By Arjay L. Balinbin, Reporter

METRO RAIL Transit (MRT)-3’s number of passengers and collection from ticket sales fell further in 2019 as the railway system undergoes rehabilitation to increase its capacity by July 2021.

Collection from ticket sales fell by 7.7% to P1.91 billion last year while ridership in the Baclaran-North Ave. line dropped by 7.1% to 96.93 million, latest data from the Department of Transportation (DoTr) show.

The figures were provided to BusinessWorld on Thursday by the office of Timothy John R. Batan, the department’s undersecretary for railways.

In 2017, ridership reached 140.15 million, higher by 4.6% from the previous year, while revenues hit P2.78 billion, up 3.7% from the collection in 2016.

On Tuesday, Mr. Batan said in an interview that MRT-3’s passenger count had gone down to a workday average of 300,000 to 320,000, or significantly lower compared with the more than 620,000 passengers ferried daily in August 2012.

“It’s a combination of [factors]. Some of them are riding the buses; some of them, instead of working far, are now working near their houses… I mean the 300,000 did not just disappear from the face of the earth; they must have found another way of traveling,” he said.

He said the goal of MRT-3 now, with its Japanese service provider Sumitomo Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Engineering, Ltd., and TES Philippines Inc. (Sumitomo-MHI-TESP), is to restore the 600,000-passenger-per-day capacity of the railway system by 2021.

“The goal is to fix it to how it is supposed to be,” he said.

Mr. Batan said the maximum number of trains that ran last year was 15, with seven to 10 minutes gap between two trains or what is called the “headway.”

“Remember the system is supposed to operate 20 trains per hour. We went down to… worst was six or seven in early 2018, so we have gradually restored that,” he added.

In a statement posted on its website in August 2019, DoTr-MRT-3 explained that since the government’s transition team temporarily took over the maintenance of the railway system after the termination of the deal with Busan Universal Rail, Inc. (BURI) in November 2017, “measures have been taken to only deploy trains that are safe and reliable.”

DoTr-MRT-3 added that “revenue maximization is not its primary objective,” and it “does not condone gambling with passengers’ safety in exchange for higher revenues.”

“This means that since 2018, MRT-3 only deploys trains that are not likely to break down during operations, because breakdowns result not just in passenger inconvenience, but more importantly, breakdowns expose passengers to safety risks, especially in cases of unloading incidents between stations,” it said further.

The DoTr data also showed that unloading incidents fell 50.9% to 28 in 2019 from 57 in 2018.

Mr. Batan said that when Sumitomo-MHI-TESP took over the system in May 2019, “we’ve seen the gradual increase of our capacity again.”

He said when the government’s contract with Busan Universal Rail was terminated, “a lot of capacity issues” emerged, which resulted in the decrease of MRT-3’s ridership in 2018. “But the transition team was able to stabilize that again within that year.”

On what the public can expect from the completion of the railway system’s rehabilitation by July 2021, Mr. Batan said: “From 15 to 20 operational train sets, from the current 30 kilometers per hour up to 60 kilometers per hour, and from 7 minutes to 10 minutes headway down to 3.5 minutes. So more trains, faster trains and shorter time gap between trains; we are looking at going back to the previous 600,000 capacity from 300,000 now.”

Under the rehabilitation project, the DoTr said, Sumitomo-MHI-TESP “will undertake the overhaul of all of MRT-3’s 72 Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs), replace all mainline tracks, rehabilitate power and overhead catenary systems, upgrade signaling, communications and CCTV systems, and fix all of MRT-3’s escalators and elevators, among other system repairs and improvements.”