In Defense of Manila’s MRT

Probably not a good photo for an article with the title “In Defense of Manila’s MRT”. Source:

When people talk about how bad the public transit in Manila supposedly is, they like to hold up the MRT as an example of all of its supposed dysfunctions. It’s so crowded!, they say. It’s always breaking down! Sometimes it even falls off the tracks! It’s a death trap!

Well, I came not to bury the MRT, but rather to… OK, not praise it, but at least offer a measured defense of it. So let me speak up on behalf of the MRT, since trains and tracks cannot speak for themselves:

It is absolutely indispensable. Manila’s train network may be woefully inadequate, with 14 million+++++ people being serviced by a total of 3 train lines (LRT1, LRT2 and MRT) with only 44 stations in total. (Compare Mexico City, a city not known for its cutting-edge infrastructure, still managed to build a whopping 195 metro stations.) And of the three train lines, all of which suffer from malfunctions, random aircon breakdowns on hot afternoons, and severe overcrowding during rush hour, the MRT is the worst: in spite of being the busiest of the three train lines, it has the smallest cars, and suffers from the most technical glitches. Being roughly pushed into a jam-packed MRT car at rush hour as the humble air conditioning struggles to keep up with the sheer outpouring of body heat is quite the experience indeed.

Nonetheless, the MRT has always been the most useful mode of transit for me in Metro Manila. For one thing, it runs along EDSA, a road which provides access to most of Metro Manila’s main commercial centres, and which you could credibly argue is the single most congested thoroughfare in the entire country. An MRT ride, though sometimes traumatic, can potentially reduce a 2 hour road journey to 25 minutes. The ridiculous 40 km journey from my home in Muntinlupa to my occasional workplace in a far-flunt area of Quezon City is only made bearable by the MRT, along with my dear friend the Skyway. (However, on a not-unrelated note, I’ll be quitting that job soon, because traveling 40 km in Manila will never not be hard.)

It’s not always bad. When people in Manila tell me that traffic is constant and unavoidable, public transit is always terrible, and the MRT is always a nightmare, I’m amazed that usually sunny Filipinos somehow manage to be more negative and pessimistic than even this crusty foreigner! I’ve discussed this ad nauseam in another post, but here’s the short version: the MRT is only terrible if you live in Quezon City/Valenzuela/Caloocan and work on a day shift in Makati/Ortigas/BGC, or if the MRT is experiencing some sort of malfunction. This applies to millions of people and a lot of the time, respectively, and in either case you’ll be dealing with crowding, wasted time, and a whole lot of pushing. However, these concentrated periods of sheer terror don’t change the fact that if you pick a random time on a random day, the MRT is just fineReally. And even outside of rush hour, it can save you a lot of time over Manila’s incredibly unpredictable roadways. You might even find it relaxing to soar effortlessly over that EDSA traffic!

It’s a little better than it used to be. As far as I can tell, the MRT reached its absolute rock bottom about a year or two ago. Stretched horribly beyond its capacity, it seemed to be constantly breaking down, and even suffered a derailment. Trains inexplicably stopping in the middle of the track for 10 minutes almost became the norm. My disgust with the MRT reached its peak when I returned home from Cubao after a bad date and had to wait 40 minutes on the platform before a train finally arrived. (It doesn’t help that it was a really bad date, and that we watched American Sniper, which is a pretty vile movie.)

But as of May 3, 2016, I can say that the MRT is… Pretty OK! Random stopping seems to be greatly reduced, the trains seem to run at fairly sane intervals, and the administrators are doing there best to handle insane rush hour passenger traffic by carefully controlling the entry of passengers onto the platform. And the new reloadable RFID Beep cards, while admittedly depriving us of the cherished free ride that came with the clunky old Stored Valued cards, do make it a lot faster to get out of the station when caught in a sea of hundreds of passengers going through the turnstiles.

(For those not in the know, the old magnetic Stored Value cards came loaded with 100 pesos of credit, and you could always get one last ride to any destination even if you only had 1 peso of credit left. Sporting gentlemen such as myself would engage in games of Stored Value Blackjack, whereby they would try to consume as close to 99 pesos as possible, and then take as long a ride as possible with the remaining value – ideally from one end of the line to the other – before having the card swallowed up by the ticket reader at the end of the journey. Going from Taft to North Ave on 1 peso of credit was an achievement only within reach of the most adept Stored Value virtuosos! If you ever managed that, congratulations!)

People here like to use the MRT as proof that public transit here doesn’t work, and the only feasible solution is for everyone to have their own car, thereby solving Metro Manila’s traffic problems once and for all. But in spite of all its defects, I think the MRT actually proves that even within a dysfunctional system, incremental change and improvements are possible, and they can yield real benefits for regular people. Until I get around to quitting my job and realizing my lifelong goal of never going anywhere or doing anything, I’m grateful to have the MRT there, bringing me safely and swiftly to my destination slightly more than half of the time!

One thought to “In Defense of Manila’s MRT”

  1. I agree… i think trains are a very convenient form of transportation, but the hassle arises during the rush hour with a lot of people struggling to board the train.

    The government needs to build more of it and really invest on its maintenance. As for us passengers, a little consideration for others and a little bit of discipline could go a long way in maintaining facilities and assuring a comfy ride on the MRT (??).

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