Taking the #MRTChallenge

Note: This article was submitted in a news writing class in my junior year of college. We were asked to take the then popular “MRT challenge” and write a news feature article about it using the first person point of view. The dates mentioned were in 2014. Surnames of sources were removed to protect their privacy, since the original article was meant for academic purposes only.

For five years now, vendor Mona Liza has been riding the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3 just to deliver packs of sweet delicacies from Boni Station to North Avenue Station. She braves the unforgiving sea of commuters every single day so she could sell her goods at a small mucky corner outside the TriNoma gateway.

This routine might seem conventional for people who also bear the struggle in riding the infamous MRT. But it isn’t so easy for Mona Liza, more so for the child she carries in her womb.

It was thrilling to learn that Mona Liza was already seven months pregnant and about to give birth to her third child. Sadly, it was not the case for other passengers with whom she rides the train.

Banggaan talaga. Walang priority,” says the 38-year-old mother, adding there was even one time where she rode the train and some of her products fell down onto the railway tracks. “Nalaglag nga ‘yung paninda ko noon kasi nga banggaan talaga. Problema, ang tagal dumating nung tren kaya ang haba ng pila.

I was unlucky enough to take the “MRT challenge” last September 24 at exactly eight o’ clock in the morning. I stood in line for at least 25 minutes and waited for the next coach to arrive. As a first-timer, I would say that the system in terms of directing the flow of passengers was rather confusing, but I figured it out eventually.

One of the MRT passengers I had the chance to have a little chat with was Amabel, who usually waits for at most an hour whenever she rides the train from North Avenue Station to Ayala Station. “Mahirap siyang transportation kasi ‘yung pagod at yung haba ng pila, parang pahirap ng pahirap,” says the 29-year-old human resource assistant.

Though she notes that there is an existing system that regulates the stream of passengers, she says that this is also encumbered by the heavy population. “Habang patagal ng patagal naman, nagkakaroon sila ng sistema. Kaso ‘yung sistema kasi, hindi rin gaanong nafi-feel kasi dumarami ‘yung pasahero.

The MRT, which has a rated capacity of only 350,000 but serves about 500,000 citizens everyday, deserves a rating of three out of ten, says 35-year-old Edward.

When asked if he has seen significant improvement in his five years of riding the train, Manlangit responds, “Oo, nagbago siya. Naging worse.”

In fact, in the afternoon of August 13, GMA News reported about a defective coach of the MRT that slammed through a steel barricade of the Taft Avenue Station in Pasay City and injured at least 50 passengers, including a six-month-old baby.

After the incident, the MRT administration apologized for the inconvenience and said in a tweet that they were “undergoing necessary intervention for the technical problem encountered.”

Recalling this ill-timed incident, I dared to step inside the train, which I now consider, albeit with exaggeration, a world that is different from what is beyond it.

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In this bizarre world that I speak of, fresh air is not only a necessity; it is a luxury. As I was in the part of the train where male passengers were situated, the kind of air I was forced to inhale and exhale had already been infused with a concoction of peculiar smells.

There’s the scent of male deodorant coming from a student whose armpit was only about five inches away from my face. Of course, the trip wouldn’t be complete without the whiff coming from manong who looked like he just came from an 8-hour work of carpentry. Then there’s kuya who just could not help but smoke before taking the train so he could deliver that distinct smell of Metro Manila straight to my olfactory senses. Fresh air was rare. And sadly, it was only normal.

But it seems like (former) Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya and I were not talking about the same train. Last August 27, he rode the MRT and called his ride “pleasant” and enjoyable. I cannot blame him. Who gets the chance to enjoy a ride beside the train driver at a non-peak hour?

Certainly not Edolly Ann, who shook her head in disbelief when she heard Abaya’s statement. “Ayos, kasi sila may bodyguards. Eh kapag sumakay kami, dikdikan talaga,” says the 23-year-old sales clerk. “May pa-ganun-ganun pa sila. Kalokohan.

It was also not the case for fourth year college student Jealyne Mae, who gave the MRT a grade of five out of ten. “Sobrang siksikan, so (may) mga accident na minsan nahahawakan na ‘yung maseselang parts ng katawan mo,” the 20-year-old education student says.

I will have to agree with Jealyne Mae.

In my experience, a torrent of commuters gushed as our train arrived at Shaw Boulevard. I was literally suffocated given the limited space left between me and manong, who earlier was at least two feet away. This time we were skin-to-skin. In this particular world I entered, the idea of having personal space does not exist.

Being in that miserably awkward position, one might find it hard to resist blaming the government, the system, and the MRT operators.

On the contrary, an MRT station guard* says no one should be blamed. “Natural lang ‘yan,” the guard says of the transportation situation. “Maaayos naman ‘yan. Marami lang talaga tayo. Hindi lang kinakaya ng MRT.”

Similarly, 25-year-old treasury personnel Louis thinks that the problem lies in the outlook of passengers in the transportation system.

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Hindi lang nila matanggap na sa ganung binabayaran, naghahanap pa sila ng sobra. ‘Yung basic service, naibibigay naman ng MRT,” says Louis, who gave the MRT a seven-out-of-ten rating. “May mga sira, pero hindi naman kailangan magreklamo.

In an article posted on September 8, Inquirer.net reported about Abaya’s “planned improvements” for the MRT including 48 new coaches, replacement of rails, and an automated ticketing system by 2015. The Transportation Secretary said they were also considering the purchase of new elevators and escalators, and the construction of a more convenient footbridge at North Avenue.

However, Abaya said maintenance operations will be managed by MRT and Light Rail Transit (LRT) personnel unless the government decides to take over. Until then, the current maintenance provider will continue to serve the MRT and renew its contract, which when bidded out would still undergo a three-year procurement process.

With hopes of witnessing actual improvement in this rapid transit system, 51-year-old Elson says, “Kung ‘yun matutupad nila, mas maganda. Kaso wala pa eh.”

Sana (maramdaman) rin nila ‘yung agony ng pasahero para patas rin,” says Louis, adding that improvement only takes initiative from both the government and the people. “Magi-improve naman siya. Kailangan lang maghintay.

This waiting that Louis suggests will not be as simple as the 45-minute ride I took from North Avenue Station to Taft Station. It could go on for years, or worse, decades before the commuting citizenry gets to experience a decent ride—one that does not have to be a completely different world inside.

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But as long as the trains continue to choo choo in the same old rotten tune, people like Amabel, Jealyne Mae, Edolly Ann, Edward, Elson, and Louis will also have to suffer the literally filthy transportation system.

Until actual transformation of the transportation system occurs, Mona Liza will have to hold tight—as firm as her grip to safety hand rails—to her wish that the precious baby boy she’s expecting may never have to experience this predicament once he grows big enough to face it.

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