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Editorial

Railway blues

/ 01:03 AM May 12, 2015

THE PHILIPPINES’ policy on urban mass transportation needs a serious rethink.

But perhaps not only a rethink. Given the penchant of the Aquino administration’s policymakers to study and review plans for major infrastructure projects ad infinitum, the matter actually needs a major push in the right direction to get things moving. It’s that urgent.

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Consider the decrepit rail system. Last week the commuting public suffered another major blow with the decision of the Philippine National Railways to suspend operations starting on May 5. The decision was made a week after two cars of a southbound train derailed,injuring 70 passengers.

Operations were suspended to allow for the inspection of bolts, angle bars, rail clips, concrete rail ties, etc., and the necessary replacements and repairs, according to the PNR spokesperson. The PNR had earlier announced a projected expenditure of some P2.5 billion for upgrading and refurbishing the infrastructure.

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Thoroughly inconvenienced by the suspension of rail services are an estimated 60,000-70,000 commuters who daily take the PNR’s aging and lumbering trains on the 60-kilometer route from Tutuban in Manila to Calamba in Laguna.

Of course, 60,000-70,000 inconvenienced people are a drop in the bucket compared to the half a million who use the Metro Rail Transit system that traverses Edsa, plus the 200,000 who ride the older Light Rail Transit trains in Manila, and finally the millions more who commute to and from work daily on buses, jeepneys, taxicabs, tricycles and pedicabs.

But the fact that far less than a million of 100 million Filipinos, and not more, move around our cities each day on trains—causing the majority of working people to waste an average 10 percent of their productive lives stuck in vehicular traffic—shows how bad the problem is. And it highlights just how much our policymakers have failed.

It wasn’t always the case, if the truth be told.

Only a few know that the Philippines was an early player in the mass transit game, with the capital city enjoying an efficient commuter rail system as early as the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, the abbreviation “Meralco” stood for Manila Electric Railroad and Light Co. (with the once ubiquitous electric “tranvia” tramway system)

before power distribution overtook rail services as the firm’s main revenue source in the 1940s.

As the usual narrative goes, the Philippines was ahead of everyone else in the region before it shot itself in the foot.

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What happened after World War II—and continues to this day—was that the desire for expediency (some use the term “laziness”) took over and held sway. Postwar Filipino policymakers succumbed to the sweet music of US lobbyists who persuaded them to implement an American-style highway system populated with private vehicles (mostly American-made at that time, of course) instead of a more practical rail system based on the European model.

It was a poorly studied decision; its adverse effects continue to burden us today, generations after it was made.

But there is still a way to change the national destiny as far as urban mass transportation is concerned. And it can start now.

The Aquino administration—with its still-untapped political capital and goodwill on the economic front—can reorient the national policy to put the creation of a new rail system on equal footing with new road networks. And the overriding benefit is that the government does not even have to spend a centavo. All it has to do is get out of the way of the private sector, where many corporate players are aching to build mass rail commuter systems.

Worries about private firms’ profit orientation are misplaced. Private companies will keep prices affordable because they want to make money. And charging exorbitant fees for rail services will deter commuters, and result in lower revenues. Private-sector managers are smarter than that.

Modern nations rely on vast webs of rail systems to allow citizens from all social classes to move efficiently from one place to another, and back. Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the great cities of Europe, even car-centric America, are devoting more resources to high-speed rail.

The Philippines must do the same, if Filipinos are to enjoy a better quality of life. With an open mind, the Aquino administration—even with just a year left in its term—can help make an efficient rail-based urban mass transportation system a reality.

Never mind if another president gets to cut the ceremonial ribbon.

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