Sunday, June 09, 2013

Life and death at the MRT

LAST Sunday, when I went back to this city, another man jumped to his death at the Metro Rail Transit (MRT).

My husband told me operations shut down for five hours.

I replied: At least it didn’t happen on a Monday.

Does callousness come with the extreme anxiety one absorbs through the pores, living in a place teeming with nearly 12 million people? That’s 19,000 humans sharing a square kilometer, according to population density monitors.

As the most populous of the country’s metropolitan areas and the 11th most populous in the world, Metro Manila deserves the MRT.

Even if the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) counts the Manila Metro Rail Transit System Line 3 (MRT-3) operations as lopsidedly subsidized by the government and disadvantageous for public coffers, no president since Gloria Arroyo has upped the rates.

Who would raise the ire of Metro Manila’s teeming millions? For daily commuters like me, the MRT is a lifeline. Fourteen pesos is the costliest fare to commute from the North Avenue station to the 13th station, Taft. A taxi ride crossing the MRT’s route of four cities (Quezon, Mandaluyong, Makati and Pasay) will run to hundreds of pesos—IF you find an honest driver who will not take you in circles.

From the standpoint of the commuting public and urban planners, the MRT’s chief virtue is the guaranteed rapid transit. My daily nine-station run takes an hour and a half BEFORE the morning rush hour. It’s twice or thrice longer if you drive your own vehicle just going one way, specially during school months. Counting gasoline consumption and elevated stress levels, a trip via private vehicle along the EDSA thoroughfare is a fool’s errand.

The MRT is faster and cheaper. Is it better? Better is relative. The MRT-3 is part of a transport hub. MRT stations connect to the Light Rail Transit (LRT) System, bus and jeepney terminals. The Araneta Center-Cubao station siphons masses to the long-distance buses going to towns outside Metro Manila. At least two stations, North Ave. and Ayala, connect to malls owned by retail rivals, SM and Ayala. In Manila, malls are not just public lounges and urban parks; they’re halfway homes.

Thus, crowds are the one abiding element at the MRT. As Metro Manila empties only during Holy Week, the MRT closes also then for its annual maintenance. Otherwise, it’s open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. It accommodates at least four batches of rush-hour crowds: 7 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., and nine p.m., after malls close.

Surviving the MRT means charting its moods and timing your trip. Only the strong or patient should venture when it’s a mall weekend sale, Monday, Friday, payday, Friday/payday, Sunday, holidays, the release of the yearend bonus and cash gifts, and the Christmas-New Year stretch.

Sometimes, the MRT gets a kink during a run. We come to a full stop. The air-conditioning shuts down. Doors slide open but the air is unimaginable. The crowd shifts as the seconds tick. That’s the closest I’ve been to imagining what would happen if this huge, mindless creature generically referred to as the masses ever panics and exercises the power it does not know.

Even when rush hours are at the worst, the giant shifts but goes on sleeping. When someone jumps down on the tracks and grips the rails as the train is pulling in, THAT can shake its slumber.

Googling “MRT suicide” will disclose the suicides last May 8 and June 2, as well as on Oct. 22, 2006 and Jan. 5, 2011. In the recent incidents, Twitter users were “the first to report the suicide,” notes

Skewed from their schedules, forced out of their routines, clambering for available public transport, or reduced to walking. It’s like being trapped in a MRT car. Someone cuts off the oxygen; everyone inhales the dreadful carbon dioxide all are emitting.

“Oh, MRT. Why must you do this to me?! :( #lateforclass,” tweeted one.

Some giants should be left to slumber.

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 9, 2013 issue of the editorial page column, “Matamata”

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