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Amid pandemic, gov’t pulls out all stops for ‘Bicol Express’ revival

RIGHT ON TRACK A Philippine National Railways (PNR) train, in this photo taken in December last year, passes through a community in Los Baños, Laguna, as trips from Metro Manila resume. The PNR says the rehabilitation of the railway to the Bicol region is on track despite delays due to the COVID-19 crisis. —CHRIS QUINTANA

The Philippine National Railways (PNR) says it is still on track in reviving the “Bicol Express,” despite delays in the supposed reopening of the long-haul stretch down Bicol this year due to the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The government has tapped the existing train system, using six-sleeper and electric multiple-unit coaches, for special trips that recently ferried more than 300 Bicol residents marooned in Metro Manila after mass transport was suspended to stop the virus spread.

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On Monday, the PNR brought home over a hundred people through the government’s “Hatid Probinsya” program.

‘High capacity’

Celeste Lauta, the PNR assistant general manager, said on Wednesday the PNR had no schedule yet for another run since the list of stranded passengers and their destinations in Bicol had to come from Malacañang’s Presidential Management Staff (PMS).

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The PMS said about 13,000 people had been awaiting government-assisted rides to the provinces as of July 6.

In a separate phone interview, Joseline Geronimo, a PNR spokesperson, said those stranded, among them families with children, underwent rapid testing before they were allowed to board the coaches.

They were taken to train stations in Ragay, Libmanan, Naga City, Iriga City and Ligao City, and were picked up by local government workers from Camarines Sur and Albay provinces for another round of tests or mandatory quarantine.

Amber Mirandilla, acting director of the PMS in Bicol, said that of the total number of train passengers that arrived, 32 were found positive in rapid tests conducted upon their arrival. Nineteen of them were later confirmed to be COVID-19 positive, according to the Department of Health in Bicol.

Lauta said the PNR could only ferry as much as 150 people each run. But the trains, she said, were tapped for the program “for its high capacity, compared with buses that could only transport about 20 [people at a time due to physical distancing].”

As quarantine protocols were eased, the PNR resumed daily trips of commuter trains in June but only at 25-percent capacity within Metro Manila, Manila to Calamba City, Laguna, and Naga City to Sipocot in Camarines Sur.

Lauta said the coaches were regularly disinfected and train personnel tested to ensure public safety.

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In recent years, the government has been working on reviving the Luzon railway network to improve connectivity across the island. The latest station reopened was in Los Baños, Laguna, although Lauta said the train for that section was undergoing an “outfitting.”

“The [special trips] served as a barometer for us to see that the rail track up to Bicol was working and could be used,” she said, adding that the rehabilitation of tracks continued despite delays in the delivery of train parts due to supply chain disruptions. —WITH A REPORT FROM REY ANTHONY OSTRIA

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TAGS: Bicol Express, Celeste Lauta, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus Philippines, COVID-19, PNR
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