Waiting for trains
President Duterte may just yet become successful in reinvigorating rail transportation in our country. The present administration’s long list of railway projects alone, if realized, would potentially cement the President’s economic legacy. Finally, we have a Chief Executive who seems to be laser-focused to revitalize our railways.
Based on the efforts of his administration, works have already begun for the lines that will connect Tutuban and Malolos, Malolos and Clark, as well as Metro Manila subway stations. Other lines will soon be constructed in Mindanao, between Manila and Bicol, and between Subic and Clark, among others.
Because of their efficiency in transporting huge numbers of passengers, trains are obviously a must in any country. If that country is among the most populous in the world, which is the case of the Philippines, having efficient rail transportation becomes a humongous necessity.
It’s hellish to even imagine 100-plus million people moving to places all over the country and just relying on buses, vans, jeeps and cars. We’ve been losing billions of dollars daily since a few years ago, and our subway should have been created during martial law. If other countries can build vast networks of railways, our fast-growing country should be able to have one in the future. Thankfully, we can now afford big railway projects, as our economy is in its best shape in decades.
Any Filipino who is aware of local rail transportation history knows the sad story of our rail transportation: from being so expansive just before the war, to being so small and rickety to its present-day version. The Philippine National Railways (PNR) trains used to travel to as far north as La Union to as far south as Albay. But World War II, natural calamities, neglect and lack of financial resources contributed to the steep decline of our railways.
Now, PNR operates only on a very small scale in the National Capital Region, parts of Laguna and parts of Bicol. The existence of “modern” train lines—LRT 1, LRT 2 and MRT 3—is but a small consolation to the ever-harassed train-riding public.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this administration’s railways projects will be realized. Our country has already had horror stories about railroad projects getting canceled for various reasons, or railway lines being abandoned completely, paving the way for the encroachment of squatters on government lands. In addition, human errors, such as buying
expensive yet incompatible train sets, hamper rehabilitation projects. Also, right-of-way issues have always hounded our railway projects, hence projects seldom get to beat deadlines.
While we are excited about the construction of these grand railway ventures, I really hope our government will be able to anticipate problems that could emerge once these railways are operational. Perhaps the government won’t repeat the mistakes that befell the PNR. Hence, it should establish an accountability system for railway administrators.
Were people ever jailed for letting railway properties rot and be robbed? Were professional squatters ever prosecuted for erecting houses on railway properties? Is there any accountability system against local government officials who tolerate informal settlers along railways? Are there safety nets against chunks of railroad tracks being cut up by thieves?
Moreover, it’s time we hired technical people with management expertise to create an efficient railway culture that will apply the enviable best practices of Japan.
Apparently, it will take years before we can see Philippine trains traversing far-flung provinces. Barring financial constraints and the changing priorities of new regimes, we could have a vibrant national railway system by the mid-2020s.
We seem to have the financial capacity now, or at least the credit standing,
that will spur ambitious railway projects. Our long-suffering commuters, I assume, can’t wait for these projects to come to fruition.
James M. Fajarito, Ph.D., is associate professor at Holy Angel University in Angeles City, Pampanga.
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