PNR franchise expiring in July

- Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - April 2, 2014 - 12:00am

It looks like the end of the line for PNR or Philippine National Railways. Its franchise will expire this July. There is a pending bill to extend the franchise but it is not certified as urgent.

I cannot understand why several administrations neglected PNR through the years. Now, it seems PNR will just die during the watch of P-Noy.

It isn’t nostalgia that makes me feel we still need a revitalized PNR. Rail transportation is essential as a means of affordable mass transport and also for commerce and industry. The problems with those container van trucks from the Manila pier, for instance, wouldn’t exist if we had a good rail line for containers as in other countries.

PNR can also be the backbone of our domestic tourism industry. I remember that my UP Prep high school class went on an “educational tour” to Bicol riding a PNR train in the early ‘60s.

My father took me for my very first trip out of Manila as a seven-year old on a train from Tutuban to Damortis in La Union, and by car (a black Bel Air) up the zigzag to Baguio. Today’s kids are being deprived of such a memorable childhood experience.

The tragedy of PNR is not only the neglect typical in a government run business or service. Worse, a succession of presidents appointed managers who apparently didn’t have the ability to run the railway service. Some may have milked PNR to the point of making it a shadow of its past. They even almost fully demolished the historic Paco Station for nothing.

What is PNR today? The Northern line has vanished. A new NorthRail line to Malolos and eventually to Clark didn’t get off the drawing board after costing us hundreds of millions of dollars. It only enriched some Filipino politicians and their Chinese collaborators.

For a short while during the first few months of P-Noy, there was this attempt to run a Bicol Express service again. Under the leadership of a Bicolano, Junio Ragrario Jr., PNR actually conducted test-runs covering more than 400 kilometers.

PNR used a newly refurbished locomotive train with several hand-me-down tourist class coaches donated by the Japanese government. Ragrario said the Bicol test-run was 95 percent successful.

The Manila-Naga trip took nine hours, shorter than the usual 10-hour travel time by bus. Ragrario added that all train coaches for the “Bicol Express” are air-conditioned. We didn’t even have it this good in the good ol’ days.

But one typhoon washed away portions of the tracks and the plan evaporated back into a dream. Ragrario himself was replaced by a Caviteño when DOTC Secretary Abaya assumed office. So now PNR may even just fade away from existence if its franchise is not renewed. 

It is so sad that while bullet trains are running in many countries, we don’t even have a decent rail service. A JICA consultant, who is probably the most learned man about Philippine transportation, lamented that we once had a good rail transit system.

According to Dr. Shizuo Iwata, that was circa 1920s. We had 85 kilometers of rail lines then, Dr. Iwata said, more than the pitiful 50 kilometers we have now. The pre-WW2 tranvia system itself was described as state-of-the-art and second to none in East Asia. It is hard to believe we were actually pace setters… hindi kulelat like we are today.

Dr. Iwata also said that a good rail-based mass transit system is essential for our fast growing metropolis. This would make it possible for people to live as far away as Los Baños or even Lucena and work in Manila. Our decrepit railway system is a daily punishment imposed on our poor people.

Top Filipino transport expert, Rene Santiago, agrees with Dr. Iwata. Rene, who is consulted by a number of ASEAN countries in planning their transport systems, thinks we need some 300 kilometers of rail lines in the next 15 years. Sadly, he said, he doesn’t expect DOTC to build even one kilometer of new rail line before 2016. 

Rene is correct. DOTC is fumbling badly just trying to implement a 4-kilometer expansion of LRT 2 to Masinag in Antipolo. That was a low hanging fruit from the start of the P-Noy administration, but up to now they are still at the design stage.

For PNR, it would be better if government just took a proposal actually presented by Ramon Ang to undertake the cost of modernizing the line from north to south. I wrote a column about this May 30, 2011.

Refreshing our memory, San Miguel made a proposal to buy 51 percent control of PNR and still have government as a partner in its development. At no cost to taxpayers, San Miguel offered to develop a national railroad system starting with the Luzon line of PNR that will run slower trains on at-grade level and fast trains on top.

RSA told me three years ago that San Miguel has commissioned a group that includes international companies with experience in bullet trains to study the possibility of building a bullet train railway that will run from the north to the south end of Luzon. San Miguel proposes to run the bullet train railway on the Laoag-Manila-Bicol route. A high-speed train service will boost the economy in general.

PNR, when it was still Manila Rail Road or MRR, used to haul abaca from Bicol to Manila when Manila hemp was a major dollar earner. PNR could still carry tourists to and agricultural produce from Bicol and improve economic development there.

I remember asking RSA how he expects to make money considering the large amount of capex he must invest upfront. He said he is looking at PNR not only as a train company, but also a general logistics company. That’s what Warren Buffet said when he bought Burlington Northern, a railroad company.

Consumer goods marketers will find the railroad the more efficient way to do Luzon wide distribution of their products. He will develop the adjacent real estate and make money on malls, distribution bodegas and other property ventures near train stations.

RSA said he has made a pitch to DOTC early on and all he got was a polite “we will study” kind of reply. But from the discussions, it was clear that the bureaucrats do not want anything that cuts their control over projects.

That’s also why DOTC rejected a proposal of Manny Pangilinan to take over the job of rehabilitating MRT3, taking the legal problems away and giving the government a royalty too. It is a no-brainer but as always, DOTC wants to keep government control even if it had been shown government is totally incapable of running rail systems, except to run these to the ground.

As I wrote back in 2011, it is stupid to ignore a proposal like this. What is there to lose with taking Ramon Ang on his word? If Ramon Ang fails, the attempt would still have generated economic activity and the failure will cost PNR and the taxpayers nothing. But if the venture succeeds, the government and the people benefit tremendously.

If you are naïve enough to believe their press releases, DOTC supposedly has big plans for Philippine railways. Cosette Canilao, executive director of the PPP Center, announced plans for DOTC to present a master plan for the proposed 900-kilometer Integrated Luzon Railway (ILR) worth $5 billion connecting Cagayan in the north all the way to Bicol in the south.

According to Ms. Canilao, CPCS Transcom Ltd. of Canada is set to complete the feasibility study for the ILR that would run from Cagayan in Isabela down to Sorsogon in Bicol. It would cover the entire north and south networks of the state-run Philippine National Railway (PNR) from Manila to La Union as well as a branch line from Tarlac to San Jose, Nueva Ecija, and a possible extension to Cagayan.

The south network traverses from Manila to Legaspi City, including the branch line from Calamba to Batangas City. For the North-South Commuter Rail, JICA was tapped to help the government complete the feasibility study for the commuter rail that would run from Malolos in Bulacan all the way down to Calamba in Laguna.

Great plans if you can believe that DOTC is capable of implementing any plan at all. But they love conducting international road shows, junkets so to speak, supposedly to get investors interested in a PPP for rails. Never mind that a local investor, San Miguel, has expressed interest three years ago and would save them the cost and the trouble of enticing foreign investors.

But first things first. Get PNR’s franchise renewed by Congress. Then, sit down with interested local investors ready to resurrect PNR. The most logical things to do are beyond the comprehension of bureaucrats… so we remain f--ked up, as always.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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