Infrastructure News Analysis

PNR – not exactly an engine of growth

One thing which Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, is credited with is getting the trains to run on time – something that has rarely happened in the Philippines. Over 52 years, the national train network – and we use that term in its loosest sense; it was only ever a Luzon operation – has been a long saga of neglect.

Although former president Benigno Aquino extended the life of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) by a further 50 years – that will now run until 2064 – and despite his administration’s big infrastructure push, the railway has virtually been left in the sidings. That said, funding has been promised to finally give some hope for the Philippines rail system.

This comes from a financing deal made with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to invest US$2.07 billion to develop the North South Commuter Railway (NSCR), 635km line from Tutuban, Manila to Legazpi City in Luzon’s south east. The other rail infrastructure covered in the deal is for a 58km commuter line from Calamba, Laguna to Batangas City, and a 117km line from Legazpi City to Sorsogon.

The JICA deal was signed last November; however, parts of this are now the subject of delay. Rail project bid process derailed

PNR – which looks like being absorbed by the NSCR – is a 1,067mm (or 3’6″) gauge line, which had 1,100 kilometres of route on the northern island of Luzon. At its height, in the 1970s, it operated services between La Union in the north and Legazpi City in the south east, a 900-km route. Decades of neglect, severe typhoon damage and large-scale track occupation by squatters, however, have crippled the railway. Good old corruption and a general lack of interest added to its woes.

Periodically, attempts were made to rehabilitate and revitalise it. One such came in 2007. One of its main aims was to clear the rail lines of squatter communities. Outcries from the Roman Catholic Church, however, along with the spiraling bill for resettlement, virtually halted that initiative in its tracks. Inadequate funding resulted with some railway assets having to be sold off in recent years.

In 2009, new rolling stock was acquired and efforts were made to reopen the La Union to Legazpi route by September 2014 part of which had operated briefly two years earlier. Typhoon Rammasun put paid to that, and despite announcements that the line or parts of the route would soon be operational, so far the trains are not running. And the latest news from tracking website, seat61.com, states – “Update January 2016: Major funding has been secured to rebuild the rout with talk of a fully rebuilt line being operational by 2020” (presumably referring t the NSCR deal). Whatever it is though, it’s a long time between trains: the new routes will take several years to construct.

The national railway has enjoyed a few brief moments in the sun, but for the most part it has remained an under-capitalised and consequently an under-utilised transport asset.

PNR came into being on 20 June 1946 as an agency of the Department of Transport and Communications. Its forebear was the Ferrocarril de Manila-Dagupan, a Spanish-colonial enterprise, set up in 1892. When the American’s took up residence in the Philippines, they took charge of the railway and changed the name to the Manila Railroad Company (MRC).

In 1917 it became state owned. Between then and its emergence as PNR, millions of US dollars were poured into its buying new rolling stock and improving its infrastructure. By 1941, the MRC was a well-run, well-equipped operation and was deemed as an indispensable amenity. Then, World War II arrived and it’s virtually been all downhill ever since.

The US military commandeered it and, fearing it could fall into enemy hands, the US Armed Forces in the Far East set about dismantling and destroying it. Bridges along its track were demolished; rolling stock was burned; lines of track were rendered useless; maintainance machinery was disabled. The total bill for all this, plus from subsequent air raids and acts of sabotage, has been put at around US$14 million in today’s terms.