities we are 100-percent focused now on is the improvement of station facilities  such as the toilet, lighting and some conveyances that have been turned over to us,” he says.

He says the Busan joint venture remains committed to delivering on its promise to the government and to MRT passengers.  “We did not allow ourselves to be distracted by our distractors.  Despite all their distractions, we stay very clear on our purpose,” he says.

Charles Mercado, legal counsel and spokesman of the Busan joint venture, says the group won the maintenance contract in December 2015 with a bid of P3.8 billion, below the approved budget for the contract of P4.25 billion.

“The P3.8 billion is the whole contract.  Our maintenance contract alone is P54 million a month, subject to taxes.  The old contractor—Sumitomo had a monthly maintenance contract of P110 million net of taxes and in US dollars,” says Mercado.

“What was turned over to us were 40 operable LRVs and 33 LRVs that needed repair.  That was equivalent to 13 operating trains plus one car. By February, we increased the number of operational trains to 16, and by April it was 18 trains,” he says.  “The requirement of the government was only 12 trains in the first 10 months of the contract.  We exceeded that.”

“Presently, we have 22 trains. But the power system can only accommodate 20 trains.  We have two trains in reserve and ready to be deployed. With 22 trains, we are really outperforming our contract,” says Mercado.

Mercado says their Korean partners want to protect their reputation as a world-class rail solution provider.  “They had to scrutinize their local partners. Busan protects its reputation.  They say we cannot fail in the Philippines.”

Rapanut says the Busan joint venture was able to exceed the government’s requirement through “proper allocation of resources, proper interaction and engagement with the people and proper management—making everybody understand the objective.”

“We have set our standards against our capability. We accept our limitation.  The goal of our client which is DOTr is very simple—provide the most number of trains available, which is 20 at the peak period, make the system safe, reliable and maintainable.  We are very clear on that,” says Rapanut.

“We were not so greedy to have so much [profit] margin.  That’s why during the bidding,  instead of submitting P4 billion against the P4.2 billion ABC, we only submitted P3.8 billion.  Because we are aware of the real cost of maintenance,” he says.

Rapanut, however, warns that the delay in the government’s monthly payment in October and November may affect the procurement of spare parts which are crucial in the restoration of two more trains in the first quarter.

“We are afraid that because of these delays, we may not be able to comply with our commitment.  By Jan. 15, we may not be able to run the first overhauled train and the second overhauled train by first week of March,” he says.

A previous short-term maintenance contractor—Comm Builders & Technology Philippines Inc.–also has collectibles of P90 million plus two months worth of maintenance cost from the Transportation Department.  Manalo says there were issues that needed to be resolved first with Comm Builders.  “We expect to announce a decision soon,” he says.

Manalo says things will be even better next year with the addition of LRVs made by China’s Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co.

“As of today [Dec. 2], 38 Dalian LRVs [of the 48 orders] arrived.   About 32 are fully assembled and ready to go, but Dalian needs to put onboard signaling, which is a requirement to make the system safe.  They are installing now,” he says.

The Transportation Department and its contractors are installing a new power supply and signaling system to accommodate more trains. “The power supply will be completed by fourth quarter next year.  Once we have that power, we will run 24 trains in four-car configurations. If we are at full capacity now, we will increase it by 60 percent,” says Manalo.

“But we need more components.  End of next year is the target.  Once the new power system is in place and the tracks are improved, we can run the trains faster. We can easily accommodate 800,000 passengers a day,” he says.

“Once we have the Dalian LRVs, we will never run out of trains by end of next year,” says Manalo. 

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