MRT is in trouble, is the bus system ready?
Metro Manila's public rail system, the MRT, is dying.
It hasn't been maintained properly, and now every component – from the rails, to the passenger cars, to the signaling and switching system, even the elevators and escalators in the stations – need to be repaired or replaced. This is going to cost a fortune, and in fact, the Department of Budget and Management just released P1.2 billion for a major rehabilitation program.
But that rehabilitation won't happen overnight, and the train system is going to get worse before it gets better.
Of more immediate concern is the impact this is having on passengers. Breakdowns have become routine, with passengers being forced to climb down and walk along the tracks to the next station at least once every month. A few weeks ago, the system actually dropped to only 5 working trains, from an average of 17 to 19 during normal rush hour.
Metro Manila's MRT, a critical part of the city's public transportation system, has become predictably unreliable.
Hundreds of thousands of people rely on the MRT to carry them to and from work every day, and if that system should fail, many of those people will be in serious trouble. Unfortunately for them, the train looks like it's on its last leg.
Transportation officials have a few ideas, but none of them could properly be called "solutions."
First, of course, is the rehabilitation plan. This will certainly improve service, but not immediately. Full rehabilitation will take at least a year, and quite possibly longer. The first batch of new train cars is also not expected to be delivered until sometime in 2016. For the average commuter who needs reliable transportation today, rehabilitation is no solution at all.
The second “idea,” recently offered by MRT officials, is a suggestion to just "take the bus.” There are already an estimated 232,000 people riding the public bus system (if you can call it a "system") during rush hour alone, enduring an overcrowded, hot, dirty, dangerous, unreliable, and incredibly slow commute twice every day. It's very unlikely that the bus system, as it currently operates, can absorb even a small part of the MRT's passenger load. Just imagine if the entire MRT were to shut down.
But the suggestion to "take the bus" is apparently more than just a suggestion. According to statements from MRT officials, the MRT is planning to officially reduce its capacity by limiting the number of tickets available and by limiting the number of passengers allowed to enter the stations. This will force many passengers to shift from a rapidly failing train system to a dysfunctional and inefficient bus system. A bus system which, as mentioned, may not be able to absorb them.
How do we solve this?
First, as the agency with overall responsibility for transportation, the Department of Transportation and Communications needs to manage the whole public transportation system under a single plan. (READ: Lessons from Seoul's bus reform)
Right now, we think of buses and trains as two completely separate networks when we should be seeing them as two components of a single mass transit system.
The purpose of a mass transit system is to move a very large number of people from point A to point B, along fixed routes. And since buses and trains are only different components of a single system, there should be very little difference in the way they move those people. But in Metro Manila, entirely because we don't manage buses and trains as a single system, there is a huge difference in performance.
If I were in charge of such a system, I would look at each component and try to find the weak links. I would ask myself, "Which parts are not working as efficiently as they should be?" And then I would concentrate on improving those parts.
On the one hand, the train component, when it's not in the middle of one of its increasingly frequent breakdowns, is actually quite efficient. In terms of passenger numbers, the train operates above its maximum capacity, and it does this every day on a pretty predictable schedule. Repair work for its many problems is budgeted and scheduled. It could certainly be argued that this should have been done earlier, but from a practical position, not much else can be done at this point to improve the system.
When it works, the train component does the job it's supposed to do.
The bus component, on the other hand, is a mess. It's incredibly inefficient, taking two to 3 times longer than the train to move the same number of people. Many buses are dirty and uncomfortable, and frequently put both their passengers and other road users in physical danger. In addition, buses are responsible for a huge part of the congestion we experience every day on Metro Manila roads. As a transportation service, the bus "system" is completely dysfunctional. It is, without a doubt, the weak link in Metro Manila's mass transportation program.
Our bus system is not doing the job it's supposed to do, and this is where DOTC should focus its attention. (READ: EDSA express bus project)
These things have been said so many times that it's almost embarrassing to say them again. But the MRT is in serious trouble, and for many people, the current dysfunctional and unprepared bus system may soon be their only transportation option.
If tens or hundreds of thousands of MRT passengers are suddenly forced to switch to the public bus system, and if that bus system continues to operate the way it currently does, there will literally be chaos in the streets.
The train is broken, but it's being “rehabilitated." What we need to do now is rehabilitate the bus system, which is effectively the only backup plan for the train. Fixing the bus system is incredibly easy, and much, much cheaper, but we need to do it now.
That's what I would do if I were in charge. – Rappler.com
Michael Brown is a retired member of the US Air Force, and has lived over 16 years in the Philippines. He writes on English, traffic management, and law enforcement issues.
In these changing times, courage and clarity become even more important.
Take discussions to the next level with Rappler PLUS — your platform for deeper insights, closer collaboration, and meaningful action.
Sign up today and access exclusive content, events, and workshops curated especially for those who crave clarity and collaboration in an intelligent, action-oriented community.
As an added bonus, we’re also giving a free 1-year Booky Prime membership for the next 200 subscribers.
You can also support Rappler without a PLUS membership. Help us stay free and independent by making a donation: https://www.rappler.com/crowdfunding. Every contribution counts.