About 42 years ago, I recall taking the train to Quezon province from Makati City. Our Boy Scout troop walked about half a kilometer, carrying all our gear, from our school to the PNR Pasay Road Station. We boarded the train, took our seats in ordinary coaches, and rode the rails for hours to the PNR Station in Candelaria. From there, Army trucks took us to our campsite in the mountains.
Back in the day, I was told, the Philippine National Railway (PNR) actually ran from Manila all the way to Legazpi, Albay in the Bicol region in the south, and all the way to Damortis, Sto. Tomas, La Union in the north. From Damortis, which is near Rosario, one could then take either a PNR bus or car to go up to Baguio City via Naguilian Road.
Going through the countryside by rail gives one the opportunity to see more of the land — and the people — at ground level. Flying does not accord one the more granular experience of travel by land, either on a train, bus, car, or horse. And ordinary, diesel-fed heavy gauge trains, the slow ones that constantly rock and sway passengers, give the most textured experience of all.
I have not been on a PNR train for over 30 years. The last time was in the late 1980s, when as a university student I would occasionally commute by rail from España in Manila to Sucat in Muntinlupa. But I have seen the new trains servicing Metro Manila nowadays, and it seems that heavy gauge has gone a long way from the slow, smoky, diesel-fed chuggers of the past.
In the 1990s, I had the good fortune of traveling around Europe on rail. It was my first time in the Old World, and we rode the rails from Spain to Portugal, then back to Spain and onto France. Whistle stops included Lisbon, Seville, Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris. Paris-Gare-de-Lyon Station was the last stop. Then, it was a flight from Paris’ Charles De Gaulle to London’s Heathrow, then onto to Washington Dulles in the US.
Far more convenient, in my opinion, is train travel around Japan. Out-of-town trips from either Tokyo or Osaka are easy, comfortable, convenient, and provide good value. Japan’s rail system takes a bit of learning. But of late it has become easier particularly for foreign tourists with stored value train cards, and English-language signages, directions, and instructions.
A foreign tourist can easily travel to destinations like Nikko, Hakone, Yokohama, Kamakura, or Mt. Fuji from Tokyo, or to places such as Kyoto and Nara from Osaka. Trains stations are convenient and comfortable, and located in areas near bus carousels and with plenty of options for food and lodging. In Tokyo and Osaka, it makes more sense to take the train than to drive.
And this brings us to the point of why a rail system like PNR, which previously ran to northern and southern Luzon in the 1950s to the ’70s, should be fully rehabilitated to become once more an effective and efficient transport for people and cargo in and out, and within, Metro Manila. Light rail is good for transporting people, but heavy gauge rail like PNR can take bulk cargo as well.
In many industrialized countries, prioritizing investments in mass transit infrastructure proved crucial to ensuring economic success. The Philippines can have only so many airports and seaports. But travel in the interior, and to and from and within cities, will be best served by a combination of efficient rail systems and rapid bus systems. In place like Japan, Korea, and Singapore, even motorists are more likely to take public transportation because it is available.
Traffic and congestion, particularly in densely populated urban areas, cannot be addressed by expanding the road network or by electronic road pricing systems. Mass transit is the more efficient solution. However, the ongoing extension of light rail systems as well as the construction of the Metro Manila and Makati City subways will still take time.
But the rehabilitation, further expansion, and modernization of PNR is a low-hanging fruit. Heavy gauge rail at ground level is fairly easier to work on than those underground or overhead. Little to no digging required, and all stations are above ground as well, requiring only new platforms and waiting sheds plus a few other creature comforts.
To a large extent, expansion is a matter of adding train engines or locomotives and coaches. For now, these locomotives run mainly on diesel-electric. An advantage over light rail, which run on electricity, is not having to provide power through overhead lines. Unlike light rail, which cannot be expanded until power capacity adjustments are first made, PNR rail can run as many trains as their engines can pull and their tracks can carry.
Moreover, PNR trains can haul bulk and containerized cargo. This is crucial to a growing economy like ours. Freight rail can help take more cargo trucks off roads during peak hours. Fewer cargo trucks also lighten the “load” of roads, making their maintenance easier. Cargo trains can also run for 24 hours and do not encounter traffic or port congestion.
The US freight rail network, for instance, runs about 220,000 route kilometers. It is operated by seven Class I railroads and 22 regional and 584 local/short line railroads. Its operation is said to reduce road congestion, highway fatalities, fuel consumption, greenhouse gases, cost of logistics, and public infrastructure maintenance costs.
The US freight rail network is widely considered the largest, safest, and most cost-efficient freight system in the world. It works because the railroads are owned by private companies that are responsible for their own maintenance and improvement projects, with railroad owners said to be investing roughly 20% of revenues to maintain and add capacity to their system, spending nearly $25 billion annually.
In this line, it may not be enough for the Philippine government to simply fund the PNR’s modernization or get foreign investments. Perhaps, its operation should actually be divided into commuter and freight, with freight service perhaps going to the private sector to modernize and operate. Even if this means building two rail networks running side by side.
In Japan, even commuter trains were privatized in 1987 and broken into six regional rail companies and one freight company. This strategy proved effective as five of those companies — JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Kyushu, and JR Freight — are said to be operating profitably to date. Train operators JR East, West, Central, and Kyushu are even publicly traded.
An option is for the Philippine government to retain ownership over station land, railroad tracks, and all related property. The private sector can take over the ownership and management and maintenance of engines and coaches and stations, and derive income from operations and rental of station spaces. The government derives income from long-term rental of station land and use of rail right of way, as well as a share in operating income.
There are many ways the government can consider in modernizing PNR and making it a more efficient and effective mass transit and freight rail system. What is crucial now is the political will and leadership to provide for the appropriate investment and regulatory environment for the private sector to help modernize the country’s railways.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council