Engineers racing to fix LRT1

While you were sleeping. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

While you were sleeping.

Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – It was past 6 pm and more than a dozen men were maintaining the third generation train sets of the Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT1) at the depot in Pasay City.

A mile up the line, another dozen workers were disconnecting the signalling and overhead wires. Down the track, 5 men were making sure the wheels and brake frame of the system were in mint condition. 

With everybody wearing helmets and reflector vests, the night-time duty "seems more challenging and similar to mining," said Peter Tesiorna, head of light maintenance of Light Rail Manila Corporation, the operator of LRT1.

Built before 1984 by a group of Japanese railway experts, LRT1 connects 4 big cities: Quezon, Caloocan, Manila, and Pasay.

Since it became operational in 1984, it has been considered as one of the busiest mass transport railway systems in Metro Manila. It has seen passenger journeys increase to half a million a day in just 3 decades.

But because of poor maintenance, the existing LRT1 system deteriorated and the fleet size decreased, causing safety concerns among passengers.

To address this issue, the Philippine government appointed International Finance Corporation as the lead adviser for the LRT1 rehabilitation and extension project under a public-private partnership model.

In September 2014, the transportation department and Light Rail Transit Authority – which originally owned and operated LRT1 – awarded the contract to operate, maintain, and extend LRT1 to Light Rail Manila. Light Rail Manila is a consortium of Ayala Corporation, Metro Pacific Investments Corporation (MPIC), and the Macquarie group.

Light Rail Manila's directive: rehabilitate the 20 stations and train cars of LRT1 in 18 months and start the construction of the P64.9-billion ($1.37-billion) LRT1 extension from Baclaran to Bacoor, Cavite in June. The group's aim is to fully operate the extended line by 2020.

With this goal in mind, Light Rail Manila's 1,200 employees – 300 of them under engineering and maintenance – are working beyond regular shift hours to meet their optimistic deadline.

ROUND THE BEND. Two of Light Rail Manila's engineers ensuring LRT1's auxiliary inverter is ready for running. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

ROUND THE BEND. Two of Light Rail Manila's engineers ensuring LRT1's auxiliary inverter is ready for running.

Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Laying out fresh tracks

"It's not easy. Repairing old tracks is rocket science. It also requires hard work and patience," Tesiorna told Rappler during a walkthrough.

He said that of the 91 operational light rail vehicles (LRVs), there are 71 running. "Each LRV is being checked and maintained by 14 men."

Tesiorna said engineers and staff are asked to work 8 hours a day to rehabilitate and upgrade the train system. "But most of the time, we work beyond regular shift."

"Regular shift is 8 am to 2 pm and 10 pm to 6 am; but we are more than willing to do overtime," Light Rail Manila's head of light maintenance said.

When Light Rail Manila took over the operations, maintenance, and extension of LRT1 last September, LRTA turned over only 77 operational LRVS  less than what was promised – to the private concessionaire.

Under the concession agreement, the government should turn over 100 operational LRVs.

As of today, Light Rail Manila has restored 14 LRVs, with a total of 91 vehicles now operational from the 77 handed over by the LRTA.

"We don't have time to complain. We just have to do what needs to be done," Tesiorna said.

According to Light Rail Manila engineering director Rudy Chansuyco, there would be more operational coaches in the coming months.

"We are expecting in 12 months or 14 months, we will expect the deliveries of the parts that we have ordered so when they come then we will be able to restore additional trains, hoping that we can hit the 100 that we aim for," Chansuyco said during the walkthrough.

The additional LRVs are set to replace the first generation vehicles in LRT1 which have been running since 1984, Chansuyco said.

REHAB NEEDED. Due to poor maintenance, the existing LRT1 system deteriorated and the fleet size decreased. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

REHAB NEEDED. Due to poor maintenance, the existing LRT1 system deteriorated and the fleet size decreased.

Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Getting ready for the future

Working night time to rehabilitate and upgrade one of the busiest mass railway transit systems in Metro Manila requires more than technical skills, Light Rail Manila's Tesiorna said.

"You know, it's more than technical skills. It also requires sacrifice. Think of the time you should be spending with your family, but instead you're here working. But I'm not complaining. It's part of getting ready for the future," he added.

Due to the increasing number of passenger journeys, the LRT1 operator targets to start the LRT1 Cavite Extension project this June.

Light Rail Manila took on French rail experts Bouygues Travaux Publics and Alstom Transport Private Limited to help build LRT1's extension.

Its president and CEO Jesus Francisco had earlier said his firm and the French contractors are set to commence the construction of the 11.7-kilometer Cavite extension once right of way is delivered by the government.

The extension is targeted for completion in about 4 years after the delivery of right-of-way.

The 11.7-kilometer Cavite extension will link with the existing system immediately south of the Baclaran Station, and run in a generally southerly direction to Niog, Cavite.

The commercial speed of the Cavite extension will be 60 kilometers per hour.

Eight new stations will be provided with 3 intermodal facilities across Pasay City, Parañaque City, Las Piñas City, and Cavite.

The new stations are Aseana, MIA, Asia World, Ninoy Aquino, Dr Santos, Las Piñas, Zapote and Niog. The intermodal facilities will be located at Dr Santos, Zapote, and Niog.

With over 1,200 staff working beyond what they were asked to do, commuters in Metro Manila may experience better LRT1 rides even before 2020. – Rappler.com

Editor's Note: The previous title of this story said 1,200 engineers are working on the LRT1 rehabilitation. Light Rail Manila has a total manpower of 1,200, but only 300 are under engineering and maintenance. The title has been corrected.