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There’s The Rub

They’re running again

/ 01:44 AM September 20, 2011

It’s a wonder how it got to be raised back from the dead.

Well, it’s still showing the barest signs of life. I hadn’t been inside Tutuban Station in close to four decades. The contrast between then and now was, well, the contrast between Avenida Rizal then and now.

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Tutuban then teemed with life, or looked like Wednesday in Baclaran on any given day—or night, which was when most people preferred to take the arduous ride home. Its cavernous dome blazed with lights, its yard hissing with coaches and bagon, or cargo carriers, being led to their tethering nooks. Hawkers shouted out their wares at the entrance of the station, while inside a throng pushed and jostled toward the ticketing booths, pleading and cajoling to be squeezed in and not minding squatting out on the steps of the door.

The place had a granitic solidity to it, aided in no small way by the clang of metal, smoke billowing from the locomotives, the soporific smell of grease and black oil filling the air. It was our very own Grand Central, or its equivalent in other Asian countries.

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Today, it feels not unlike a park, in the Luneta and memorial sense of the word. On the day I was there, which was Wednesday last week, the Bicol Express had just reopened a week or so before after a hiatus of more than a month, long stretches of tracks having been battered by the storms that visited Camarines Sur ahead of the Peñafrancia Fiesta. Not everyone seemed to have heard about the resumption of service, and for the eve of the fiesta of Ina, as Bicolanos refer to their favorite version of Mary, it was only a good-sized crowd that camped out there. Enough to almost fill the four coaches that waited to accommodate them, but nothing like the crowd then that pressed at the gates, like racehorses inside their pens at the starting line padding their hoofs impatiently on the ground, waiting to be released to dash into the trains.

The train yard itself wore a forlorn look, a baggage car rotting on the fringes, while a commuter train huffed and puffed on one of the main tracks and the train to Naga City (that’s the last stop southbound so far) did the same on the other. The Bicol Express is now down to three coaches apart from the locomotive. For this particular run, a fourth one had been added to meet the Peñafrancia flock. A far cry from the days when you’d look at the window from a third-class seat as the train snaked its way around the hills and see the lead coaches way up ahead. During its heyday, I would learn, the Bicol Express lugged around 18 coaches.

I would learn that from Junio Ragragio, the current PNR general manager who worked the Lazarus trick on it. You should have seen the PNR when he took over it last year, he said. The line officially closed in 2004, but it had lain at death’s door long before that. The bus replaced the train in the 1970s as the main means of transport from Bicol to Manila, and the Bicol Express turned decrepit almost overnight, being fit only to carry cargo and live animals in lieu of human beings. When he took over the PNR last year, Ragragio said, Tutuban had become a graveyard of trains. More to the point, it had become a huge junkyard to loot for metal parts.

A virtual receivership, the PNR had seen its personnel struck down from thousands to just over a couple of hundred and its budget reduced to a pittance. For the new GM to have resurrected it from that state is nothing short of breathtaking. For him to have plucked it from locomotive hell in barely a year is nothing short of heroic. For him to have resurrected it from death without benefit of new people and money is nothing short of a miracle.

The PNR remains a (deathly) pale replica of its old self. The Bicol Express is currently limited to night trips that take roughly 10 hours from Manila to Naga. It did start out on time when I took it last Wednesday, arriving in Naga before 5 a.m. Thursday. The fare is cheaper than a bus by a couple of hundred bucks. It takes a bit of hardiness to make the trip. The ride is by no means smooth, it rocks violently in many parts, it’s all you can do to pee while standing up,  holding on to a bar with one hand and with the other quite tightly to the crown jewels lest they be swung off from you. The ballast, the thing that keeps ships and trains on even keel, has badly deteriorated or even disappeared in parts of the long and winding road, or tracks—the product of the ravages of nature and the depredations of man (unsavory characters in some communities along the way pry it off to sell), quite apart from the indifference of its custodians.

The PNR is a long way off from regaining its health, not to speak of its former luster. But Ragragio is on the right track (pun fully intended). He at least has the heart and crown jewels for it, a Bicolano who grew up on trains, a young man then who saw what trains could do for a region and a lusty newly turned senior citizen now who can see what trains can do for a country.

I share his vision. When I saw Tutuban last week, I wasn’t just filled with a sense of the past, with the bittersweet ache of nostalgia that tends to burnish everything into a golden shine, I was filled with a sense of the future, with the wondrous image of China and India and the other Asian dragons crisscrossed by railroad tracks like the veins and arteries of the body.

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That’s the only way to go. Who knows? Maybe P-Noy might discover that too, and want posterity to remember him as the president who strung up the tracks across his country, who “trained” his people in more ways than one.

For the moment, I’ll comfort myself with the thought that old and lumbering as they are, the trains are back. They’re alive.

They’re running again.

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