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Expansion of PH railway system yet to pick up steam

Six ‘Build, Build, Build’ projects to extend the country’s rail transport network need more push
/ 03:35 AM October 16, 2019

Commuters pack the inside of a Philippine National Railway train. PNR trains and the railroad look B4-2 ‘battered and reeling from neglect,mismanagement, and typhoons.’ —PHOTOS BY RICHARD A. REYES

You may find it hard to believe, but despite a seriously stunted rail transport industry, the Philippines has thriving communities (yes, plural) of railway enthusiasts—not of toy trains and tracks, but of the real package.

Like their counterparts in Japan, Philippine train geeks agonize about locomotives that succumb to old age or lines that are no longer served.
But unlike the Japanese densha otaku that see their railways develop further and farther, Philippine rail fans have so far nothing to look forward to that would replace the things that have to be retired.

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Both Japan and the Philippines were among early adopters in Asia of iron railways for general or public use, which in the late 19th century was transitioning from steam power to electric power in the late 19th century.
The age of diesel was not yet there, but already dawning.

In 1872, Japan beat the Philippines in establishing commercial rail services.
Of course, Japan was at the cusp of rapid modernization as it shed feudalism and isolation under the shoguns while the colonial government in the Philippines was faced with the Cavite Mutiny and its aftermath.

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It took three more years for King Alfonso XII to issue in 1875 a decree that ordered the public works office in the Philippines to come up with a plan for a railway system in Luzon.
This was presented and approved within the same year, but the concession to build a railway was not granted until 1887.

Thus was established the Ferrocaril de Manila-Dagupan, which during the American annexation of the Philippines became the Manila Railway Co. Under a charter enacted in 1964, we know the company today as state-firm Philippine National Railways (PNR).

The Manila-Dagupan line finally rolled out commercially in 1892, the same year that Jose Rizal came back home.
Over the next few years, the Philippine Revolution broke out, the United States acquired the archipelago from Spain, and the Philippine-American War raged.

Still, under the Americans, an electric car network flourished in and around Manila while the provincial railway was extended southward.
But while the tranvia system had stopped expanding by the 1930s, the heavy duty rail system had connected San Fernando in La Union to Legazpi in Albay—a route that spanned 1,400 kilometers.

According to PNR, most of this was destroyed during World War II, after which only 452 km of line remained operational.

In an account of its history, the state firm describes the 1960s as ushering what “would seem to be” the golden era of railways in the country.

“Although the war devastated most of its network, and barely 50 percent was rehabilitated, during the ’60s and early ’70s the train and the railroad provided the transportation backbone of Luzon,” PNR said.

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Railway aficionados may have to wait a little longer to see other things beside aging locomotives and coaches.

The company “had also become the wealthiest among government agencies in terms of assets, with such diversified investments and properties such as hotels, bus lines, and freight services.”

But a decline came too soon as government priorities under martial law turned to building more roads, specifically the Pan-Philippine or Maharlika Highway.

“And the railroad was relegated to its own backwaters as the buses and trucks and the much faster airliners took over,” PNR said. “By the late 1990s to the present decade, PNR trains and the railroad looked battered and reeling from neglect, mismanagement, and typhoons.”

Since then, there had been several plans to rehabilitate and even expand the country’s railway network, especially the provincial lines, both north and south of Tutuban in Manila.

Still, PNR’s northbound service remains a plan and the southward service is limited to Calamba in Laguna at best, but usually just up to Alabang in Muntinlupa.
A return to the days of the famed Bicol Express, not to mention an expansion to the Visayas and Mindanao, continues to be a dream.

Even then, with the Duterte administration’s slogan of “Build, Build, Build,” six of the 75 priority infrastructure projects that have been approved by the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) are railway-related — both in-city as well as provincial rail services.

  • A 71.13-km line that runs from the freeport of Clark in Pampanga to that in Subic, Zambales. Neda data show that this is tagged at P50 billion to be funded mainly with a Chinese loan, and to be built from 2019 until 2022 based on an assessment made in April.
  • An elevated 56.6-km PNR South Commuter Line from Tutuban to Calamba. This costs P344.6 billion and will be funded through loans from the Japanese government and the Asian Development Bank, to be implemented in 2019 to 2023.
  • A common, grand central station of the MRT 3 and LRT 1 at the corner of North Avenue and Edsa. To be funded through the national budget at P2.8 billion, supposed to be implemented in 2019 to 2020.
  • A 25.3-km Metro Manila Subway project (Phase 1) from Quezon City to Taguig City, with an extension to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. This is to be bankrolled with about P357 billion from Japan, to be implemented in 2019 to 2015.
  • A 639-km PNR South Long-Haul project that runs from Manila to the southern tip of Luzon in Matnog, Sorsogon. A loan from China will cover the P175.32-billion cost, and supposed to be implemented in 2019 to 2023.
  • A 102-km Mindanao Rail project (Phase 1) that runs from Digos City in Davao del Sur through Davao City to Tagum City in Davao del Norte. At a cost of P35.3 billion, this is intended to be funded with overseas development assistance and implemented in 2019 to 2022.

Of these six projects, the first three are in the stage of procurement as of April 2019. The fourth is still undergoing detailed engineering design. The last two are in the budgeting/financing stage.

Beyond these six, there are two proposed railway projects that are for Neda approval.
One is the 206-km Phase 2 of the Mindanao Railway, which extends Phase 1 to Butuan City in Agusan del Norte. The other is the 521.5-km Phase 3, which will “complete the loop of the Mindanao Railway project system.”

Timothy John R. Batan, transportation undersecretary for railways, when asked how far the government was in meeting the target to start construction of the Subic-Clark railway project in the first half of 2020, said the Department of Transportation and the Bases Conversion and Development Authority were “on track to start construction works.”

“Bidding documents are ready and will be issued upon receipt of the third short-listed bidder from the Chinese Embassy, pursuant to the Neda Investment Coordination Committee’s (ICC) guidelines for China ODA projects,” Batan told the Inquirer.

As for the PNR South Long Haul, Batan said construction was also scheduled to start in the first half of 2020, considering that the contract with the project management consultant was signed in November 2018 and a loan agreement was signed in August.

“Neda ICC approved the Mindanao Railway project with its updated scope and cost estimate in July,” Batan said.

He added that bidding papers for the Mindanao project were ready and would be issued when the DOTr receives the list of three short-listed bidders from the Chinese Embassy.

Based on the timelines described in Neda’s report on the status of these projects as of April, the target start of works is receding into the past, but the actual work has not started rolling.
There are a lot of factors contributing to inertia, but commuters’ demand to get aboard is full steam.

Railway aficionados may have to wait a little longer to see other things beside aging locomotives and coaches, old switchyards, unserved tracks ruled by improvised people movers popularly known as trolleys, and fan-made maps of what they hope would be the Philippines’ rail network.

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