Bicol Express on track from nada to Naga


Like the hot, chili-laced Bicolano dish that shares its name, it may take some getting used to for the first-timer. But once you acquire a taste for it, you’ll know why its old countryside flavor has been fondly missed.

After a five-year hiatus and test runs fraught with glitches and delays, the “Bicol Express” train service of the state-run Philippine National Railways (PNR) is now back and running, offering an affordable and reliable alternative for travelers in an industry dominated by budget airlines.

Like creaking gears that needed much oiling, its revival this year was hardly silky smooth: Its “soft launch” in July was marred by unexpected kinks, like the rains eroding the ground on some segments of the track. Earlier, even the thick grass growing on both sides of the track proved to be a time-consuming hazard.

But after such rebirth pains, the PNR management believes that the service between Manila and Naga City will just get better.

Japanese donations

In terms of fleet size alone, the numbers are encouraging.

After an initial donation of 12 used trains to the PNR, the East Japan Railway Co., one of the four private train concessionaires in Japan, delivered another 20 last month, which the PNR will use to add capacity to both its Bicol and Metro Manila train services. Another batch of 30 trains is arriving before the year ends.

Of course, getting the Bicol Express literally back on track required more than acquiring coaches. The entire effort since the shutdown in 2006 has been full of challenges from both natural and man-made storms.

“Maybe part of it is just patrimony, but we really want to preserve the Bicol Express,” PNR General Manager Junio Ragragio said in a recent interview.

Before the trains went idle in 2006, Ragragio said the country’s railway system, which used to be an important part of the economy, had been doomed long before that.

Focus from rails to roads

He recalled that due to years of neglect and perhaps even indifference on the part of policymakers, the country’s trains were left to deteriorate as they switched interest from rails to roads.

So when he assumed his post as PNR manager last year, Ragragio found that the problem had been much worse. For one, the PNR’s electricity bill went unpaid for years: It stood at P10 million when he took over.

Many of the agency’s assets were also left unattended. The employees were demoralized.

The PNR’s only operation at the time was the commuter train service within Metro Manila, which served only a few thousand passengers a day. It was way below the volume served, for example, by the 30-year-old Light Rail Transit (LRT 1) line, which half a million people take every day.

This meant that the agency had little or no income, sinking further into debt.

P1B for rehab

To start pumping new blood into the moribund system, the PNR spent about P1 billion over the last 12 months just to restore or rehabilitate some 400 kilometers of track that had been warped out of alignment, stolen for scraps, or practically abandoned over the last five years.

Finally, on May 22 this year, a train left Manila at around 7 a.m. and reached Naga City in just under 10 hours.

But euphoria over this feat was short-lived. Less than two months after the initial trials, the PNR management was forced to suspend the Bicol Express operations after two typhoons again damaged parts of the track.

After another round of repairs, the PNR resumed the train service last September.

Passing the test

That same month, two more typhoons—“Pedring” and “Quiel”—pummeled Luzon and threatened to wash away the ground along the PNR route to Bicol. This time around, however, the tracks passed the test, Ragragio said.

“We suspended operations during the day of the typhoons, but we were operational the day after,” he added.

Just over a year into office, the Aquino administration can now boast of a modest yet symbolic achievement in the mass transport sector. The Metro Manila commuter service now serves as many as 50,000 people a day, a marked improvement both in the PNR’s revenue stream and its public image.

At present, Bicol Express trains leave Manila and Naga City at 6:30 p.m. and arrive at their respective destinations at around 4 a.m. the next day.

Ragragio said the train service had always been a vital fixture of daily life in his hometown of Naga City. Its revival would make it easier and cheaper to get to what is now a booming economic hub, as well as to other emerging tourist destinations in Bicolandia like the Camarines Sur Watersports Complex.


These are now choices where there used to be only challenges. Bicol Express riders can opt for reclining seats (P548 each), sleeper coaches (P950) and executive sleepers (P997)—all cheaper than taking air-conditioned buses or airplanes.

“We are happy that more and more passengers are taking the Bicol Express. At first, we only had as few as 13 passengers for each trip. Now, we have over a hundred on each train during weekends. It’s a good start,” Ragragio said.

He conceded that the Bicol Express trains would never be as convenient as taking a plane, “but if you want a more relaxed trip and you’re on a tighter budget, then the PNR is better.”

“At least, if we keep it running, the option will always be there for the government to improve it. For if we just leave it idle, it’s easy to make a decision never to bring it back again,” he said.

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  • Anonymous

    wow, I used to ride the train from manila to Legaspi city, When |I go back to Philippines, I will try that once more, hope hindi maholdap along the way, have, I have ridden Toronto-Vancouver, 4 day train ride, it was a ride you won’t forget, the scenery, snow cap mountain ranges wild river but  I was not lucky was not able to see a polar bear, next plan trip via train would be Toronto-Florida

  • Joe Kano

    I’m glad the Bicol Express is returning.
    But one would think that after making all this investment and publicity, PNR would at least have a functioning web site up with basic information about fares, timetables, stations etc.
    I hope they will really make an effort and not just pay themselves to provide poor service and unreliable trains.

  • benito o

    Selling the much improve PNR Bicol Express will have to require more than what were stated in this article. Track records on safety of passengers, comfort, dependability, availability and other amenities. PNR needs more convincing proofs before claiming significant improvements. Halimbawa, kung gusto kung sumakay sa Bicol Express saan station ako pupunta sa Tutuban or Paco? Isa pa pang halimbawa, sa ganitong oras ang Bicol express ay darating sa Calamba or Lucena? Hindi lang yun sasabihin na less than 10 hours dumating sa Naga. Hey, Mr PNR chair, dapat naman sabihin mo yung talagang tutuo para maka-attract ka ng maraming passengers. Iyan suggestion lang kun ayaw eh di hindi. Balik ulit sa air-conditioned busses or popularly know sa Naga na ‘tourist bus”. May full compliment pa na convenient dining cafeteria with genuine Bikolano cuisine (yung tunay na bikol express na “kakanun” na maharangon (lol).

  • unokritiko

    It really put me into tears whenever this PNR is in the news report! It should and must be return back to its original name of MRRCo not PNR as its tantamount how the corruption in the govt had done and put the development into waste!!
    Oh yes I remember when and can still graphically seen in my mind the train pulling 14 to 15 coaches full of people as it iwas called “Mayon limited”. and if it pass on a curve you can even see the tail or the last coach. And I am proud of my father who serve in this company as a freight clerk and yard switcher in a station. I am proud of him because he always can stop this train by his red flag in his hand standing near the switch of the rail track, signalling this train to stop due to problems  on the succeding km of the track which is famously called Malagiko. Now the station is gone and many of these similar stop ponts is demolished as it should be considered land mark for me. Just look at what happened to Paco station as it is more than the new and olld mia combine together.They cannot match the integrity of the structure and its architural beauty in design.
    But at this present time, I am not proud anymore instead hatred comes to my feeling
    to this PNR . Even this news I called advertisement of PNR does not have any substance at all,  only use as a streamers to make you board the train!!!
    This news should have been titled from NADA to DISASTER in the making!!!
    I bet on this matter!!!

    • Anonymous

      I suggest the PNR use color coding for the north and south direction and for special destinations AND name the coaches in relation to their destinations say “Mayon limited”. Innovative minds can make the railway interesting.

      • Anonymous

        That’s a good idea murtson. In fact Singapore is using this color coding with their east/west, north/south lines. Singapore is an island state, maybe not more than 70 kms. in diameter yet their train system is extensive. We can do the same in Luzon and in Mindanao (Visayas is case to case). I just can’t figure it out why our government bright boys/girls are a century behind in their thinking. Oh I get it. Constructing a railway line is minuscule compared to a paved highway (per km.) so there is not much money in it for the proponents, if you get my drift. So sad. We have top notch lawyers from our own Ivy Leagues U.P., Ateneo, La Salle, San Beda, etc. in the government service yet what we get is a caveman’s infrastructures. We are deluged with useless lawyers not enough technocrats/engineers.  

  • Anonymous

    Simple common sense will tell that this railway mass transport system is a priority and indespensable service in any country. Noynoy, had he earned some connection with the people in the rural areas, should have poured support for the project first than the GMA-modeled CCT where P39 Billion was earmarked. Railway system rolls the economy. Maybe later the same railway could feature restaurant coaches for tourists and freight trains to roll cargoes fast and cheap.

    To improve service and deter accidents, PNR must send a technical person to Japan in order to learn how electronic system is employed in railway traffic management from the city to the rural areas. And squatters must be demolished along railroad tracks to ensure their safety and tracks be cleared to avoid accidents, from Manila to the farthest destinations.

    It’s high time that the administration maintain concern for the majority of the people in the country most especially those in the rural areas and stop the crap of those “cogon” programs intended for popularity surveys alone.

    • Anonymous

      murtson me again. I tell you, PNR was sending their executives to all parts of the world. Take it from me I was once an insider. All these trips were in aid of “progress” but lo & behold when they come home they act as if nothing happened. All those good things observed abroad re: railway management/maintenance/construction rot in the report. All bright ideas were eaten by the (rotten) system.

  • Manila Sunset Convenience Stor

    I think Mr Ragragio is given a little bit more credit for all the railway achievements than he deserves.
    Anyone remember the names Arroyo, Andal and Defensor – the ones who started it all, even some projects that appear to have come to a standstill.

  • Anonymous

    Management of the railway system must rehabilitate the northbound railway. It’s service is indespensable.

  • Anonymous

    With the constant spiral of oil prices, the transportation czar with enough political will and consensus building among peers should be convincing to plan for an efficient mass transport system that certainly includes a rail system not only in Bicol but in other feasible areas of the country as well.  From the Metro (AND VICE VERSA) to the provinces, the railway system is the most efficient transport system and it is a wonder why the government is not considering it, even after realizing that so many other countries in practice have this system in place. Indeed, faster, more efficient railway systems are in place not too far from us: in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, etc., not to mention Japan, Europe, Canada and the US.  Forward planning would anticipate the adverse effects of the climate and even our peace and order operatives have roles to play.  But that’s it: if we want to move on economically at par with our other Asian neighbors and avoid too much traffic congestion, move commuters faster, more conveniently and more cheaply, we have to innovate — revisit an old idea and take care of business, I mean: saving taxpayers the unjust payment of road users’ tax in addition to regular taxes supposed to fund, among others, government highways and transportation expenditures, and other double taxation schemes such as toll taxes, etc., without a whimper, for the inefficiencies of the bureaucracy!   Government should not be thinking more about declaring surpluses in government spending, but on how to make life lived better by its constituents, especially those with limited means to enjoy that quality of life under a democratic rule.  HOPE AND SOCIAL JUSTICE should be the battlecry of the DAANG MATUWID. 

  • Anonymous

    Took the Bicol Express last Sept 23 going to naga, arrived around 5:15, around 11 hours. trains are clean but no running water, conductors advised us to use the restrooms 2 coaches away. Had a hard time getting tickets, wont allow you to buy tickets in advance like several days before which for whatever reason they only know. they will let you buy on the day itself. people manning the ticket booths usually come to work 12-1pm and sometimes when you ask the guards, they dont know when they are coming. but overall the ride is ok, just be prepared to get knocked around because of the poor state of the rail tracks, like riding a mini roller coaster at times.

  • unokritiko

    For info of everyone the north rail part of this company is under rehabilitation courtesy of the previouse admin. Again it is being brought to life by non other than the DOTC and be suprise!!! gentleman they are going to put a bullet train instead of rehabilitating it! From Pampanga and manila 72KM and will took this bullet train to traverse for ! hr..Ha! ha! ha! And this is all under what they called PPP anomally projects. oh my! oh my! Read the related report coming from DOTC just poke on my name and activy to reach it. A bullet train they called Ha! Ha! Ha! correctly said if its a bullet gold going to their pockets!!!

    And this mr Ragasario, whatever his name,has an initial good move but not enough for me. Puro Ragasa na lang not considering the safety of riding public, This is a tempt to disaster in the making!!! I bet you filipino indiots!!!!
    Why dont they put a site for this PNR to know whats happening, is the first nice way to attract and inform the riding publi.Instead of doing it in this way?? With more photos on their action on safety will do attract more!!
    Mr ragragio has  in his hands lots of coaches from japan and intending to put it into sevice ASAP. thats why his name is ragasario to me. No matter how they retrofit this coaches according to standards will not suffice the danger luring in the rail tracks,
    They should give more attention on the quality of rail tracks as priority including the bridges not the other way around.
    This ragasario will put this PNR to disaster!!!!!


  • Great Man

    Great Job! Every nation, every successful nation needs its rails. It’s time we bring this back to the people! Kudos! Mabuhay Philippines! We can do this if we just be positive, work together, and spoil the corrupt from doing their unjust practices.

  • rolando mendoza

    I’m very eager and excited to ride these trains to Bicol to see the scenic view of the countryside.

  • Anonymous

    It is like a rebirth of old Nokia cellphone. At least better than ordinary buses (no aircon).

  • Anonymous

    To PNR management: Please give your best shot to restore the railways – from sourcing funds up to the technical stuffs and finally its smooth operations.  We don’t need the fastest trains or those fancy looking ones but we need the ones that are functional and safe.

  • Anonymous

    Kudos to the PNR management and Aquino admin as a whole. This what you get when you have better people and will to perform the job.

  • Anonymous

    Advertise the  PNR services nationwide, it will be a great advantage especially the scenic views of the Bicol region. Let the Bicolano bigwigs (Escudero,Robredo,Honasan,Salceda,Villafuerte,Salazar, etc…etc…) ride it from Manila to show support and patronage…(ewan ko lang kung sasakay at tatagal sa byahe)….

  • reynaldo

    Forget the Bicol Express, but see how cheap it is to travel from Tutuban to Alabang. I am a senior citizen so I pay only 16 pesos for that long trip!!!! The only drawback is that there are so few trains so the trains are almost always crowded. Good thing I am a senior citizen so I get crowded only by girls! He he he! Good work PNR Manager Ragragio!!!

  • Anonymous

    Yehey, Makakasakay na rin ako sa train papunta sa bicol.  Kung pupunta kayo sa bicol, just be cool, at darating ka duon ng masaya.  Hala, sige sakay na. 

  • Anonymous

    I hope this project would push through this time. About 20 years ago or so there was already a plan on the rehabilitation of our railway system from Manila all the way to Bicol but it all went pfftt!

  • Mio

    Mass transportation such as trains is the way to go, especially for people who are on very tight budget. Kudos to the management of PNR! I hope you can sustain the operations and be able to improve it in the years to come. Good luck!

  • Francisco

    Railways is the most popular and cheapest means of transportation in many countries. India for example has the largest interstate railway nertwork in the world. It carries millions of commuters everyday, most preferred by officegoers, students, businessmen, and it also generates different forms of livelihood opportunies for many people – porters, shopkeepers, food catering, trade, etc.

    In our country, train services can be seen not only as alternative to buses and airlines but it will also offer job opportunities to many people. I hope the PNR will pursue larger plans to promote and develop railways not only in Bicol sector but also in other regions.   

  • Marlou Wang

    Dapat lang bigyan ng award si Gen. Manager Ragragio sa pagkulit niyang maibalik itong PNR. Mas masarap ang mag-train kaysa mag-bus. 

  • mmm choco

    like the rains eroding the ground on some segments of the track.
    Earlier, even the thick grass growing on both sides of the track proved
    to be a time-consuming hazard.- TEKA !  KALA KO BA EXPERTS KAYO.. YOU GUYS SHOULD KNOW BETTER AND HAVE ALREADY IDENTIFIED SUCH PROBLEMS..LAGI NA LANG BANG GANYAN.. excited pa naman sana ako na bumisita ko ang birth place ko..

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