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Editorial

Sad saga of PNR

/ 12:09 AM May 13, 2014

Fifty years is long enough for a company to grow, or even for a nation to progress. Yet it was not enough for the state-owned Philippine National Railways (PNR) to develop a train network that would have helped ease the current nightmare of commuters or provided a cheaper mode of transporting goods across the country.

Such is the sad saga of the PNR that, instead of expanding, its rail line has actually become shorter after more than half a century of operations. The Philippines is estimated to have a total of 300,000 route kilometers. During its peak in the 1970s, the PNR was running on 1,100 route kilometers from La Union in the north to Legazpi in the Bicol region. Today, this is down to less than 100 kilometers. The PNR’s commuter line from Tutuban in Manila to Sta. Rosa, Laguna, covers 23 stations over a 50-kilometer stretch, while the Naga-to-Sipocot line in the Bicol region covers a route length of 35 kilometers. The long-distance service from Manila to Legazpi (the famed Bicol Express of the 1970s) has been suspended since October 2012 because of the continuing disrepair of typhoon-damaged bridges.

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It’s such a pity because trains are a cheaper mode of public transport. Compared to jeepneys and buses that charge about P2 for every kilometer, the PNR transports people for only 70 centavos a kilometer. Trains are also for the masses. Last year, about 20 million passengers, or 55,400 commuters daily, were serviced by the PNR despite its very limited tracks. So far this year, between 60,000 and 70,000 passengers use the PNR trains every day.

The PNR has only until June 19 to operate under Republic Act No. 4156. Sen. Cynthia Villar, chair of the Senate committee on government corporations and public enterprises, is spearheading efforts to extend the PNR’s corporate life by another 25 years, renewable for another 25 years. A bill to that effect has been approved at the committee level in the Senate. “Instead of giving PNR another 50 years outright, we are extending it to 25 years but renewable for another 25 years so that we can review its performance,” Villar has said.

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The Philippines’ train system is actually much older as it was founded on Nov. 24, 1892, as the Ferrocarril de Manila-Dagupan during the Spanish colonial period. In January 1917, during the American colonial period, it became Manila Railroad Co. (MRRCo), still carrying passengers from Manila to Dagupan. On Jan. 31, 1938, the first Bicol train was put into commercial operation. RA 4156 was then issued on June 20, 1964, changing the corporate name MRRCo to Philippine National Railways (an attached agency under the Department of Transportation and Communications), and giving the company a life of 50 years.

Previous administrations tried—but failed—to rehabilitate and expand the PNR. Last April, the government announced plans to roll out over the next 12 months 15 projects worth a total of $14 billion under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program. Included in the list is the $6.03-billion Integrated Luzon Railway Project Phase 1 that “aims to revitalize the entire length of the [PNR rail line]”. The PPP Center and the DOTC actually signed a year ago a consulting contract with Canada’s CPCS Transcom Ltd. to prepare the feasibility study for the proposed PNR Integrated Luzon Railway project. While there were few details available on the project itself, the PPP Center noted that it would cover the entire “PNR mainline”—North and South networks. This would include the north mainline from Manila to La Union, a branch line from Tarlac to San Jose, Nueva Ecija, and a possible extension to Cagayan. The south mainline refers to the Manila-to-Legazpi route, including a branch line from Calamba to Batangas City.

Villar stressed that the PNR should work to develop rail connectivity in the country as railways have done in developed countries like the United States and Japan and in our neighbors Malaysia and China. We can only emphasize the importance of a railway network to national development. As the PPP Center has described the planned railway project, it “will provide a convenient, affordable and environment-friendly alternative transportation for people and their goods.”

But the way things stand, the state of the country’s railway system is best described by what’s written on the website of the Bicol Express Service: “Operations arecurrently suspended due to ongoing repairs. Please bear with us.” The question is: Until when?

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