Philippine Railway: A Revival?

Brand new Korean made coaches. Airconditioning was superb even after the coach was packed. The speed was what impressed me the most - I heard that it can go plus 100 km per hour. I think the only thing holding it back are intersections and the stubborn people casually walking on the railway.

When we moved here in the southern metro way back in the early 90s, we were still sporadically taking trains. One of the considerations of course is its affordability. I remember that the last time I rode one was during my 2nd year in high school. Somewhere near FTI someone threw a plastic garbage bag which went straight inside the coach, hitting a Makati Polytechnic student and other passengers. That was the last time. I’d rather get wedged in traffic than get hit with sh!t.

Nevertheless, I had fond memories of the riles as a child. My elementary school was situated near the Buendía station. It has been transferred to another location I was told. I had countless classmates who lived along the railways. I was even jealous of them because their houses were close to our school. We enjoyed hanging out in the <i>riles</i>. We used to put de uno nails on the railway track and wait for the train to run them over. The sheer weight of its steel wheel levels the rounded nail flat. We made little spears out of it. The school sits alongside a creek that smells terribly during the first days of the rainy months. Occasionally, we get to see appalling wrecks in the intersection. These trains are strong enough to crumple vehicles like paper cups. There were also stinking mud ponds next to the railway that we would empty during the summer months to catch catfish and dalág.

Japan’s first steam engine trains rolled out in the year 1872. Three years later we had ours (in both countries, British contractors were signed up for the project). Indeed, we had a sophisticated society that is comparable to the world’s most advanced nations at that time. The backward and “heathen” people that the Americans claimed they encountered when they arrived here was a hoax and a fraud propagated to discredit our forefathers. They wanted the world to believe that the tribal people were the only people in the islands – unfortunately, many of us still echo this fantastic lie by convincing ourselves that the tribal and prehispanic are the true and only Filipino. The moment the Yankee arrived, they found out that we had a cultured population with a Hispanized concept of state and identity. People were reading Spanish dailies, they had a great taste for art, cuisine, literature, and music. We could have not launched a revolution if we were just a bunch of naked ignoramuses. These facts aroused Yankee insecurity.  Allowing this “Filipino” culture to exist would be a disservice to their imperial motives. In order for them to strengthen their hold and influence over their “little brown brothers”, the “Filipino” culture must be downgraded to a state of tribalistic regression.

The Spanish King, Alfonso XII, approved the construction of our first public railways in 1875. We first had the Manila a Malabon line operated by the Zobel family. Because of their German links, the coaches they used were all German made. Afterwards, the awesome stretch of the Manila to Dagupan track was completed. Constructed by an English firm (contracted to operate the system for 99 years), it first had giant steam locomotives. It was a great addition (and a costly one for Spain) to the colony’s infrastructure. It was intended to service the provincial regions, but at the time that it became operational, the revolution was already at the gates of the Spanish rule. Just imagine the image the steam trains produced while traversing our pastoral countryside. The train stations were magnificent buildings, extraordinary examples of 20th-century architecture. Sadly, most of these architectural monuments are gone if not in disrepair. However, there is still hope for at least one – the Pacò Station in Manila. The RIHSPI has reported that an NHI marker will soon be installed, and that the government has already committed to restore it. The trouble is that it was former president Arroyo who made the pledge. Today, this is the only remaining tangible legacy of Spain that was not created by the religious orders. The railway was “the largest single infrastructure project in the country during the Spanish period” according to Dr. Augusto de Viana of the NHI.

Much has changed since the first trains rolled out of its stations. The wars have damaged and completely severed some of the tracks. What was once the main carrier of people and goods was relegated to a minor transport. When mass transport was abandoned in favor of paved roads and highways for cars, trucks, and the like, it created precedence that many of us now see – too many cars, air pollution, and unsolvable traffic. Whenever I think of a modern railway system, the one that I dream for is the Singaporean model. It is so efficient that it keeps people away from buying cars. Why would you buy a car when the stations are all strategically located in all neighborhood malls and business hubs?

I believe that it is time for a train revival. Metro Rail Transit was a great start for intercity travel – now, the Philippine National Railroad should follow suit. I’m very optimistic with the current administration. Newly elected president Nonoy Aquino mentioned that he is in agreement with the rehabilitation and expansion of the train network. The Arroyo government, to her credit, was very receptive and was eager to push forward the agenda of the revival of the national railway. Now the ball is on Noynoy’s court. The projects of expansion seem to be ambitious but by these visions, great things are accomplished. It needs our support and backing. Our patronage will keep it going.

Recent developments have been very encouraging. Arroyo even approved a plan to bring back the old Cebú railway. And I hope the Panay and Mindanáo system will soon follow. Here in Luzón, the rehabilitation of our railways and the relocation of the illegal settlers set the right course. There are linkage programs connecting Calambâ to Caloocan as well as the complete restoration of the Bicol line (which was stopped in 2006). All exciting news! a great campaign to bring back the old “iron horses” in our lives.

The train arriving in Alabang. It was on time!

The apocalyptic image of Alabang's station. Its a tall order to improve the "Riles" environs. People has developed bad habit like throwing their garbage on the railway and setting up tables for drinking. I also saw cockfights along da riles. To avoid future squatting, the free space should be utilized. A garden or building a diversion road using is a good alternative. Keeping it vacant exposes it to squatting and garbage dumping.

Alabang to Espana took less than an hour.

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