From peeved to alarmed: MRT rider recalls train derailing

Bea Cupin
From peeved to alarmed: MRT rider recalls train derailing
An MRT passenger narrates why it may take her some time to ride the train again despite safety assurances from transportation officials

MANILA, Philippines – First, she heard people say there was a spark. Then came rumors of a fire.

Both worries turned out to be unfounded, so Genelene Anne Mejico thought the Metro Rail Transit 3 (MRT-3) problem on Wednesday, August 13, would just be another item in the line’s long list of minor mishaps.

Sumisigaw na kami na, ‘Ibaba ‘nyo na lang kami,’ [pero] ayaw niya [ng driver], bawal daw (We were telling the conductor to let us go down but he said no, it wasn’t allowed),” Mejico, a 25-year-old IT Support specialist, told Rappler hours after the incident.

Matapos ang ilang minuto, sabi nila itutulak na lang kami ng tren. Akala namin okay na siya. Pero noong palapit na sa Taft, ‘yung pababa, naramdaman namin na sobrang bilis na siya,” she said.

(After a few minutes, they said another train would push the train we were on. We thought it would be okay. But as we approached the Taft station, where there’s a downward slope, we felt the train’s speed accelerating.)

Nagulat na lang kami na lumabas siya sa harapan, nag-declare na siya na buksan na ‘yung pintuan, paki-bukas ng pintuan, hawak na daw ng maigi,” said Mejico. (We were surprised when the driver went out and told us to open the doors and hold on tight.)

Before Mejico could realize what was going on, the MRT-3 train she was riding bulldozed through the line’s safety barriers, injuring passengers and toppling an electric post along EDSA.

It was the train line’s most dramatic of mishaps this year. At least 36 people were brought to different hospitals, among them the mother of a 6-month-old baby.

Mejico managed to shield a child, who was thrown forward when the train sped up. “Akala ko talaga last life ko na (I really thought it’d be my last life),” she said, still shaken hours after the incident. 

Long list of MRT woes

The MRT-3, which traverses through EDSA and several key business centers in Metro Manila, is a consistent item in the news for all the wrong reasons: long commuter lines and an even longer list of glitches that have forced the line to switch to provisional or partial operations. (READ: Catch up: The DOTC’s race to 2016)

Speaking to reporters at the site of the accident, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said commuters need not worry – it’s unlikely the incident was caused by a lapse in maintenance or a failure of the train line itself.

“Clearly, it’s not a maintenance issue. It’s more of an emergency procedural issue,” said Abaya.

Pressed if he meant it was most likely caused by human error, Abaya said, “I’m not a train expert but based on the MRT manager and the engineers, it might be along that line.”

The problem started when the train stalled between the Magallanes and Taft stations. When a train is stalled, its brakes automatically lock. The only way to move the train is to “couple” it with another train, which would push it to the nearest station.

But as the second train was pushing the stalled train, the two “uncoupled.” With the brakes on the stalled train turned off, it sped off uncontrollably – too fast for the barriers designed to stop trains going at 15 kilometers per hour.

MRT-3 spokesman Hernando Cabrera later told reporters “coupling” is the only proper way to handle stalled trains.

The practice of letting passengers disembark between stations had been done in the past, but Cabrera said it’s dangerous since passengers would have to walk along gravel, train tracks, and through a high-voltage area. 

Ako mismo na sanay nang maglakad diyan, nadudulas pa rin ako diyan (I’m used to walking between stations but I still trip sometimes),” added Cabrera. 

4 angles

The “coupling” procedure that took place between the two stations was nothing new to MRT personnel, said Cabrera. Earlier, however, Abaya called the coupling a “non-routinary procedure,” adding that the DOTC will be looking into the retraining of its personnel.

PROBE BEGINS. DOTC Secretary Jun Abaya (in white) arrives at the Taft station in Pasay city hours after an MRT-3 train derails. Photo by Rappler

The government is conducting a probe on the incident – an internal investigation by the MRT-3 management as supervised by the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and a parallel investigation by the national police’s Scene of the Crime Operatives (SOCO).

The probe will be looking at 4 angles:

  • Human error during coupling
  • A problem with the coupler
  • The speed of the train as it approached Taft station 
  • Why the stoppers didn’t work

The MRT-3 and DOTC will shoulder medical and hospital expenses of the injured passengers.

Safety concern, assurance

Mejico left the San Juan de Dios Hospital past 9 pm Wednesday, after MRT-3 management bought them the medicines they needed. Mejico and her mother said the medicines were only given out for free when Abaya himself paid a visit to the hospital.

Abaya told reporters MRT-3 operations would be unaffected by the incident. By Wednesday afternoon, the train line was on full operations, though using only one track for northbound and southbound trips.

Hindi kami mag-ooperate kung hindi po ligtas ang MRT-3. So wala po dapat ipangamba ang mga sumasakay (We won’t operate if the MRT-3 is not safe. Our commuters have no reason to worry),” said Abaya.

But Mejico is unconvinced. “Hindi na muna ako sasakay ng MRT. Siguro kung bago na ang MRT, sasakay ulit ako. (I won’t be riding the MRT for the meantime. Maybe when it’s new, I’ll ride again),” she said. 

But Mejico, who lives in Cavite, will have to wait. The line’s new coaches aren’t due to be delivered until 2015. – 

Note: If you are one of the passengers who were injured during the Wednesday incident but was unable to receive help from the MRT-3, spokesman Hernan Cabrera says you may text him through 09175772089.

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.