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There’s the Rub

Revive, not extend

Before Margie Juico, there was Jun Ragragio.

Ragragio was the general manager of the Philippine National Railways until he was unceremoniously and iniquitously fired in September 2013. Like Juico, he was fired for doing his job. Unlike Juico, he was fired by a department, or government, that didn’t particularly want to see the job done. Like Juico, he was replaced by a notorious character. Unlike Juico, his departure has gone unnoticed and unprotested.

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Ragragio became PNR GM after the P-Noy administration came to power. He was greeted by a thing that had become, to put it mildly, a shadow of its previous self. Years of neglect and desuetude had turned it into a railway graveyard. The coaches had been shunted to obscure corners, gathering dust, rusting, and crumbling from sheer decrepitude. As were the tracks themselves, which could barely be seen among the blades of grass that had grown lushly around them.

The railways had officially stopped operations in 2004 and fallen into receivership, its thousands of employees pared to a couple of hundred and making do with crumbs to oversee what was left to oversee about a dead line. In the main, making sure whatever was left standing was not carted away by looters, although it wasn’t entirely sure that all the looters came from outside.

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Beholding a sight like that can fill you with a sinking feeling, but Ragragio did not feel sunk. He felt buoyed by the challenge of resurrecting the railways and quite possibly restoring it to its former glory. He had two things going for him. One was the recollection of the days when Bicolanos, of whom he was one, having spent his high school in Naga City, could revel in the joys of the Bicol Express—or so it seemed from the haze of nostalgia. Two, and well beyond nostalgia, was his perfectly sound belief that rail was the way to go—the cheapest and most efficient way to bring people and cargo from Point A to Point B.

Armed with that memory and conviction, he set about trying to revive the comatose. His critics would later criticize him for being impetuous, for not taking his time and making sure the tracks had been sufficiently rehabilitated before he reopened the line. That way he might have avoided the accidents that befell the trains.

But the question was, waited until when? Ragragio didn’t have all the time in the world, he was under the gun. He didn’t just have to contend with the fickleness of the weather and the even worse fickleness of the tracks, stretches of which had lost their ballast over time and theft, he had to contend with the inclement, or indeed stormy, weather in his home office.

From the start the Department of Transportation and Communications was unsupportive of the PNR. Hell, it didn’t particularly want the PNR to exist. That is not speculation, that is not conjecture. Mar Roxas made that perfectly clear in his utterances. He did not believe in long-distance trains, only in those servicing Metro Manila and environs. He thought them uneconomical, which went against the experience of our neighbors that have left us biting the dust.

In fact, it was uneconomical only in the short run, entailing as it does huge investments for something that would unfold its wonders only after a couple of decades or so. Which is not an attractive prospect for someone who can only be president for six years. Well, the voters, particularly of Bicol, will remember this when—or if—Roxas runs in 2016.

Ragragio managed to rehabilitate the PNR to the extent that it was humanly possible and to the extent that he could operate under a hostile environment, improvident Nature being the least of it. He managed to reopen the line, however spotty and intermittent the service was. Whether that service could have improved in time, we’ll never know. For resolutely doing his job, Ragragio was fired.

He was replaced by one Alan Dilay, who labors under an outrageous conflict of interest. Dilay was once a subcontractor for a PNR project and remains a contractor and supplier for the LRT. He also happens to be a protégé of Ayong Maliksi—remember him? Truly, before Juico, there was Ragragio, in more ways than one.

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Shortly after he was fired, Ragragio told me he believed it owed to one reason only. That was so the DOTC could kill the PNR. That was so the government could kill the PNR. That was so Roxas could kill the PNR.

That belief turns out to be well founded. The DOTC is all set to quarter the PNR like a pig and sell its parts por kilo. It ground to a standstill after Ragragio was fired, at least as far as legitimate operations go; you don’t know about its illegitimate ones.

Unless Leni Robredo in the House and Ralph Recto and Cynthia Villar in the Senate can stave off the PNR’s impending doom. Its charter is all set to lapse at the end of the month, and Robredo and company are determined to extend it. If not, it is dead.

But the point is not just for the PNR’s charter to be reviewed. The point is not just to prevent the PNR’s holdings from being sold off to the profit of the opportunistic.

The point is to revive the PNR. The point is to make the PNR work. The point is to have a committed, determined, and persistent person like Ragragio to head it—if not indeed bring him back—and make the trains run again. The point is to kick out the people in the DOTC that are to the PNR as vultures are to those dying of thirst in the desert. The point is for the government to be cured of its myopia and glimpse the vision, however it takes long to unfold, of a country crisscrossed and linked and made prosperous by rail. The point is to give the PNR all the help and subsidy and support it needs and deserves.

Otherwise why bother extending its charter?

The point is to revive the dying, not just to keep vigil over it.

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TAGS: Alan Dilay, ayong maliksi, bicol express, Cynthia Villar, Jun Ragragio, leni robredo, Mar Roxas, Margie juico, Philippine National Railways, PNR
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