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Let’s develop the south

/ 12:08 AM August 20, 2015

I’ve always had a love for trains, and I’ve taken some wonderful trips on some of the world’s grandest. But I’ve also used them to commute in a swift, efficient way from home to office when I lived in Sydney. Trains just make great sense, yet we have a country that has allowed the train system to go to hell.

In my July 30 column (“Infrastructure brings communities together”) I wrote: “It wouldn’t hurt at all if more emphasis and urgency were given to building train lines—and maintaining them. Trains are a great way to move large numbers of people, if you know how to run them. It’s something this government doesn’t know. So let’s hope the next leader will prioritize maintenance and expansion of the train system going south and north from Manila to ease the traffic on the roads. And look after and expand the train system in the metropolis.”

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But, and I give the President credit for this, the government is waking up—at least for one line, and that’s the South Line of the North-South Railway Project. It’s going to be rebuilt—but with a serious omission: no cargo. America became the superpower it is on the backbone of a huge network of interconnecting railways crisscrossing the country. Trains carried passengers and cargoes everywhere. Factories sprouted along the lines. Cities grew along those lines. Wealth happened.

So I’m delighted that something is finally going to happen here. It’s just one line, but perhaps the most important outside the inner city lines. And those, I’m sad to say, are just a story of continuing disaster from an administration that just can’t seem to do what’s so obvious: Leave the private sector alone to run those lines.

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The proposed South Line is a line running from Tutuban station in Manila to Calamba (in Laguna) initially, then on to Batangas and Lucena (in Quezon)—and, later, from there on to Bicol. It’s a line that used to exist, so it should be easy to resurrect. But, of course, it won’t be because weak government control has allowed informal settlers to invade the line, and getting them out will be a long drawn out nightmare, as history has shown us. And particularly so here, as many of the informal settlers’ structures are very permanent. So in some areas, a new route may be needed.

With the rapidly growing populations in the south it’s a great and much-needed idea to revive the line. It should help decongest Manila, too, by allowing people to live elsewhere yet get quickly to the office in Manila. There’s no traffic on a rail line.

But there’s a serious omission in the government’s plan that I don’t understand: The line would be for passengers only, yet Southern Luzon is where factories are sprouting, and where we want them to.

And Batangas is a port open to development as a very viable alternative to the port in Manila that is disastrously overcrowded, with road access for trucks that is totally inadequate. So a train service makes eminent sense.

The government think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), in its report titled “Port Congestion and Underutilization in the Greater Capital Region: Unpacking the Issues,” recommends that cargoes bound for or coming from the south of Manila use the Batangas port.

Trucks carry one container, trains carry dozens. Roads get cleared. The cost of transporting a container falls dramatically. The cost of production or distribution falls equally dramatically. The Philippines improves its competitiveness on the world stage—and that attracts investment. Meanwhile, domestic consumers will get cheaper products. In fact, if Congress would like to lower income taxes at the same time to match our neighbors, we may get some serious levels of foreign investment into manufacturing. The sector has been experiencing some growth in the past few years, and we want to maintain that. More manufacturing investments would also translate into more livelihood and employment opportunities for Filipinos.

To repeat, a South Line carrying cargo makes eminent sense. The benefits it can bring to economic development are, quite simply, enormous. So I’m hoping that the Department of Transportation and Communications and the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Center will defer the release of the invitations to prequalify to bid to build and run the line until they look at the sensibility of adding cargo transport to the plan.

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This will cost a lot more, but as it will be a PPP project, that cost will be borne by the private sector, not the government. The areas to the south of Luzon—Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon, including the Bicol provinces—are where development is happening rapidly. These are where residential and commercial areas are being developed and factories are being built. It’s a desirable development that needs full support.

The Calabarzon (Cavite-Laguna-Batangas-Rizal-Quezon) region, for instance, is the second largest contributor to the country’s total economic output (17.4 percent), only behind the National Capital Region (36.3 percent). Calabarzon and the Bicol region contributed a combined 18 percent to the Philippines’ total economic output in 2014.

That support has been recognized with the revival of the South rail, but it also needs the cargo component to be really effective—for businesses and people to realize the real“trickle-down” benefits.

We’ve all complained about the never-ending delays in getting things moving, but here’s one where I think delay is well-justified. If the private sector thinks a dual line is doable, it makes eminent sense to do it. Let’s do it.

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TAGS: calabarzon, infrastructure, North-South Railway Project, P-Noy, train, Transportation
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