The concept of the Metro Rail train system is to provide fast, efficient mass transportation that cuts through traffic and carries people from end-to-end cities in 30 minutes or less. Just like your favorite pizza delivery service. I just made that up as I typed, because I thought it made sense that people were delivered to places much faster than pizza. The one other metro rail line I’ve been on—the MTR in Hong Kong–seems to agree with me though. After a Hong Kong MTR train leaves the platform, a one-minute timer starts followed shortly by a cool voice on the speaker affirming that the next train will be arriving in 60 seconds. The cool voice doesn’t lie to you. Thus the queuing is rarely crowded and is always orderly (though the Chinese have a predisposition to elbowing strangers unapologetically), and the passengers cross the city in about the same time it takes to boil an egg. I might have exaggerated a bit but you get my drift.
Now I think myself more patriotic than the next person, and I hate it when balikbayans diss our country as if they were born with their bleached hair and twisted tongues. But I too felt a deep sadness when I returned from four days of MTR bliss in Hong Kong to the dreary aching reality of using our local Metrostar Express. As passenger-friendly and near-bullet efficient is the MTR, its Filipino counterpart seems to be barreling backwards. Let us not even go to the fact that our stations here are dark, gloomy, and barely maintained. Looking up the ceiling you will observe an assortment of dust web designs, each more elaborate than the next. The ticket slots in the fare gates often get broken, leaving commuters to queue on just 2-3 working gates. On a rush hour in Ayala station that makes for good comedy as people riding up the escalator bonk bodies with the growing crowd filling the floor and waiting their turn to slot their tickets in and leave the goddamn station.
Okay, so we went there. But the point of the story is in the trains themselves. Case in point: on January 15, 2013, I arrived at Ayala station a few minutes before 8pm to be welcomed by about seven zigzagging queues coming from about three different directions all looking at the one clear goal that is the entrance to the platform. The order from the panicky voice in the speakers was “stop entry”. I can only imagine the chaos on the platform below. But alas, I need not imagine. In about 40 minutes, I was able to get in, roll down the escalator, and be part of the platform chaos for a more interactive experience. By interactive, I mean cheek on cheek, back to chest, bag to hip with my fellow stressed out passengers. Since I am one head taller than most, the picture for me was my chin on their heads, my pointy shoulder against their cheeks. It was still far from comfort but at least I can see what is happening around me, and I had room to breathe in the hot congested air. About five full trains, a slow painful push-pull game towards the door, a few swear words and heated arguments later, my two feet and the rest of my body made it inside and the door finally slammed on the jam-packed car. The train was off. The train car would completely shame a can of sardines. All sense of personal space, even decorum and social niceties were long thrown out the railways. For every stop where another person will try to squirm and push herself inside, it is every lady for herself, screw it that makeup is running and buttons are being torn off. By the time the train stopped at Quezon Avenue, in my stress and exhaustion I had forgotten why I was there at all. It has become an MRT to nowhere.
You can argue that this could be a one-time mishap, but the same dark scenario happened the following morning, at which point I was able to write about half of this article on my cellphone while stewing in my annoyance. In hindsight, maybe I should have made an MRT Diary of Fun to chronicle more than six years of being at its mercy. But that will just show that at least in the six years I have been using it, no one has seriously bothered adding to the number of trains to meet the continually growing millions of commuters, or at least fixing the ones currently on hand. After all, “defective train” is the only explanation they announce to the passengers, together with lukewarm apologies.
One of my coworkers was watching a really old Japanese film off cable. A few scenes in and a character hops on a train. My colleague’s eyes light up in recognition. “PNR yan ah!” We burst out laughing at the anecdote. I’ve never been on the PNR myself, but if our friends the Japanese really are shipping their old used trains for our everyday use (that surely explains a lot), then I’m not very keen on trying the journey. Just like the MRT, it might just be another train to nowhere.