The last train

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

In a borrowed room not far from the Buendia Station of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) in Makati, where I stay on some days when I’m too tired to drive home, I often hear the blaring whistle of a passing PNR train.

It was deafening at first but then I got used to it as I realized that the peculiar loud sound tells us about the movement of a great number of Filipino commuters on their way home from the daily grind, wherever home may be.

On March 28 as the clock struck midnight, the train’s horn made an unusual loud and long sound, perhaps a minute long. I didn’t hear it but Filipino photographer Jilson Tiu did as he shared in a post on X.

“Today’s the last ride of the PNR to give way for a new ride,” Jilson said in his March 28 post. Long live the staff of the PNR, he added.

Indeed, last month, the PNR stopped operating its Governor Pascual-Tutuban and Tutuban-Alabang routes to make way for the construction of the much touted North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR) project.

Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista said the pause was necessary and may save the government at least P15.8 billion in project cost and would accelerate the construction of the NSCR by eight months. PNR operations in Metro Manila will be suspended for five years.

“PNR services will be suspended to also ensure that passengers are safe while the construction of the NSCR is underway,” Sec. Jimmy said.

The planned NSCR is a 147-kilometer elevated railway system from north to south Luzon, as its name says. It will travel between Clark, Pampanga and Calamba, Laguna, criss-crossing the entire length of Metro Manila using the right-of-way of the PNR.

“That precisely is the reason why we need to stop operations since the track that the PNR is currently utilizing will be right where the pillars of the elevated NSCR system will be installed,” Transportation Undersecretary Jeremy Regino said last month, as quoted by the Philippine Information Agency.

For those affected by the suspension, the Transportation department and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board have arranged alternative bus routes from Tutuban to Alabang.

From rolling coffins to world-class trains

I am looking forward to the NSCR. I hope that we will finally have a mass transport rail system in the country that is world-class and efficient.

Indeed, it must be a world that is way better than the PNR, once dubbed by former senator Ninoy Aquino as rolling coffins. Imagine this was way back in the 80s and the PNR’s trains were already deemed unacceptable by Aquino.

I have taken the PNR many times before, under the scorching summer afternoon and at times under heavy rains and amid strong floods.

It was not the most convenient ride. Riding the PNR is like walking the gauntlet. While the coaches are relatively clean and there is an air-conditioning system, the whole system itself is problematic and sorely needs modernization.

The trains move very slowly and the arrivals are unpredictable, depending on whether a coach bogged down or a certain station is flooded – which means the tracks are not passable.

During rush hour, the trains will burst at the seams and almost on cue, the air-conditioning system will stop working.

Bad days will see intermittent stops and occasional bog downs. In some stations, the platform is short so commuters have to literally do a big jump to the ground.

20,000 passengers

Despite such conditions, however, some 20,000 daily passengers relied on the PNR because the fare is the cheapest. They will be making a huge sacrifice in taking the alternative buses provided by the government which charge double the PNR fare.

Our government owes it to them to make NSCR a really better rail system. It’s high time we have an efficient mass rail system.

Long history

The PNR officially began operations on Nov. 24, 1892 as the Ferrocarril de Manila-Dagupan. It later became the Manila Railroad Company during the American colonial period. It became the Philippine National Railways on June 20, 1964 by virtue of Republic Act No. 4156, according to data on the PNR website.

However, due to neglect, the PNR declined severely through the decades.

There were also persistent problems with informal settlers in the 1990s which contributed further to PNR’s decline.

In 2006, typhoons damaged parts of the network, resulting in the suspension of the Manila-Bicol services.

Transportation revolution

But all over the world, beneath the steady chug of their engines and the relentless churn of rusty steel, trains have become an important part of people’s lives.

Some of us may have taken train rides in other countries and have experienced how efficient they can be.

Trains, no doubt, are more than just backdrops to the most vivid expressions of the human condition – the immeasurable pain of departure or the reassuring excitement of nearing one’s home. More importantly, railways revolutionized the way we travel.

We must see this happen too in this country of tightly-knit people, many of whom take long arduous journeys of multiple jeepney, bus and habal-habal rides just to go home to their loved ones in the provinces.

World-class yet affordable railways in the Philippines can make such aspirations a reality.

I hope these train projects really get going – for real, this time. No derailment, no conking out.

*      *      *

Email: [email protected]. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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