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Locally made AGT

I got my first look at the vehicle currently being developed by the DOST-MIRDC at the DOST complex in Bicutan. This was the same vehicle that was shown on some news programs a couple of days ago when there was some buzz about a MOA being signed between UP and DOST for the development of an automated guideway transit (AGT) prototype and test track at UP Diliman. The DOST Secretary was supposed to have said that it would cost somewhere between a fourth or a fifth of those developed elsewhere (read: other cities abroad) and that it would have a capacity of 60 passengers. The Secretary also was reported to have said that the AGT would eventually be travelling at 100 ¬†– 120 kilometers per hour! That’s quite fast for something that’s being packaged as an urban mass transit system.

Together with the reports, both on TV and print (I haven’t heard anything from radio.), were images of a transit vehicle used by DOST in publicizing the project. What appeared was an artist’s impression (or so it seems) of what looked more like a monorail than an AGT. But coming to Taguig for a meeting, I made it a point to ask our friends at DOST to give us a brief tour of the test track they constructed at the complex where the MIRDC with a little help from another agency involved in rail transit was testing a prototype vehicle that was shown on TV. I wasn’t able to catch those news reports so I was a little excited to see the vehicle being developed and by local engineers and scientists. Below are a few of photos of the vehicle together with the test track.

I’m sure a lot of pundits out there were disappointed with what they saw after getting all the hype about the UP AGT. However, it turns out that this won’t even be what will run along the test track to be constructed at UP Diliman. Our friends at the DOST say that this was just a practice vehicle of sorts that DOST staff experimented on just to prove that we (Filipinos) are capable of ¬†developing a transit vehicle and the track that will carry it. Of course, the future track and the proposed loop in UP Diliman will be overhead. Also, there will be other challenges pertaining to the superstructure (foundations, columns, girders, stations, etc.). Then there is the vehicle itself that should be safe and comfortable with designs adhering to ergonomic standards, an efficient motor and controller (it will be electric), and a suspension system that should give a smooth ride. Needless to say, the vehicle should also look good to be able to attract people and for it to be marketable. These are tremendous expectations indeed and it could really use all-out support from the government and maybe the private sector. I would not be talking about the funds and other resources required for this undertaking. Info on these are already available from the DOST and UP, and there are already initiatives to attract the private sector into having a look at the project and perhaps provide support in whatever way they can.

I can’t help but be proud of what has been accomplished and what is still to come in as far as the project is concerned. I believe we should be eager to pitch in what we can in order to ensure the success of this collaboration between UP and DOST. Who would not want to be involved in a project where Filipino engineers and scientists will come together to come up with a product we can not only showcase as home-grown but something that would have a significant impact on public transportation in this country.

Meanwhile, it would be better for DOST and UP to temper expectations so as not to put undue pressure on those who will be involved in the project. Pronouncements claiming that the system will replace the IKOT jeepneys are at this stage premature and only raises flags that would not be in the interest of the project. Claims, too, that the vehicle will run at 100 kph is unfounded and unnecessary considering, for one, that the average running speeds of such systems would be between 30 and 40 kph and probably top at 60 kph if there were sufficient distance between stations. I understand that the statements made were probably words of encouragement but I guess we have our work cut out before us and the challenges have been revealed on the way to the development of a home-grown AGT.

Technology-driven transit system development

The proposed UP transit system, whether it will be an AGT or a monorail, is a technology-driven project. As such, it can be argued that it does not need hard studies to establish the need for the system. Indeed, it is packaged as a prototype and one which, if implemented properly, will hopefully be a good example that can be deployed elsewhere where such a system is necessary. Such places may include CBDs like the rapidly emerging one in Bonifacio Global City or in small cities where there is a need for a more efficient form of mass transportation but could not afford the conventional MRTs or LRTs that have been constructed in Metro Manila. Also, a significant part of the initiative is the development of the vehicle, which is being undertaken by the DOST’s MIRDC. Their design and their production process should be replicable and they should have been able to bring down the costs according to the marching orders of their Secretary. After all, this system is being touted as something that would cost a fifth of a conventional system.

The conventional way of planning, designing and building transit systems require a lot of studies including the so-called ridership studies that would establish the demand for the system. Of course, there are also considerations pertaining to the stations and analysis of the superstructure that will also cost something. It is no joke that the best examples of AGTs or monorails in other countries are priced so because of all the effort and expertise that went into their developments. We should not kid ourselves by claiming this will cost much less because we did not take into consideration just compensation to people who will be devoting their time and expertise to develop a “home-grown” version of what has been built in other cities. We shouldn’t also sacrifice the quality of the superstructure that includes the stations just because we want to reduce costs. We have to keep in mind that the infrastructure should be able to resist typhoons and the possibility of earthquakes. The foundations for the columns, in fact, should be designed well considering UP’s soil characteristics.

On Wednesday I might just get my first look at the prototype vehicle when I visit the DOST for a meeting not quite related to the proposed transit system although it would be about customized vehicles. The vehicle that is the rolling stock for the proposed system is supposed to have already been built and being tested on a very limited basis at the DOST compound. Perhaps I can see for myself if it is something that will eventually be an impressive piece or something that will need much work once it is brought to UP.

An AGT at UP

The signing of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and groundbreaking for a proposed prototype transit system at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus is scheduled for the morning of July 18, 2011, Monday. The site will be at the open lot near the corner of Lakandula and Jacinto Streets just across from the College of Fine Arts and near UP Diliman’s Campus Maintenance Office (CMO). The prototype system is a pet project of the DOST Secretary and was originally billed as the system to replace the IKOT jeepneys of UP Diliman. It will be a major undertaking for the university considering that its expertise (i.e., faculty, staff and students) will be tapped to undertake the studies and designs for the system. It will be a multi-disciplinary project that would involve architects, engineers and planners as well as social scientists who will be assigned with the unenviable task of securing social acceptability of the project.

The prototype system will have several phases in order to complete a loop. It is to be designed as a one-track, and therefore likely a one-way system. The “rolling stock” of modified buses each with a capacity of 60 passengers are supposed to have already been finished and are being tested at the DOST compound in Bicutan. It is still not known what the capacity of the system will be since there have been no studies to support demand (i.e., ridership), which will be affected by factors such as the route, direction and headways. among others. The project is one that is technology-driven rather than demand-driven. It is going to be an experimental system and one that will probably have to be tweaked from time to time given that it will be “home-grown” and attempting to reduce costs commonly associated with existing systems in other countries. Below is one of the proposed alignments for the system showing the initial phase from Philcoa (in yellow). The circles indicate the 2-minute walking distance radius although this is a crude concept considering people will be walking along the roads or sidewalks and not necessarily along a straight line leading to the proposed stations.

Whether it will eventually replace the jeepneys is still up in the air but the stakes are high considering that a locally made AGT may be transferable or feasible in other settings. Perhaps areas such as Bonifacio Global City, the reclamation areas along Macapagal Boulevard and even the Batasan can have their own AGTs in the future. My only hesitation for the prototype at UP Diliman is that it is still unclear who will be shouldering the operations and maintenance costs of a system that is sure to have revenues that won’t be able to cover such. Then there is the issue of aesthetics that cannot really be addressed now considering most plans are still in the minds of the proponents and have not been transferred unto the drawing boards or computers. We hope to be able to answer these questions and answer them correctly and appropriately. Otherwise, our legacy for the campus would be a white elephant that nobody would have wanted in the first place.