Bicol Express on track from nada to Naga

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02:27 AM October 9th, 2011

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October 9th, 2011 02:27 AM

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.

Choices

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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