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What if Manila decided to build its first subway back in the 1970s?

September 2017
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There is something about the counterfactual that is attractive to me. While I do not have formal training as an historian, I like to dabble in history and particularly about the what-could-have-been. It started with a book I read about counterfactual military history with various articles written by prominent historians who put forward scenarios including that on Thermopylae, Pearl Harbor, and the Vietnam War. I have found it a good exercise in analysis that is along the lines of chess analytics where one move may lead to another in response. Applying this to transport was quite a natural thing and we take a look at some information from the Feasibility Study for what was proposed in 1973 as the first subway line for Metropolitan Manila.

Proposed schedule for the 3-stage construction of RTR Line 1, most of which would have been a subway connecting Diliman, Quezon City with the University Belt in Manila and ultimately the airport in Paranaque.

Stage 1 between UP and FEU could have been operational as early as 1983 but typical delays could also have led to service starting in 1984 or even later. According to some critics of the LRT Line 1 that was built instead of the RTR Line 1, Marcos decided against the subway after being convinced by his advisers that the line could not be completed before Singapore finishes its own first line. A story is told that Marcos didn’t want Lee Kuan Yew to have the satisfaction of having Southeast Asia’s first mass transit line so the former opted for the elevated LRT instead. What really happened though was Singapore started operating its SMRT North-South Line in 1987, after what was also a long period of planning, decision-making and construction. It can be argued that the Philippines could still have completed at least 10 kilometers of the RTR Line 1 and at most 15 kilometers by 1987. Even a revolution in 1986 could not have doomed this project given its benefits that we could have reaped over the long-term.

Proposed stages of construction for the RTR Line No. 1 – whichever alternative could have led to the completion and inauguration of a substantial segment by 1983/84, well ahead of Singapore’s first line.

 

Artist’s conception of what an RTR Line 1 platform could have looked like. The trains look like a typical Tokyo Metro train. There’s some humor here as you can see the route map at right and the direction sign at top left referring to the Manira (Manila) Air Port.

As you can see in this rather simple (note: not included are discussions on the financial & economic aspects of this project) exercise, Metro Manila could have constructed the RTR Line 1 more than 3 decades ago. Even with the political upheavals in the Philippines during this period, it can be argued that Marcos and his version of the “best and the brightest” could have pulled it off and come up with the country and Southeast Asia’s first subway line. Most of the decision-making, planning and construction would have been during Martial Law when the Marcos had quite a firm grip on power. So he and his apologists have no excuse for this failure to potentially revolutionize transport and take Metro Manila to the next level in terms of commuting. That failure ultimately led to the current transportation situation we have in what has grown to become Mega Manila.


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