Reviving the ‘Bicol Express’

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MANILA, Philippines – The plains of the countryside, the landscapes of hills and coconut trees, the serenity of remote villages, views of the sea and high bridges – these were some of the scenes that were unique to passengers aboard a Philippine National Railways (PNR) train which left Tutuban station in Manila a few minutes past 7 a.m. on May 22.

Looking through the glass windows, passengers saw people who lived near the railways – children playing, women busy with their laundry, and men taking their rest after a hard day’s work – waving their hands as the train went past them. Some of them covered their ears as they heard the loud sounds of cracking metal and blows of the horn.

The long wait for commuters who desire non-stop travel from Metro Manila to Bicol province might be over as refurbished PNR trains are expected to be up and running by July.

PNR successfully conducted its third trial run on Sunday, beating its target of a 10-hour travel time from Manila to Bicol, said Jera Sison, PNR spokesperson. The train, which ran from 40 to 60 kilometers per hour, left the Manila station a few minutes past 7 a.m. and arrived at Naga City in Bicol at 5 p.m. It left Bicol at 11:00 a.m. from the Naga station Monday and reached Tutuban at 9:00 p.m.

The trip, one-way, is about two to four hours faster than the run in March and six hours more than the trial run in September 2010, when train took 16 hours to ply the 400-kilometer route, said Jera Sison, PNR spokesperson.

PNR’s Manila to Bicol services have stopped operating since 2006 because of the damages caused by typhoons Milenyo and Reming.

Convenient, Cheap , secure alternative to buses

PNR General Manager Jun Ragragio, in an interview during the trial run, encouraged passengers to support the restoration of the Manila-Bicol train line saying it is a “cheap alternative to buses.”

“Our fares are cheaper compared to buses because PNR does not pay the SLEX [Southern Luzon Expressway] toll fees,” he said. “Plus our coaches are wider compared to buses.”

He said the trial run was part of a major PNR project which aimed to fully restore operations in the main line south railway system.

He said PNR would be offering a promo during the first months of their operations – rates from Manila to Naga would start from P500 to P550 for those who would avail of the seats in reclining coaches, P700 to P800 for those who would want to use the sleeper coaches and P1000 to P1400 for the VIP or solo cabins.

As part of PNR’s security measures, Ragrario said they would not be allowing vendors to enter the train as dining carts would be available.

First aid kits are also available, he added.

There are two trained and armed rail police officers assigned in every trip to ensure the security of passengers, said Ragrario.

“Our duty is to escort and assist the passengers and to secure them from pick-pockets and accidents,” said Mariano Baguio Jr. who has been

working as a rail police for two years.

“We were also part of the clearing team whose duty was to clear obstructions in railways,” Baguio said, adding that clearing illegal settlers were part of it.

There were also linemen assigned in every kilometer to inspect the safety of rails, said Ragrario.

PNR Bicol area Director Manager Constencio Toledano Sr. said their fare was “40 percent cheaper than other means of transportation.”

Toledano noted that their daily fare to and from Manila to Edsa is P10; Manila to Bicutan, P15; Manila to Sucat and Alabang, P20.

Airnel Abarra, a public school teacher and UP graduate student who was also onboard the train during the trial run, said people would surely support the PNR if they would ensure a “safe, reliable, comfortable, and fast” train ride.

He said the restoration of the Manila to Bicol train line would be a big help for passengers who seek convenience for long distance travel.

PNR will be having its inauguration last week of June, in time for St. Peter’s Day and will be fully operational in July. “This is so that our trip will be blessed,” Ragrario added.

New and refurbished coaches

During the trial run, guest passengers were able to have a taste of the experience of riding two types of fully-air-conditioned coaches the PNR would be using for the restoration of the operations.

The “tourist-bus” type of coach featured “reclining” and “rotating” deep-cushioned blue and yellow seats. The revolving mechanism of the seats made it possible for passengers to turn and face each other and easily communicate with one another. Ragragio said that these designs “fit” Filipino passengers well, as we are very “social” people.

Sleeper coaches, on the other hand, were more appropriate for those who would avail of the night trips, Ragragio said. Sleeper coaches featured rooms or cubicles where two double-deck-like types of couches were placed facing each other.

Ragragio said sleeper coaches elicit a “barkada feel” and would be good for groups of people who would want more privacy and a place of their own in the train for them to conduct different activities.

Need for Funds, More trains to boost economy

Ragragio said the refurbished coaches were all donated by Japan. He said around 80 coaches have been successfully imported from Japan and that the country was expecting 50 more by September.

He said PNR would need around P2 billion for the restoration project but only P 250 million pesos have been released.

“That’s why we are continuing our policy of being aggressive in asking for more donations from other countries,” he said.

Ragragio said more funds were needed to make the railway system more intact but the PNR is “making the most of what we have.” He said it was better for them to revive old trains instead of buying new ones since it would cost less and would allow them to contribute to the economy.

“Reviving old trains enable the PNR to provide job opportunities and improve our technology,” he said.

He said PNR expected to gain P800 million additional income and a 33 percent increase in employment opportunities during the first year of the revival of the Manila to Bicol train line operations.

“Around 4, 800 families could benefit from the restoration of the train line,” he said.

Ragragio said for the first month of the operations, there would be one train line from Manila to Bicol. There will be five short stopovers in stations in Lucena, Hondagua, Tagkawayan, Cagay, and Sipukot. He said with the arrival of more trains, eventually the PNR would be able to conduct six trips a day, three going to Bicol and three returning to Manila.

He emphasized the need for more trains for the PNR to provide more services to around 300,000 commuters.

“PNR could only provide services for around 50,000 passengers due to lack of trains,” he said.

Heritage-oriented, ‘Very Filipino’ vehicle

The train swayed like a boat at times, even rocked continuously, during the trial run but the passengers did not mind as they watched how the view from the window changed, depicting the differences between life in the city and the countryside.

The train ride gave the passengers access to see the shanties and houses near the railways, remote villages and nipa huts, the green plains filled with vegetables and fruits, and the day to day plight of men and women of the provinces.

“These are scenes you cannot see on a bus,” PNR spokesperson Sison said.

Ragragio said Bikolanos have loved trains because they’ve been part of their culture.

“Trains have been significant not only traditionally but also culturally,” he said.

He went on to describe the train as a very “Filipino vehicle” by saying that we Filipinos were very social in nature, and that the features of the train complemented this quality.

Karl Brouwers, president of the Railways and Industrial Heritage Society of the Philippines (RIHSPI), said the revival of the south line railways was a good way for the PNR to re-establish itself as one of the leading modes of transportation in the Philippines, and a way for Filipinos to realize how long they have come in terms of “industrial” heritage.

RIHSPI is a non-government organization that has been closely working with the PNR in its efforts to preserve and restore railways and educate the public about the industrial heritage of the Philippines.

Jaime Tiongson, former president and treasurer of the organization, explained that the 100-year-old railroad route plied by the train was the first land route to Bicol, and that the trains have been part of Philippine heritage since the time of the Americans.

“Travelling by train reminds me of different events from our industrial history,” Tiongson said. He said that ever since, the growth and development of a country was characterized by the quality of its railway systems.

RIHSPI is planning to build an “industrial railway heritage museum” where they will showcase the “history of the PNR and the railway system in the Philippines.” The museum will educate the public on how the group deals with identifying and restoring locomotive motor and other heritage equipment for the PNR.

Abarra said the features of the train, like its wide leg rooms, will provide a means for train passengers to “interact” with other passengers, and might even allow them to gain new friends.

He said that with the long hours of travel, it was unavoidable for passengers not to get bored and eventually talk with one another.

He added that some of his friends years back, who could not afford a bus ride but wanted a comfortable ride to the provinces, preferred to use the train and eventually it became a part of their tradition and way of life.

He said he hoped the PNR would be able to provide quality service for passengers especially during parts of the year when people would want to go back to the provinces to celebrate festivities, like the “Feast of the Penafrancia” in Bicol.

“The train will grant Filipinos a very accessible means for them to go back to their home provinces,” he said.

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