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[OPINION] Commuter rail

DEMAND AND SUPPLY – Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) – December 30, 2020 – 12:00am

A JICA senior consultant on transport once observed that we were better off during the tranvia days in the 1930s. We had 85 kilometers of rails then compared to just 50 kilometers now. Normal countries can expect progress. In our case, the retrogression in our transport infrastructure is scandalous.

Administrations from Marcos to all the post-EDSA presidents neglected the development of our rail transport sector. The Philippine National Railways had long been a sad excuse of a railway company for many decades. Its locomotives and rail cars are dilapidated to the point that no respectable museum will accept these specimens of neglect.

When PNR was applying for a renewal of its franchise in 2014, Sen. Ralph Recto commented: “50 years na ang franchise ng PNR… We started with a rail line of 1,100 plus kilometers. Today you are operating 50 kilometers only and we have not heard anything from the DOTC on what plans as far as PNR is concerned.”

Transport experts have estimated the need for at least 300 kilometers of rail lines in Metro Manila alone in the next 15 years. “It is hopeless,” one expert told me, “because DOTC can’t even build a f*cking four kilometer rail line to extend LRT 2 to Antipolo before P-Noy bows out of office.”

That’s the mess inherited by DOTr Sec. Art Tugade. But even Tugade found it difficult to pick up from where Jun Abaya left off. It will still take five years under Tugade before the LRT-2 extension of four kilometers is hopefully completed.

Then fire destroyed the electrical system of one of LRT2’s stations. LRTA is taking forever to repair it. Even Tugade, when I asked him during my Zoom interview with him, couldn’t give a good explanation of the delay. I assume they had procurement problems, as always.

But Sec. Art proudly pointed me to a project he started: the Metro Manila Subway, the most expensive local rail-based commuter service. Transport economists are shaking their heads in disbelief that so expensive a system will serve so few.

The subway line will be from Valenzuela to NAIA Terminal 3/FTI. It will serve 370,000 passengers per day in the first year of full operations. It will cut travel time from Quezon City to NAIA from one hour and 10 minutes to just 35 minutes.

They are still doing pre-construction works, manufacturing the tunnel boring machine (TBM), acquiring Right-of-Way (ROW), and procuring electromechanical, rolling stock, etc.

They hope to be able to do partial operation in the first quarter of 2022 to give Duterte the honor of inaugurating one segment of it. Full operation is hoped for by fourth quarter of 2025.

The other big project Tugade inherited from Abaya is the Common Station. To Tugade’s credit, it untangled the messy details of the project. Construction is ongoing for a total concourse area of 13,700 square meters connecting LRT-1, MRT-3, MRT-7, and the Metro Manila Subway at the corner of North Avenue and EDSA in Quezon City.

Overall project completion rate as of Nov. 15: 44.98 percent. They are aiming for partial operation by third quarter of 2021 (without signalling) and full operation by fourth quarter of 2021 (with signalling).

Tugade also gets credit for untangling the NorthRail mess of the Arroyo and Aquino regimes. The China-financed project was finally dumped and the Japanese have taken over. Even the concrete posts completed by the Chinese were demolished. The Japanese do not want to assume responsibility for the little that the Chinese have built.

The Japanese financed PNR Clark Phase 1 from Tutuban to Malolos has started construction and they are also manufacturing 104 trains. Overall project completion rate as of Nov. 15: 41.18 percent. Partial operation is set for fourth quarter of 2021 with the arrival of the first train set. Full operation is hoped for by second quarter of 2024.

The PNR Clark Phase 2 from Malolos to Clark International Airport is still in early stages. But all five civil works packages are already awarded and procurement of rolling stock contractor is ongoing.

Overall project completion rate as of Nov. 15: 27.49 percent. They are looking at partial operation by second quarter of 2023 and full operation by third quarter 2024.

They are also rehabilitating the PNR commuter line to the South. The PNR Calamba commuter line from Solis (Manila) to Calamba (Laguna) will benefit 350,000 passengers per day and cut travel time from three hours to just one hour. This is Japanese funded.

They are now working on the resettlement action plan (RAP) activities, ongoing procurement for four out of eight civil works contract packages. They are looking at partial operations by second quarter of 2025 and full operation by fourth quarter of 2026.

They are also rehabilitating the PNR Bicol line from Manila to Sorsogon / Port of Batangas as a China financed project. They are in very early stages and I do not believe their promise of partial operation by second quarter of 2022 and full operation by 2025.

Same thing with the Davao Railway, also a China funded project. China seems to be taking its time and is not as adept as the Japanese have been with the Manila to Clark railway. They are now waiting for the shortlist of design-build contractors from the Chinese Embassy.

There is one other project in the list, the Clark to Subic cargo railway. It is supposed to support economic growth and form an integrated logistics corridor in Central Luzon. Experts say it is not an urgent need since there are two major highways with the same alignment. This is China funded.

No rush for the project that may end up a white elephant.

We are lucky it is the Japanese who are funding the important commuter lines. Not only are Japanese loans a lot cheaper than Chinese, they move faster.

We need those commuter lines like yesterday. Once available, people can live further away from Manila and still get to work within an hour. Developing resettlement areas for informal settlers will be more viable.

We can only hope that Tugade can complete those projects on time. He is certainly a big improvement from Abaya, who did pretty much nothing.