Train of thought

Yoly Villanueva-Ong

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With DOTC seemingly taking a slow, leaky boat to mass transit infrastructure, we might miss the train again

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”  

For sure Dwight David Eisenhower, America’s 34th President, was not waxing lyrical about Amtrak, which only began operations in 1971– exactly one decade after his second term.

But the metaphoric “train of the future” turned out to be a literal oracle. Most developed countries rely on an encompassing railway system for market connectivity. Transporting thousands of commuters and products to and from their destination efficiently and economically is the sign of a robust economy.  

For many decades, progress did not stop at our station. Today, the Philippines is finally on track with impressive economic growth. If only the wealth could reach every nook and cranny of the archipelago, this government would attain its goal of inclusive growth. A mass rail transit is one proven stimulus for rural advancement.

In its heyday, the Philippine National Railways (PNR) used to run from Baguio to Bicol. It traces its bloodline to the Ferocarril de Manila-Dagupan that was founded in 1892 during the Spanish colonial period. It was renamed Manila Railroad Company in the American occupation. In 1964, it became PNR and was given a 50-year term. 

Neglect, incompetence and obsolescence have shrunk the historic line. Even the celebrated Bicol Express ground to a halt in 2006 due to safety concerns from damage caused by Typhoons Milenyo and Reming. 

At present, PNR operates the Metro South commuter line that runs daily from Tutuban to Sta. Rosa in Laguna and the Bicol commuter service that carries passengers between Naga and Sipocot.

Despite measly budgets and nearing expiration, PNR has managed to launch several small but highly appreciated improvements such as the 120- seater premiere coach service to ease the traffic caused by the Skyway construction in Manila.

Reviving PNR

The state-run company has the only bonafide railway expert in the newly minted general manager, Engineer Joseph Allan Dilay. He is a licensed civil and track work engineer both in the US and Canada with 20 years of railway experience. 

His track record includes the Light Rail Transit Systems in Denver, Colorado, the Las Vegas People Mover, Long Beach Transit, Los Angeles Light Rail Transit and Metro Rail Lines. In Taiwan, Dilay was involved in tunnel construction for Chungho Line and underground stations for Hsintien Line in downtown Taipei and the design of its 12-km track heavy rail system.

The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) and PNR are looking at reviving the 422- kilometer operations from Manila to Naga City depending on the assessment of its safety by the CPCS Transcom Ltd. of Canada. 

It will need at least P18 billion to upgrade the railway, reconstruct the bridges, and rehabilitate the Bicol Express tracks as well as the locomotive and rolling stock.

There have been several attempts to revive PNR. Hopefully under Dilay, the 121-year old grand old dame has a chance for a second life. 

And this is what some of our congressmen are attempting to do. House Bill 3395, authored by Representative Cesar Sarmiento and supported by Representative Leni Robredo and other legislators, seeks to extend PNR’s life for another 50 years to 2064.

The charter expires on June 20, 2014, making the passage of the bill extremely urgent.

“While PNR is set to undertake the rehabilitation of its facilities and systems in preparation for its modernization, its plan to address the nation’s transport network deficiencies may be hampered unless PNR’s corporate life is extended,” said Sarmiento. 


Recently, DOTC Secretary Emilio Abaya announced that two ambitious railway projects connecting Cagayan in the north and Bicol in the south were under study. They are proposing a 900-kilometer Integrated Luzon Railway (ILR) and a 90-km commuter rail link or airport express rail. “If we get NEDA’s clearance on both integrated Luzon railway and the commuter railway, we can bid that out early this year,” he said.

Business analysts have railed against DOTC for its alleged mishandling of various bids and contracts. It has come under fire for failing “to get any big project off the ground” from the Mactan-Cebu International airport to the split bidding of the LRT 1 extension project and the single ticketing of the three railways.

The confidence level in its ability to fast-track any venture is wobbly. “Another railway? In what year? It is ludicrous to add yet another possibly mothballed, anomalous ‘Northrail’ while the existing ones could use an infusion of budget and competence,” was the reaction of some critics. 

Meanwhile an economics professor at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Dr. Vic Abola, is advocating the transfer of the railway and mass transport functions from DOTC to the Department of Public Works and Highways.

“We need seamless inter-modal land transportation system. These should not only be designed and built on a parallel basis but on an efficient seamless transfer from one mode to another,” Abola said.

He added that mass transport facilities would help address the worsening traffic situation in the country, particularly in Metro Manila.

A working railway system will surely fast-track inclusive growth. We are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But with DOTC seemingly taking a slow, leaky boat to mass transit infrastructure, we might miss the train again. –

Yoly Villanueva-Ong, the founder of Campaigns & Grey, is currently Group Chairperson for the Campaigns Group of companies. She writes weekly for Rappler.



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