Save our only railway system (2)
The first railroad line, from Manila to Malabon, built by Iñigo Zobel’s great grandfather, was inaugurated in 1888, after only two years of construction. The 196-kilometer Manila-Dagupan line was completed in five years, in 1892, with one section, the 76-kilometer line from Tarlac to Dagupan, completed in only six months, in the midst of the typhoon season, Sen. Ralph Recto said in the course of narrating the history of the Philippine railroad. From groundbreaking to ribbon-cutting, the 36-kilometer Cebu-Danao line was completed in six months.
“Compare this to the more-than-five-years struggle to connect the MRT 3 to LRT 1 in Trinoma,” Recto said in a mocking tone. “Or the decade-old Baclaran-Bacoor LRT extension project, comparatively short at 11 kilometers, for which not a single pylon has been driven to the ground.”
Now we are having a difficult time extending LRT 2 to Masinag, Antipolo, a distance of only four kilometers, Recto said in Filipino.
But do you know that 100 years ago, there was a Marikina line from Manila to San Mateo, a distance of 31 kilometers? he said. In the old days, if you wanted to eat manga at suman and hear Mass in Antipolo, you can take a train from Tutuban to Hinulugang Taktak.
It took only three days to lay a kilometer of track 122 years ago, he continued. Today it takes months for one rail-related document to move from one table to another.
The Philippine National Railways can regain its former glory, Recto predicted. Despite plying only 43 kilometers, or one-twentieth of its former network, the PNR still managed to ferry close to 20 million passengers last year. That’s equivalent to half a million busloads of passengers a year. This ridership was achieved on a sparse 2.5 trips in each direction per hour. Thus, just doubling the number of trains would mean increasing its passengers to 40 million annually—equivalent to 1 million bus trips.
Last year’s income from passenger fares was P234 million, or an average of P11 per passenger, Recto said. Government subsidy was tagged at P11 per passenger, an amount that is one-fourth the government subsidy for an MRT rider.
While its rolling stock of hand-me-downs are few, the PNR’s main assets are its land, mainly the 800-kilometer La Union-Legazpi carriageway, plus the stations along the route, including Tutuban, which is now a shopping mall. Much of this land has been occupied by squatters. Portions have been illegally titled.
“The great train robbery in Philippine history did not happen on board PNR trains,” Recto said. “It happened on the ground, when the land on which the tracks are laid ended up in private hands.”
The land assets of the PNR are currently valued at P40 billion, 80 percent of its total assets of P52 billion. This does not include air “rights.” If you put an elevated expressway above the railroad tracks, for example, the space is still owned by the PNR.
The PNR reported P23 billion in liabilities last year.
“We are nearing traffic Armageddon,” Recto said. “When it is faster to fly across an ocean than to drive across town, … then we are in trouble. In Metro Manila, where the majority of the country’s seven million vehicles are, a 20-kilometer-per-hour drive is considered speeding.”
The economic and health losses due to the traffic jams in Metro Manila are estimated at P137 billion. Our roads have long been past their carrying capacity. And then, many of the highways exact tolls from motorists. If you are driving from Batangas to Baguio, for example, you have to pass through eight toll roads: STAR, CTEx, SLEx, Skyway, SLEx-NLEx Connector, NLEx, SCTEx and TPLEx. Isn’t there any land route that is speedy but without a toll? Yes, there is: the PNR.
Our population is exploding at an alarming rate. In less than six years, by 2020 we will be 100 million. We are adding the population of one Singapore every 30 months, Recto pointed out. Also by 2020, the population of Mega Manila, which includes the provinces of Bulacan, Pampanga, Batangas, Cavite, Rizal and Laguna, will increase to 31 million, the equivalent of six Singapores.
Where will they live? There won’t be enough shoe-box condos for all of them. The rest must live in bedroom towns outside the National Capital Region. But if there’s a train to Pampanga and back, one can work in Manila and go home to a big house in Pampanga; one need not live in a cramped condo in Manila.
“This early, we should lay more tracks, and add more trains that run on time, because only a mass transport system that does not run on four wheels will be able to move people around,” said Recto, who has filed Senate Bill No. 1831 seeking to extend the PNR’s charter. (The charter will expire on June 30.)
“This bill should not merely extend the franchise but should [also] expand its services,” he said. “Because any gain from extending its franchise will be forfeited if it is not rehabilitated… This is not about putting the PNR on the same old track, but on the fast track.”
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