Critics wrong in dragging PGMA to ‘anomalies’ in railways project

    CLARK FREEPORT, Pampanga- North Luzon Railways Corp. (Northrail) President Edgardo Pamintuan said yesterday critics, including those behind the latest impeachment move junked in the House last Wednesday, are wrong in accusing Pres. Arroyo of  wrongdoing in the $503-million Phase 1 of the Caloocan-to-Clark railways.

    This, even as he insisted there has been nothing irregular in the project and that, despite projected increase in its initial cost, would still be among the cheapest in the world.

    In an interview with Punto, Pamintuan challenged opposition lawyer Harry Roque to check his facts on his claim that the railways project never got the approval of the Monetary Board and therefore violated the Constitution.

    “The Monetary Board issued its final approval of the terms and conditions of the project loan on March 18, 2004,” Pamintuan said.

    Pamintuan also challenged allegations that the railways project is overpriced. “There are enough data for comparison with other railways built recently in other parts of the world. Such data will reveal our initial estimates for our project are much lower,” he said.

    He noted that the proposed railway recommended by the World Bank to eventually link the North and South railways would cost $1.8 billion at the length of only 11 kilometers. “The North Railway from Caloocan to Clark would stretch 84 kilometers,” he noted.

    Pamintuan said, however, that the cost of the North Railway project is expected to go up arising from design changes and rise in cost of construction materials.

    However, he could not as yet give an estimate of how much the project would cost in its entirety pending further talks on a proposal to widen the clearance along the railway tracks from 15 to 30 meters.

    “It will be difficult to acquire more (right-of-way areas), but we expect them (Chinese project contractor) to finally agree (with the initial clearance of 15 meters),” he said.

    “If the project is delayed, the blame is on past administrations within Northrail,” Pamintuan said, in apparent reaction to the statement of former Speaker Jose de Venecia questioning the delay in the project, during the impeachment hearing conducted recently by the House’s Committee on Justice.

    Pamintuan did not elaborate how his predecessors had caused delays in the project. He assumed the post as Northrail president only last October after Arsenio Bartolome resigned.
    But he noted records indicating that “important processes in securing the Chinese ODA (overseas development assistance) loan and their dates of accomplishments” which indicate all the processes were completed by September, 2004.

    He pointed out that records indicated that “execution of an MOU (memorandum of understanding) by DOF (Department of Finance) and China Exim (bank) to finance projects mutually agreed upon by both governments was done on Aug. 30, 2003, followed by the Monetary Board’s issuance on Jan. 8, 2004 of an “approval in principle” of the proposed terms and conditions of the loan.

    On Feb. 17, 2004, a Presidential Special Authority was issued by the President “to authorize officials of the Philippine government to negotiate/conclude the loan agreement” and from Feb. 18 to 25, 2004, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice, and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas reviewed the loan agreement.

    The records also indicated that on March 18, 2004, the Monetary Board finally approved the terms and conditions of the loan which became effective on Sept. 13 in the same year. On Sept. 13, 2004, the supply contract agreement became effective, the records said.

    The China National Machinery and Equipment Corp. (CNMEC) was designated by the China Export-Import Bank as contractor for the project as part the conditions for the $400-million loan for the railway’s 32.5-kilometer Phase 1 from Caloocan to Malolos, Bulacan.

    The entire Phase 1, however, was initially estimated to cost $503 million, to include the government’s counterpart for right-of-way expenditure. . The 50-kilometer Phase 2 from Malolos to Clark would cost another $500 million, also according to initial estimates.

    Last February, CNMEC personnel abandoned the project site in Caloocan amid its demand for the government to first settle all right-of-way and other problems along the entire length of the 82-kilometer railway from Caloocan to Clark Freeport and its demand for an additional $290 million cost triggered by design changes and rise in cost of materials.

    This development led to a series of negotiations between Northrail and CNMEC, which culminated with Northrail eventually justifying the CNMEC’s demand for increase in cost and announcing further changes in the design of the railway.

    Pamintuan also said “it is wrong to compare our proposed railway to the Qinghai-Tibet railways built by the Chinese, because for one thing, our railways are faced with the issue of informal settlers who have to be relocated away from the tracks.”

    He said CNMC has already agreed to pursue the project simultaneously by segments and is therefore expected to go full blast on the already delayed project as soon as the issue of track clearance is settled.

    “This means CNMEC will work on the project simultaneously in segments that are not problematical, ” he explained. Earlier, he cited some difficulties on the blasting of old concrete bridges to be traversed by the project.

    He issued to media yesterday a document titled “a proposed question and answer for Northrail” explaining the advantages of project design changes, such as the installation of “automatic train protection” (ATP), shift from diesel to electricity, and from narrow gauge to standard gauge tracks.

    ATP, the document explained, “prevents collisions” through “audible warnings and target speed indication to warn the train driver in advance, before he exceeds a speed restriction or is headed towards a “red signal”.

    The document also said “electric engines are very powerful” and that “electric motors can produce as much torque as you give them power”, unlike diesel wherein “power supply to the motors is always limited by the amount of electricity in the diesel engine”.

    It also justified widening the tracks from narrow to standard by noting that “75 percent of railways worldwide use the standard gauge of 1,435 mm. also known as international gauge”.

    While the project has yet to fully start, residents already displaced by the project in Bulacan, together with some lawyers, filed last month a petition before the Supreme Court seeking the project’s nullification as being “unconstitutional”.

    The League of Urban Poor for Action (Lupa)- Bulacan and lawyers from the University of the Philippines Law Center, also sought a temporary restraining order against the railways project and the loan agreement on it.

    The petitioners said in their complaint that the project violated the Government Procurement Reform Act since it was awarded to CNMEC without bidding.


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