Not at this rate

The fact that there are still some people who were surprised by the news that fares for the LRT and MRT will go up is testament to how short the collective Filipino attention span is. This was one of the first things the Aquino administration tackled the moment it took over: they wanted to decrease the subsidy the government allots to the train system's budget, supposedly to free up funds for more pressing projects. If I remember correctly, Noynoy Aquino defended the proposal by pointing out that only those who live in Metro Manila benefit from the LRT and MRT, and the subsidy it gets does not benefit all the others who live elsewhere.

Four years later, and here we are. The basic fare has gone up to almost double across all three lines of Metro Manila's train system: the LRT-1, from Pasay to Caloocan (and, later, to Quezon City); the LRT-2, from Manila to Marikina; and the MRT, following the same route as EDSA. There's the usual back-and-forth, from government officials and advocacy groups and commuters, about whether the fare increase is justified or not. There are traditional protests, selfie protests and middle-finger protests. There are, still, long lines at the train stations, crossing many blocks. There are, still, trains stalling, as late as this weekend.

I tend to agree with those who say that the timing of the fare hike is, at the very least, insensitive. I don't remember who all of them are; I only remember that neophyte senator Grace Poe was one of those people. (That worked for her, the public transport advocacy. I remember her.) You have an unreliable train system that is not punctual, that does not guarantee the safety of its riders, that does not even serve the whole of Metro Manila. You have a train system that's a headache for everybody, no matter what the time is. And then you raise prices. Insult to injury, sometimes literal, to put it one way.

The sucky part is, nobody - not even the government - could guarantee that the increased fare would result in better service. This increase is because of the government's decision to reduce its subsidy towards the train system. With that, the budget for operating and maintaining these lines actually shrinks, which means the operators - the Light Rail Transit Authority, a government-owned corporation, and the Metro Rail Transit Corporation, a private-led consortium - have less money to run the whole thing. The fare increase, therefore, only serves to keep the budget at the same level as previous years. You can't expect change there. (This is where the argument, posed by militant groups, that the hike only benefits "capitalist" corporations come from. Then again, it could be worse. The government could remove its subsidy altogether, and fares could hit the P80 mark for a whole trip.)

And then there's the whole "we want to free up more money for more important projects" angle. That argument was made early in this administration's term, and a lot has changed since then. Again - we may have forgotten about it, thanks to the whole Binay-owns-a-farm hoopla that wrapped itself around the country on the latter third of 2014 - the pork barrel scandal, and its offshoot controversy on the Disbursement Acceleration Program and budget amendments, has shaken (or eroded further) our confidence in government's ability to implement projects properly. Closer to home, there was talk of irregularities in the maintenance contracts signed between the operators and their contractors.) So they're shrinking the subsidy, and hiking our fares, to free up money for what exactly?

So, yes, the reaction surrounding these fare hikes involves a bit of psychology. The arguments in favor make sense, but it's not enough to placate anyone, especially the millions who take the LRT and MRT daily. And then there's the assumption that a higher price means a better product. The vox pops on tonight's news reports say as much. "Magtataas sila ng presyo, pero yung escalator, hindi nila maayos-ayos?" one passenger, who was standing in one of those long lines, lamented. The underlying fact is, to most, the product we have is not a good product.

And it's not just because of the long lines or the slow, jittery trains. Our trains are woefully underequipped. It's beyond capacity - there just isn't enough space to accommodate those buying tickets, more so those who already have - and it does not even serve half of Metro Manila. I live near Alabang and I can't take the train unless I take two jeeps and a bus to the nearest station. The trains were clearly built as an alternative to buses and jeepneys, and not the other way around. The lack of foresight in developing our transit systems mean it only (badly) serves those who already live near the area, and is unable to cope with the rapid expansion and urbanization of Metro Manila and its surroundings.

And they're increasing the fare without any guarantees that things will be any better. Not that anybody expects the lines to miraculously grow shorter and the trains get infinitely more comfortable. It's not as if the transit systems of our neighbors are perfect and brilliant - Hong Kong's is crowded, Kuala Lumpur's more so, and Singapore's, that paragon of perfection whose operator has taken interest in improving Manila's aching trains, isn't that perfect either. But no, we don't expect things to get any better. Not at this rate.

And your responses...

This has been a longstanding issue for quite some time now. My friends and I discussed this last week and we share the same sentiments as yours. Riding a tricycle to the station and waiting for the train for a long period of time is already problematic, what more with increasing hikes when some of our trains aren't even working properly. I know it's a little late but hope you have a happy new year ahead! :)

Anonymous Candice1/08/2015     

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