Monday, July 14, 2008

Light rail troubles

This is my column today.

The word out there is that the Light Rail Transit and the Metro Rail Transit have become the preferred mode of transportation in Metro Manila today as it should be. They’re fast. They’re convenient. And of course, they’re a lot cheaper than taking a bus or driving a car to work.

Before the prices of oil became prohibitive, the trains were not really patronized as often by the upper and middle classes of Metro Manila society for a number of reasons. Most preferred to bring cars to work. The LRT and MRT stations require taking flights of steps that can be daunting for people in high heels and corporate attires. But the no. 1 reason was that both the LRT and the MRT were and still are classic case studies of really terrible management of customer service.

I really doubt if the people that operate the transit systems—the train operators, the ticket vendors, the clerks, and the guards—think of the people who ride the trains as customers at all. I have the feeling they think of the commuters simply as statistics or perhaps as trouble that simply needs to be dealt with.

But the LRT and the MRT have now become so “successful” as mass transport systems that their administrators are already expressing concern that the transit systems were not built to accommodate as much number of people. The concern could have been funny if only the threat of total mayhem were not real. Where in the world do you find administrators complaining that far too many people are patronizing the service they provide? It’s the kind of problem that many businessmen would kill to have. To be fair, the expression of concern was really more on account of the physical limitations of the train stations than the ability of the trains in themselves to ferry people.

The train stations, particularly those of the MRT, were seemingly not built to accommodate thousands of people at any given time. Many of the platforms, the access ramps, and stairways are just too narrow. In many stations, there’s simply no space where people can wait in comfort for the trains so they end up clogging the stairways and spilling over to the sidewalks in the streets. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

The building of the LRT and the MRT were crowed about as the country’s solution to the transportation needs of the burgeoning population in Metro Manila. Therefore, one would expect that the people who built them came up with realistic projections of the transportation needs of people—surely, they were thinking of train systems that would be able to address algebraic increases in passengers. I mean, surely they intended the system to last for a long, long time. As it is, passengers have not even tripled yet and the administrators are already expressing concern about the possible inability of the transit system to serve that number?

And then of course, we all know that commuters of mass transport systems are not really seen—and therefore not treated—like customers. The prevailing sense is that anyone who wants comfort or courtesy should take a taxi or drive their own cars. Those who take the LRT or the MRT have no business complaining.

I took the LRT and the MRT on several occasions last week. All I can say was: Thank God I don’t have to take these trains everyday. My heart went out to those who have no other alternatives but to suffer the inconveniences. The trains were crammed. The air- conditioning system in the trains I was in was not functioning and for a moment I thought I would asphyxiate from lack of oxygen. Getting in and out of the trains, particularly at the busiest stations, required superhuman effort. And those were the easier part of the ordeal. The toughest parts were getting in and out of the stations.

Someone I know works in Quezon City and takes the MRT everyday to work. She gets off at the last MRT station at Trinoma, where she gets stuck for a minimum of 30 minutes each day. The problem is that she can’t get down because every possible square inch of space in the North Terminal is filled with commuters all rushing to get to work and all unwilling to yield space for people going down.

The Filipino’s lack of discipline and utter disregard for others are traits that are often brought to the fore in tight situations. These are painfully surfaced in many LRT and MRT stations during rush hours. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. I dread the thought of a stampede happening at the busiest stations during rush hours where thousands of impatient people try to get into platforms ahead of everyone else. The problems are actually manageable, which is why it is truly a wonder that the people behind the MRT have not been able to address them up to this time.

Let’s begin with the system in buying tickets which can be described in just two words—sheer bedlam. The lines are just too long that the people who are queuing to buy tickets in lines that snake around and around the station end up blocking the traffic for others who are trying to get in or out.

It used to be simpler when tokens were still used because these could be bought on the sidewalk from enterprising people, or from certain stores under the stations. But now that electronic tickets are used, it has become imperative that the tickets are sold at designated vendors. Why can’t these tickets be made available like pre-paid cell phone cards? Why do the MRT and LRT insist that these tickets be bought only at the windows at the stations which are hampered by space limitations to begin with? Outsourcing the function not only makes the purchase of tickets faster and convenient, it also frees up precious space in the narrow terminals.

Then there is the problem with the security precautions which adds up to the delay and the queues. In most stations, there are usually two guards (one male and one female) tasked to inspect bags. We all know that the whole security process is really just for show—or to be more specific, meant as a psychological deterrent for petty criminals. To begin with, the inspection is really very cursory and superficial as there is no way that those guards can do a thorough search when three thousand other people are pushing and rushing to jump the line.

If one was carrying whatever it is that those guards are supposed to look out for—and I am not sure those guards really know what they are looking for—I am sure that they will take the trouble to really camouflage it so well beyond detection. I am not against these security precautions of course. I also believe that it is for my own good. But surely there are more effective and efficient ways of doing security checks or ensuring security inside trains—sniffing dogs for example, or installing cameras, or posting more security guards, among others.

There are more, but as usual, I am running out of space. To summarize, the problems in the LRT and the MRT are process problems—things which can be reengineered and redesigned if only the administrators of the LRT and the MRT think of commuters as customers that deserve better.

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