LRT, MRT, Amtrak
“Many airports here look dilapidated relative to those in Asia and Europe. Roads are choked with traffic. The fastest train from Boston to Washington takes about six and a half hours. The fastest train from Paris to Marseille—a slightly longer distance—takes just over three hours.”
Reading the first two lines of that article from the New York Times (David Leonhardt’s “Amtrak Crash and America’s Declining Construction Spending”), you’d think it was a description of Manila. But it was actually about the United States, one of several articles coming out in the American press after the Amtrak derailment last May 12 that killed eight passengers and injured more than 200.
The accident has revived concerns about the dismal state of the United States’ railway system, blamed on the lack of government support not only for trains but for transportation infrastructure in general, thus the reference to road traffic and to airports.
Our own rail systems—the longer-distance network of the Philippine National (if you can call it that) Railways (PNR) and Metro Manila’s LRT/MRT—are in an even worse state, and it’s time we recognized that the roots of the neglect are to be found in our imitation of the American model for transport, which is unfortunate because among developed countries, the United States has the worst record when it comes to public mass transit.
West European countries are able to move people around quickly, efficiently and safely through all forms of mass transit.
Trains and progress
Trains developed closely with the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. The invention of the steam engine in the 18th century was revolutionary: The engines were first used for factories and then for trains and boats. The development of capitalism depended on the ability of these trains to transport consumer goods in large volumes, and at greater speeds.
In the 19th century, the great cities of Europe began to build subways and urban mass transport, which, together with the trains, became integral parts of these cities’ economic and social development. Mass transport was as important as housing, health services and nutrition.
Trains have become iconic, a symbol of a country’s progress. No wonder the train stations in Europe are tourist attractions, built almost like grand Gothic cathedrals. The trains, too, symbolize efficiency. If the scheduled arrival of a train is 8:14 (the time itself being a marvel), you’ll have lights blinking a countdown: “Next train in 8 minutes,” “Next train in 6 minutes,” down to “Train arriving,” with the train finally gliding in at 8:14.
If the train does not come in as scheduled, you’ll hear people murmuring “Late again” immediately, even if it is by a minute or two. Anything longer and apologies are posted on signs or aired on the public address system for the delay, with an explanation, usually congestion at another station.
The promptness of trains has become an indicator of good government. In Italy, where the culture is so similar to our own, including a lack of awareness of time, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini became popular in part because he made the trains run on time. I’ve heard people say that maybe if we had someone like Marcos, our LRT and MRT would run on time.
I doubt that, and I’d predict even more chaos because there would be more corruption in running the trains. Get my point about governance and trains?
One of the New York Times articles, Nicola Clark’s “Low US rail spending leads to poor safety, experts say,” contrasts the US railway systems with the rest of the world, pointing out that America invested less than 0.1 percent of its gross domestic product on rail systems in 2013. That, the article points out, is a quarter of what was spent in Britain and one-sixth of France’s and Australia’s expenditure.
The investments are not just in expanding railway routes but also in technologies to enhance safety. Europe and Asia pour billions of dollars on maintenance of infrastructure, as well as on the development of electronic monitoring and automated braking systems. Clark points out that fatality rates involving American railways are twice as high as those of the European Union and South Korea, and triple that of Australia.
So, why didn’t the United States develop its trains and mass transit?
Private cars first
It was because of the lure of private vehicles, the almighty car. Individual ownership of cars became part of the American dream… and the Filipino dream. Studying in a private school, I remember how taking the school bus was almost a stigma, a sign that you were “poor.” Fortunately, that seems to be disappearing, but for adults, perceptions of social status follow a hierarchy: cars (with further stratification based on the brand), taxis, buses, jeeps, tricycles and, horrors, bicycles. Oh, I forgot, the ultimate horror of horrors is the “kadilakad” (getting by on foot).
The first time I visited Europe, my host said she would pick me up at the airport. So we walked down to the basement where I thought she had her car parked. It turned out that we were taking the train. I was aghast, but I have realized, through the years, that this is the best way to get from the airport to the city.
Studying in the Netherlands, I learned to use the city’s trams and trains to get my groceries, go to concerts, even visit nearby countries (“I’m taking the train tonight to Belgium!”).
On a light note, even dating turned out to be more romantic in the tram or train, especially if it was full. (Don’t get any dirty ideas, our hands were always hanging on to the grab rails or straps. In our LRT/MRT, packed like sardines, people have their hands free to grab, and that’s not quite romantic.)
We have railway lines but they worsen by the year. Every time I drive past the Paco Railway Station with its beautiful facade dating back to 1915, I am reminded of better days for our trains. My mother liked to tell me how she and I, a toddler then, took the double-decker buses on Roxas Boulevard, and the trains. They were signs of progress and modernity in the 1950s, but we tossed them out, imitating America and its fetish with private cars. The Paco station is still functional, but its grandeur is long gone, from neglect of the entire PNR system.
Our low regard for the PNR has spilled over into the LRT/MRT. We want it, but we’re not proud of it, forgetting we were one of the first Asian countries to initiate such urban systems. Our neighbors followed suit and have since overtaken us with the coverage of their rail transit systems and the quality of trains in terms of speed, comfort and safety, even as the LRT/MRT deteriorate, now considered expensive and inefficient.
LRT, MRT and Amtrak fall in one category, teaching the world how not to transport people.
Let’s make rail transport—LRT, MRT, the PNR—an election issue.
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