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Oct 02nd
Home Sections MiscellaNEWS Railways in the Philippines: Its History and Corruption-tainted Track Record
Railways in the Philippines: Its History and Corruption-tainted Track Record PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 19 July 2008 06:04

C ompleting a good railway system in the Philippines has always been controversial. It is as controversial as building a railway system in the car-dependent, if not car-crazy Los Angeles (California) area.

It is more-controversial now that the Arroyo regime is implementing the long-delayed Caloocan-Malolos line or Phase 1 of the project, which has been awarded to the China National Machinery and Equipment Corp. (CNMEG). It is funded by a $503-million loan, of which $421-million came from China’s Export-Import Bank. Critics of the Arroyo Dispensation have accused it of corruption in doing the project, especially with its Chinese-sourced financing.

Now China that demands another 300-million pesos on top of the PhP503-million deal that they have agreed as contract price in building the North Railway to San Fernando, Pampanga, where the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (in the former US Clark Air-Force Base) is located.

The railway deals have passed on from the Belgians to the Argentinians to the Japanese and to the Chinese contractors in the past 20 years. The various regimes from Macapal to Marcos to Aquino to Arroyo wanted to re-build and/or modernize the railway system but their track record remains off track (pun intended), if not a pipe dream. And as always, the plans continue to exist only on the drawing board. It will be a long time before train conductors announce, “All aboard . . .”

History of the Philippine railwaysIt was the British who built the Manila-to-Dagupan railways in 1880s. The Americans, who occupied the Philippines in 1898, used the railways to destroy the Philippine Republican forces during the Filipino-American War from 1899 to 1901. Gen. Antonio Luna's command post was a rail car running from Manila to Dagupan ahead of the pursuing American troops.

The American colonizers weren’t too keen on developing further the railways, preferring to build roads and highways. Filipino leaders complained that the American obsession with highways reflected a bias for the American automobile industry. Americans countered that Filipino politicians liked railroads because they could staff them with cronies and hand out tickets to supporters. But the American colonizers continued a commuter rail system for Manila with trolleys  called the "Tranvia," which the former Spanish regime started. World War II destroyed the "Tranvia" and it was never rebuilt.

And so it went from the turn of the century to the 1930s, when executive control of the government finally passed to Filipinos. The inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth government in 1935 heralded railroad planning that Filipino leaders hoped could start in a big way. Seventy years ago, in May 1938, half a kilometer from Del Gallego town proper in the province of Camarines Sur, a golden nail was driven into a railroad tie, marking the meeting point of the south and north railroad lines. It marked officially the linking of Manila to Legazpi City by rail. But then in the 1970s, the Philippine National Railways (PNR) service to Legazpi City deteriorated. The expansion of the Southern Line from Albay to the Port of Matnog (Sorsogon  Province) became a perennial promise of politicians, who appropriated funds for the extension every year since 1955. To date, the line to Matnog remains a dream with hundreds of millions of pesos in appropriation misspent or pocketed by the politicians. Much ado was made about the Manila to Legazpi connection, and proposals began to be studied for a Mindanao railway.

Today’s ambitious North Rail and South Rail projects will merely revive passenger and freight services and bring them back to pre-martial law, and in some cases, even prewar levels. It was the President Ferdinand Marcos’ administration that put up Line 1 of Metro Manila’s overhead Light Rail Transit (LRT). It marked the return of a commuter rail system 40 years after the destruction of the Meralco “tranvia,” or streetcar (already in decline, however, prior to the war, with the expansion of its bus system).

The death of the Northern Rail System in LuzonIt took a generation after President Marcos to expand the LRT to what we see now. The system is already getting overwhelmed, with future expansion imperiled, among other reasons, by one city having so many different systems that can’t interconnect. (The Metro Rail Transit uses different coaches for its Lines 1 and 2 of the LRT and, therefore, can’t share coaches.)

But it was the Marcos regime that killed the railway lines from San Jose, Nueva Ecija, to Cagayan Valley in eastern Luzon and San Fernando, La Union, in western Luzon to Manila in the early 1980s. Then, it was the Aquino administration that hammered the last nail to the railways’ coffin by selling all the train stations and turning them into private malls.

In place of the railroad lines, the squatter colonies blossomed from the north to outer Manila and even in the tracks going to Bicol (Southern Line). An estimated 40,000 families live along the squatter colonies on the route of the railway.

But there is also innovation involved, most obviously in the Manila-to-Clark line of North Rail project. The difference between then and now, of course, is that we’re in an age of increasingly expensive gasoline, so the benefits of rail travel and train-cargo service to the economy should prove tremendous.

In 1988, Bobby M. Reyes (the editor of this website) and some of his friends proposed to the-then newly-elected Governor Juan G. Frivaldo and his Vice Governor, Cleto Arnedo, a proposal to privatize the Southern Line of the PNR with the Provinces of Batangas, Laguna, Quezon, Camarines Sur, Albay and Sorsogon owning 10% each with the remaining 40% being sold to a consortium of Overseas Filipinos and their foreign stakeholders. (Batangas has to be added since it has the country's oil refineries and several cement plants, and at that time, the Bicol Region did not have any.) Unfortunately, the new Sorsogon Provincial Government threw apparently the Reyes proposal to the waste basket.

Reyes endorsed also his Southern Railroad privatization plan to the Bicol River Basin Development Board but the then-President Cory Aquino decided to close it (the BRBDB).

The Manila-Legazpi rail service is a case in point that Reyes and Company wanted to save and reinvent. Its services came to an end because of flooding in 1975, although in 1985 it was briefly restored, but subsequently abandoned. If a locomotive ever manages to make the journey from Manila to Legazpi again, it will merely signal the restoration of the status quo circa 1970.

Editor’s Note: To read the Bicolnon’s humorous reaction to the change of name from Manila Railroad to the Philippine National Railways, please click on this link: The Bicolano Wit and Humor

The need for a Modern Railways System

B ut the Philippines needs a modern-and-efficient railways system. It could also revolutionize the movement of people and cargo, as the rail system is the cheapest form of transportation. It could cut down the number of extortionists on the highways and so forth. The same applies to the North, where Metro Manila’s vegetables have to pay both informal-and-formal toll fees.

Another reason is that eventually the world will run out of crude oil. The trains can eventually run on electricity, which can be produced from mini-hydro power-generating plants and other sources of Green Energy. This will help also in fighting Global Warming (Climate Change).

A study shows that a vegetable-and-rice cargo company passes 25 to 50 police, military, DENR and municipal checkpoints from Cagayan to Manila. And really, this is the harsh reality of transporting people and goods in the Philippines just like before. To get from point A to point B requires submitting to formal and informal extortion. There’s a reason the term “highway robbery” entered common use, and it’s the vulnerability of cargo and people to brigands and extortionists, both in and out of uniform.

Corruption is a way of life in the Philippines. So expect that the North railways line will cost as much as the government officials want it to be.

The Philippine Senate is investigating the transportation authorities. They will be asked to explain why the 32.1-kilometer segment of the North Rail Project will cost about P880-million per kilometer when the Senate starts inquiry into the railway project.

They will also have to explain why about 20,000 families, whether squatters or not, have been ordered to vacate their houses along the railway routes before the end of the year despite the fact that the relocation sites are generally not yet ready for occupancy in the absence of temporary shelters, water connections, electricity and other basic facilities. # # #

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 07:12

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