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Resurrecting the Bicol Express

April 2012
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Part of our recent field visit at the PNR included a tour of the depot where the maintenance and refurbishing works are undertaken. Among the cars we saw were those intended for train sets to serve the recently revived Bicol Express. The service to Bicol was recently re-started with a once-a-day trip to Naga City in Camarines Sur, which was eventually extended all the way to Ligao, Albay. The revival hopefully could be the start of something big – a renaissance – for the once famed Bicol Express. For older people, this could be a nostalgic service while for younger people it could be an adventure of sorts. Perhaps it would be a welcome alternative to air and road travel to the region given that the PNR ROW offers a better view along the way into Bicol including breathtaking Vistas of Mayon Volcano, the Pacific Ocean, Lamon Bay, Ragay Gulf and the Bicol countryside. Unfortunately, for now Bicol Express trains travel mainly at night from Manila and so the views will come up only after Naga City, which the train reaches at around 6:00 AM in the morning, and from there proceeds to Legazpi City for the next few hours.

Diesel-electric locomotive that pulls PNR trains – unlike those I rode in Japan, Philippine trains are no electrified and have to be pulled  by locomotives.

Technical tours – our hosts were very gracious and generous to provide us with a grand tour of the depot and the rolling stock. Such tours help our students to understand railway engineering “from the source.” Perhaps some students may be inspired to join a rail company.

Sleepers – not referring to the rail ties but to the sleeper cars of this train, which has the family cabins consisting of 4 beds (0n 2 double-deckers) each cabin.

Side view – the same diesel electric locomotive, which is actually a mobile power plant. Diesel is used as the fuel for the engine that produces electricity to power the locomotive.

Upper deck – the cabins have 2 double deck beds with the upper deck bed having straps to prevent passengers from falling. While much of the PNR’s tracks have been rehabilitated, they are said to be still far from providing the smooth ride of their Japanese counterparts.

Hallway – our students pose for photo along the corridor to illustrate the space in a sleeper car. There is a small seat that can be unfolded from the side wall across from each cabin door. Perhaps this is not really for use by the conductor but an extra seat for groups having a huddle or individuals wanting a seat to get a good view from the other side of the train. There’s are thick curtains that serve to provide privacy for each cabin. Each car is connected to each other so it is certain that passengers from other cars may be walking along these corridors.

Wash room – the sleeper cars are equipped with washrooms and toilets for the long ride, amenities not usually found in most long distance buses serving the same corridor.

Dirty toilets? – not really because this train has not yet been put into operation. The amenities like toilets and sinks are part of the refurbishing activities, we were told. Of course, this would have to be validated by actual passengers who would, by now, have taken the Bicol Express trains to/from Bicol during these Holy Week holidays.

Conductor’s cabin – each car has a cabin assigned for the conductor or whoever is assigned to assist passengers during their journeys.

Double-deckers – the photo affords a better view of the double deck beds in a family cabin. The handles on the vertical bar on the center when pulled apart will reveal steps for persons to climb to the upper deck beds. There are also curtains for persons to have privacy particularly while sleeping or when sharing the cabin with other people.

Driver’s console – the controls for the train give a hint on how old this unit is, noting that it has been retired in Japan. I remember looking at similar dials and levers during my first visit to Japan in 1996 when we usually stood behind the cockpit to see how the train is operated.

Recliners – inside the cars are reclining seats that seem to be as comfortable as business class seats on airliners. I tried one of the seats and the cushions are still quite firm for something that’s more than a decade old. I couldn’t smell any traces of tobacco so I guess these were already sanitized. Smoking cars are quite common in Japan and seats and entire cars can smell of smoke that tends to stick to the furniture and your clothes if you happen to be in one during a trip.

Rotation – the seat can be configured so that groups may face each other. Many seat two people kind of like love seats perfect for snuggling on long distance trips. There are also pull-out trays for eating, writing or working on your computer to update FB status or tweet about the experience.

Entertainment – Yes, that’s a television set at the far end of the cabin. I can imagine that like in buses, the PNR will be showing some movies during trips to help passengers wile away the time. We were informed that big groups could actually take a car for themselves so it is also possible to have activities like workshops in the train. Perhaps groups could even have karaoke if they had the entire car to themselves.

Reserved – the seat numbers remind ticket holders which seat they are to take and the characters remind us where the trains came from. That’s a hook (for hanging your coat or other belonging) in the lower center of the photo.

Toilets – the toilets are western-style with support bars for those requiring stability and a paper towel dispenser for the convenience of passengers.

Toilets for PWDs and others – this has larger space for people requiring space including persons with disabilities, senior citizens, pregnant women and those with babies or small children.

No reservations – in Japan “Non-reserved” means that seats on the car are first come, first served. One could purchase either such seats or the more expensive reserved seats from the train station.

Executive class – the double deck cars containing Executive Sleepers or individual cabins for the Bicol Express

Airconditioned – the Executive Sleepers have air-conditioning, which is a requirement for all services of the PNR that is part of the attraction for passengers. Some cars were fitted with generator sets to supplement the power provided by the locomotives. Note again that the PNR lines are not electrified so power required for lights, aircon and other equipment have to be provided by these generators.

Dining car – the Bicol Express trains include dining cars like this one also being refurbished by the PNR.

The Bar – the car included a bar where people could have drinks. This feature of the train elicited a lot of questions and some excitement among our students.

Dining tables – there’s ample space for diners though we were not able to ask who may actually be allowed to use the dining cars. There are 4-seater and 2-seater tables in the car.

4-seaters – a closer look at the dining tables show comfortable seats and a good view from the window. Unfortunately, the Bicol Express trains travel at night so there’s really not much to see while in transit.

Singles – passengers may also opt to eat at the bar, especially for the case of individuals who might end up hogging a table and depriving groups of space.

Executive sleeper – the cabin has a bed that doubles as a seat. Note the foldable arm rests and back cushion by the window. Also, there is space for a small bag located at a more secure part of the cabin.

Lights and aircon – each cabin is equipped with a desk, adjustable lights and individual air-conditioning control for the convenience of the occupant.

Window seat – each cabin has a window and generous space for the individual. The same features are found on the cabins on the upper deck but I guess the view is better upstairs so these would be the choice cabins for the Executive Sleepers.

I look forward to finally riding the Bicol Express, perhaps with family or friends, as I visit relatives in Bicol (my mother hails from Sorsogon). Though I can ride the train to Legazpi City, Albay, it is just a short trip by bus from that city to my mother’s hometown. Of course, there are other cities of interest for me including Naga City, my father-in-law’s hometown and Legazpi where there are many attractions around. My father has told me a lot about the Bicol Express, which he took with his sisters en route to Sorsogon to wed my mother. And so, part of the attraction to the train is sentimental in nature.


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