Railways to the rescue
Only five kilometers were added to the Philippines’ commuter railway system in the past decade out of a planned 73 kilometers, according to a recent report by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Our current network spans 79 kilometers, in four lines: two light rail transit lines, one medium rail transit line, and the Philippine National Railways commuter line.
Based on circa 2009 data a reader sent me, London had 436 kilometers of commuter rail lines; New York 337; Tokyo 327; Seoul 317; and Singapore 130. In terms of population density, London had 17,800 people per kilometer of commuter rail line; New York 28,900; Tokyo 27,000; Seoul 33,400; and Singapore 39,100. More comparable to us perhaps is Bangkok, which as of June 2017 reportedly had 111 kilometers in service, with another 181 kilometers under construction, out of a planned total of 539 kilometers for its system. With a population of 9.6 million, its commuter rail density is 86,500 people per kilometer. How about Metro Manila? With 79 kilometers of commuter rail lines in place and 12.9 million residents, our density is far greater, at 163,000 people per kilometer. There’s no question about it: We simply need much more of mass railway transport facilities.
If we take 30,000 people per kilometer as a rough average rule of thumb, Metro Manila, with its estimated population of nearly 13 million, should have around 430 kilometers of mass railway transit. On top of our existing 79 kilometers of commuter railways, we need some 350 kilometers more. But doing all this via elevated railways could be rather unsightly, and in one reader’s words, would “uglify” Metro Manila—not to mention the disruption and extreme traffic congestion constructing such railway lines would cause. Hence, it’s time we pursued going underground via subway commuter lines, especially now that the cost of tunnel-boring technology is falling. Last year, technology disruptor Elon Musk established The Boring Company, with the aim of further speeding up tunnel boring and cutting its cost by a factor of 10. The rest of the global engineering technology world can’t be far behind.
During the October Tokyo visit of President Duterte, the Japanese government indicated willingness to provide 600 billion in soft Japanese-yen loans to assist in the construction of a 25-kilometer Metro Manila Subway, to be completed in 2025. An exchange of notes was reportedly signed last month for the first tranche of this project. Beyond the subway system, Japan also intends to provide assistance toward construction of a 180-kilometer North-South Commuter Railway extending from Clark
in Pampanga in the north to Los Baños in Laguna in the south. Also part of the planned package is much needed capacity building for planning, execution and management of our railway system, currently a sore spot for us, and in which Japan is a world leader. All these promise relief to our commuters, and one hopes that it all happens in the near future, without the undue delay that has characterized similar projects in our recent past.
Much more rail transport for both people and cargo is needed well beyond Metro Manila. The government is now pursuing the long-dreamed-of Mindanao railway. Since the past administration, the Department of Public Works and Highways has had plans to build a railway link between Calamba City and Batangas City, initially intended for cargo, but eventually for passengers as well. The DPWH also announced the P271-billion, 900-kilometer Integrated Luzon Railway project from Tuguegarao all the way to Sorsogon.
It’s indeed time for us to look more to railways, both above and under ground, as a major medium for moving goods and people, not just for Luzon, but for parts of the Visayas and Mindanao as well. As for Metro Manila, our goal should be to get people out of private cars and into a comfortable, extensive, efficient and reliable rail mass transport system. AmBisyon Natin 2040 indicated that the average Filipino family aspires to own a car. Perhaps our ambition ought to be to get to the point when, as in many advanced cities today, people travel using public transport as a matter of choice.
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