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Opinion

Railways to progress

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

All this talk about separating Mindanao, the so-called Land of Promise, from the rest of the republic puts the spotlight once more on the island which, with its vast resources, had the potential to feed the whole country – at least once upon a time in decades past.

Unfortunately, the region that is as enigmatic as it is beautiful, has long been corrupted with impunity. The result is extreme poverty, underdevelopment, desperation and social injustice.

The solution to addressing secessionist aspirations is development. It’s time our national government takes this seriously.

The whole Mindanao and not just the Bangsamoro region needs social services, roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. It needs progress and jobs and livelihood. And yes, railways.

This is why it’s a welcome development that President Marcos gave the green light for the Tagum-Davao-Digos phase of the ambitious Mindanao Railway Project (MRP), an indicator that the development of the rail transportation sector is part of the Marcos 2.0 agenda.

This is good because as we’ve seen in countries with efficient rail systems, transportation is a huge part of progress. Railways allow the movement of people and goods and this translates to progress.

Those fortunate enough to visit other countries may have experienced commuting via speedy train systems.

But here in this nation of 114 million, the dream for a rail system traversing the erstwhile Land of Promise has remained a dream. It’s not a new idea though.

Our Spanish colonizers managed to construct a single-track line from Marawi to Iligan but failed to complete it.

The Americans then built short-distance tracks in some parts of the island, supposedly to transport supplies and US Army personnel but I guess these short lines were destroyed during World War II.

The late president Manuel Quezon resurrected the idea in the 1930s but failed to get it off the ground.

Nearly every administration since has spent big money for feasibility studies but nothing happened. The plans were shelved or bogged down by issues.

But if Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista can finally get the Mindanao Rail Project off the ground, he would be making history.

Last month, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez said Uncle Sam is willing to support the stalled project after the Philippines decided not to pursue funding from China.

North-South Commuter Railway

Sec. Jimmy has had initial success in the North- South Commuter Railway (NSCR) project.

With this, that dream of a railway system connecting the socio-economic centers of Mindanao may one day come true.

The long overdue NSCR will pass through Metro Manila and is expected to cut travel time between north and south Luzon to two hours from four hours previously.

Like the MRP, the NSCR is an important project.

According to its blueprint, there will be 36 stations, offering various services, including a regular commuter service, a commuter express line with limited stops and an airport express service to Clark International Airport.

It will be seamlessly connected to the Metro Manila Subway, which in turn would span 33.1 kilometers from Valenzuela to Bicutan with several stations in critical areas, including the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

This subway will mark the Philippines’ inaugural mass underground transport system.

Right-of-way

Unfortunately, big ticket infrastructure projects are always saddled with right-of-way or ROW issues.

It may be similar to the major challenges our government is now facing in the NSCR.

Transportation Undersecretary for Rails Jeremy Regino has said the clearing of informal settler communities along the route of the NSCR is being done in accordance with existing laws.

What may be a headache are ROW issues concerning businesses or wealthy residents.

In Mindanao, for instance, local newspapers have reported that some sectors have demanded that the railway route be realigned as it would affect some residential areas, including a golf course.

I can’t help but wonder if the government will also spend on the relocation of a golf course, touted as the playground of the rich.

The bottomline is that ROW issues have long been a problem in the Philippines. In many instances, it has pushed back progress because those who can afford legal battles can easily secure TROs or temporary restraining orders.

This issue, unfortunately, isn’t something Charter change can resolve. Just look at our new roads and highways which are forced to change their original blueprints because of ROW issues. The result is a dizzying hodgepodge of routes and alignments that have created traffic in many areas.

There’s even that urban legend that somewhere in Metro Manila, there is a house with an infrastructure post inside it because the proponent of the infra project wasn’t able to secure the ROW.

I commend Bautista and Regino for pushing these rail projects although with these ROW issues, the implementation of both the MRP and NSCR may not be smooth sailing.

But no doubt these projects are worth pursuing.

Our neighbors in the region have already overtaken us in terms of rail infrastructure.

I was in Jakarta last month where I experienced Indonesia’s much-touted Whoosh, a 138-kilometer China-funded high-speed train.

We needed similar rail projects yesterday but we focused too much on roads and cars and now we wonder why traffic in Metro Manila just keeps getting worse.

Hopefully, our railroad projects get moving, whether it’s in Mindanao or elsewhere, sooner than later.

This is our ticket to progress and – excuse the pun – we really can’t afford to miss the train this time.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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