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Save our only railway system

All over the world, the train is the cheapest mode of transportation and carries the most passengers and cargoes. It was the train that helped open the American Wild West. In America, continental Europe, China, the Indian subcontinent, and the island-continent of Australia, it is the train that connects the cities to towns. The cold wastelands of Siberia in Russia cannot be traversed without the train. That is why I do not understand why a succession of Philippine presidents, including the current one, has neglected our only train system, the Philippine National Railways (PNR).

The charter of the PNR will expire on June 30, one month from now. If it is not extended, the PNR will be dissolved and its assets sold—the carcasses of its locomotives and coaches will be sold by the kilo to junk shops, and its vast landholdings will be auctioned off by the square meter, to the delight of the greedy land developers.

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It is clear that PNR’s charter must be extended, and the institution which can do that is Congress. But the members of Congress are now in the midst of trying to protect themselves from prosecution and prison terms as continuing revelations on the pork barrel scam expose more and more members of Congress as having received kickbacks from Janet Lim Napoles, mastermind of the P10-billion scam, in exchange for allocating some of their pork barrel to her bogus nongovernment organizations. Therefore, they have neither time nor energy to attend to the extension of

PNR’s charter.

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Sen. Ralph Recto has filed a bill, Senate Bill No. 1831, to extend PNR’s charter but until now there is no movement in Congress because the lawmakers are very busy with something else very important to them—saving their skin from the pork barrel scam.

“As senators, we can do two things,” Recto said in his sponsorship speech of SB 1831, “(we can) stand on the platform and wave our last goodbye as the dissolution train leaves the station, or we can give it a new lease on life by vowing that PNR’s last trip shall not happen during our watch.”

The PNR had a glorious past. At its peak the railway system stretched 1,140 kilometers—from San Fernando, La Union in the north of Luzon to Legazpi, Albay in the south. Not anymore. Today, PNR commuter service has shrunk to a 43-km line—from Divisoria to Sta. Rosa, Laguna.

Up to the time of President Diosdado Macapagal, the PNR was running from San Fernando to Legazpi. Vacationers went to Baguio mostly by train, not by car. Whenever President Macapagal went to Baguio, he took the train. He had one coach all to himself and his staff. We, the Malacañang reporters, occupied the next coach. At Damortis, La Union, we would transfer to PNR cars and buses and zigzagged up Kennon Road to Baguio.

The famous Bicol Express chug-chugged the whole night from Tutuban to Legazpi, with dining cars and first-class coaches where you can sleep the miles away. When you wake up the next morning, you are greeted by the sight of the beautiful Mount Mayon. Now, Bicol Express refers to the spicy food of gabi leaves in coconut milk.

What is now left of this famous rail line? Mostly only the ruins of brick stations now

occupied by squatters, crumbling bridges, and tracks overgrown with weeds or overrun with squatter shanties.

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Other rail lines have simply disappeared. Recto mentioned the lines in Panay and Cebu, and the spur lines to San Jose in Nueva Ecija, Naic in Cavite; Batangas City, San Quintin in Eastern Pangasinan, and Sta. Cruz in Laguna. May I add that there were also spur lines to the Rizal towns of Cainta, Taytay and Angono.

In Metro Manila, the 12 tranvia lines which fanned into the suburbs have long been buried in asphalt, turned into streets whose names betray their railway origins—like Tramo, Pasig Line, and Daang Bakal.

“Before the war,” Recto said, “one can board in Lucena before breakfast, switch to another train in Tutuban by lunch and get off in Dagupan in time for dinner.”

And it wasn’t confined to Luzon alone, Recto added. “In 1907, the 36-km Cebu-Danao line was inaugurated. This was further extended south to Argao. Five years, later, 116 km of railways were already crisscrossing Panay.”

But what is impressive is not the expanse of the rail network but the speed by which they were built, at a time when builders relied less on mechanized power but more on hordes of manual laborers and herds of carabaos, Recto said. Today, the construction of the additional elevated rail lines for LRT and MRT is taking decades. (To be continued.)

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TAGS: Legislation, Philippine National Railways, ralph recto, train, Transportation
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