Back on track?
Mercifully, trains of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) are back on a limited run—a small grace in a season of monsoon rains, truly horrendous traffic, and an all-but-falling-apart transport system. With the constant glitches suffered by the elevated rail systems and the daily congestion in the streets, PNR trains had presented an affordable, if exceedingly shabby, mass-transport alternative until operations were halted in April after a derailment.
The PNR resumed part of its service last week—a reboot, one might call it. The Department of Transportation and Communications announced in a statement that only the commuter service from Tutuban in Manila to Alabang in Muntinlupa City would run “in the meantime,” as the Alabang-Calamba (Laguna) stretch of track was still being repaired.
Still, the limited service is a boon to those people who take the PNR trains daily (70,000 is the official count) and who had to find some other means of getting around when service was suspended in May so that, according to PNR assistant general manager Diosdado Silva, 60 kilometers of track could be inspected.
It was on April 29 when two train cars derailed between the Edsa and Nichols stations. The mishap, which left 80 people injured, was caused by missing bars and rail clips believed to have been stolen right from the tracks. No charges were filed.
It was a new low—and an accident waiting to happen—for Asia’s oldest railway line, with its rusting train cars and decrepit tracks. What a fall from its proud, pioneering beginnings back in 1892 as the Ferrocarril de Manila-Dagupan and later the Manila Railroad Company. In 1964, it took on the PNR mantle and the following decades were its “golden age,” when its trains covered 797 kilometers, reaching La Union and all the way to Bicol. And then the service began to deteriorate, a sad pattern that continued to the present, even as natural calamities destroyed much of its tracks, shrinking the railway’s reach. In 1989, the iconic Tutuban Station was transformed into a mall.
Yet the PNR trains were lifelines for certain commuters who patiently packed themselves into the old cars to get to their destinations. That’s why this limited rerun is something of a boon, a ragged ray of hope.
And there’s something going on, or so it’s said. According to the DOTC, the Aquino administration is making the revival of the PNR a priority, with a public-private partnership for the South Line of the North-South Railway Project. This P170.7-billion project will cover 653 km of track, stretching from Tutuban in Manila to Legazpi in Albay. Imagine 10 daily trips with seven trains running through 66 stations, serving 316,000 passengers. “This is our biggest project yet: the revival of the oldest rail system in Asia,” Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya said in a statement.
The bidding process is being finalized as the DOTC seeks to award the project before President Aquino’s term ends in 2016. According to the DOTC plan, the private-sector partner is to design, build, operate and maintain the existing 56-km commuter line from Tutuban to Calamba, and the 478-km long-haul operations from Tutuban to Legazpi, with possible extensions. It’s a huge undertaking: The winning bidder will operate, maintain and upgrade the South Line for a 34-year period.
Declared Abaya, long a target of brickbats for the miserable state of the transport system: “Rail systems are a driver for inclusive socioeconomic growth. They encourage trade and business activity, and provide access to employment and educational opportunities. The PNR, once a symbol of the country’s economic progress, should be modernized into a safe, convenient and efficient system by 2020.”
From a harried, indeed disgusted, commuter’s perspective, that is an impossibly long stretch, but in the cosmic order of things, a mere blink of an eye. We are taking the (cockeyed) optimist’s position that it will come to pass—when you’re down, there’s no way to go but up—and that the process from the awarding of the project until completion will run, even if glacially, in our lifetime.
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