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Bicol train chugs to a halt in test run

By Juan Escandor Jr., Pons Caudilla
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:17:00 09/18/2009

Filed Under: Railway, Transport

NAGA CITY ? The spirit was willing, but the diesel-fed old engines were not.

After stopping several times for repairs, a refurbished Philippine National Railways (PNR) train on a test run from Tagkawayan town in Quezon province made it an hour late into Naga City in Camarines Sur on Wednesday.

But before the new Bicol Commuter Train, a takeoff from the Bicol Express of yesteryear, could move any farther to its final destination in Ligao City in Albay, its engines had conked out.

PNR officials had earlier expressed confidence that train services in Bicol would resume after three years in time for the Feast of Our Lady of Peñafrancia this week in Naga.

Free rides

With an inaugural run from Tagkawayan to Ligao, the PNR will be offering free rides to devotees until the fiesta celebration on Sunday. The PNR has routed the trip as Tagkawayan-Naga, Naga-Ligao, Ligao-Naga, and Naga-Tagkawayan.

On its trial run on Wednesday, the train left the Tagkawayan station at about 5 a.m., traveled over 80 kilometers to Naga, and arrived in the city at 10 a.m., an hour late, to the cheers of a welcoming crowd.

Manuel Andal, PNR general manager, said the trip had already exceeded expectations when it was able to beat the deadline to link Tagkawayan to Naga.

But before it could leave the city for Ligao, its second-hand engines gave in and were sent to the shop for repair.

Reached for comment in Manila Thursday, PNR chair Michael Defensor said he was not yet aware of the problems encountered by the commuter train on its test run.

But should problems occur, Defensor said, ?that was part of the process? in the rehabilitation work. ?We?re working very hard to make sure that we?re 100 percent efficient in time for the Peñafrancia,? he said in a phone interview.

?The engines are old so they shut down,? said locomotive operator Romeo Caucil in explaining to the Inquirer the cause of engine failure.

Bought in Singapore

Constancio Toledano, manager of the PNR station in Naga, revealed that the engines were bought in Singapore in 1987 and would easily overheat.

Instead of a Ligao run, the PNR management decided to send the commuter train after repair for another test run to Tagkawayan and bring along Peñafrancia devotees for Thursday?s inaugural run.

According to Beda Priela, chief of staff of the PNR general manager, the train has three coaches?two for first class, which can seat 60 passengers, and one for third class, which can seat over 100.

At 5:54 p.m. on Wednesday, the train left Naga and chugged laboriously across rice fields until it approached a rail bridge in Sampaloc, Pamplona, Camarines Sur. Its engines overheated and stopped, 20 kilometers north of the city.

After several calls on their cellular phones, PNR employees aboard the train discussed their options.

?We will not push to go back to Tagkawayan because we are afraid that we might just give so much inconvenience to the riders,? Caucil explained.

Back to Naga

When the engines roared back to life after more than 30 minutes of repair by the machinist, the train went back to Naga and reached the station at past 7 p.m.

?The commuter train will run again going to Tagkawayan if the engines would run by four o?clock in the afternoon,? Toledano said.

After repair work was made Thursday morning, the train left Naga with a few passengers on board at 5:43 p.m. for Tagkawayan. It was expected to stop in barangays along the railway line to serve residents there.

Today, the train was expected to leave Tagkawayan for Naga.

Railway rehab

Andal said the rehabilitation of the PNR lines had solely depended on available government funds from the Office of the President and support from Rep. Diosdado Ignacio ?Dato? Arroyo, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s son.

The PNR official said he was optimistic that the Metro Manila-Bicol line would be opened in March next year.

Some P400 million have already been programmed for the railways rehabilitation work, he said.

According to the National Economic and Development Authority, the first phase of the project would involve rehabilitation and reconstruction of 89 percent of the southbound railway tracks from Calamba City in Laguna to Legazpi City in Albay.

This would cover 422.662 km at a cost of $627.81 million.

Under the second phase, a 112.23-km rail line will be constructed from Legazpi to Matnog in Sorsogon, a takeoff port to the Visayas and Mindanao. It will cost $304.23 million. With a report from Christine O. Avendaño in Manila

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