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

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.

Some thoughts on the Metro Manila subway project

The proposed Metro Manila subway seems to be well underway after months of studies particularly to determine the best alignment given so many constraints and preferences such as it being directly connected to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). A prominent opinion writer is obviously quite excited about the prospect of I also assume that most transportation planners and engineers in Metro Manila if not the whole country are also excited about this project. Commuters are definitely hopeful and many who have experienced riding metros abroad (e.g., Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, etc.) should be among those who look forward to using Metro Manila’s first in perhaps 5 years time.

The idea is not a new one as it is something that was actually thought of way back in the 1970s (perhaps further back?) when the precursor of JICA came up with the Urban Transport Study in Manila Metropolitan Area (UTSMMA) in 1973. The study was closely followed by a feasibility study for what was proposed as the Rapid Transit Railway (RTR) Line 1.

RTR Line 1 FSCover page for the MRTR Line No. 1 Feasibility Study (NCTS Library)

It was unfortunate, however, that the project was derailed (pun intended) after the World Bank came up with their evaluation of transport situation and transportation planning in the Philippines in 1976, which led to a counter-recommendation to have light rail transit instead of the heavy rail system proposed by UTSMMA. The latter report was followed closely by the WB-funded Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project (MMETROPLAN) completed in 1977. What really happened such that the “best and the brightest” in those days (Martial Law Philippines under Marcos) abandoned the subway for light rail?

While MMETROPLAN is often lauded as a comprehensive study of metropolitan Manila, many of its assumptions and recommendations should now be subject to scrutiny. These include the assumptions on land use (e.g., for the Marikina Valley and environs not to be developed, etc.) and recommendations for a light rail transit (LRT) network. Time and history provides us with new lenses and filters by which we could try to understand what was going on in the minds of those who did MMETROPLAN. Many of those involved including one prominent (some will say self-promoting) architect and a rather controversial transport planner who were young at the time still refer to MMETROPLAN as The Masterplan that should have been implemented. It obviously wasn’t and we now bear the brunt of opportunities lost because of the decisions made in the 1970s.

I don’t buy the argument of one prominent local transport planner who downplayed the UTSMMA plan as a juxtaposition of the Tokyo metro system to Metro Manila. A more reliable and grounded assessment was recently put forward by another transport planner who is also a geographer and an economist. He was recently in London where they have a comprehensive underground railway network (the London Underground as many fondly call it) and came to the conclusion that the Japanese were inspired by this network and went on to replicate this in Tokyo. This is not without historical basis since the Japanese sent a lot of their future engineers and planners to Europe especially England and Germany during the Meiji Restoration. And so it is not a stretch to think that the principles employed by the Japanese in recommending a heavy rail system back in 1973 is not necessarily just a copy of Tokyo’s but draws inspiration from European models as well. That could have been a game-changer 40 years ago when RTR Line 1 could have started operations and commuting in Metro Manila may not have become as hellish as it is today.

Melbourne’s transit system

One thing I always look forward to whenever I am traveling is to try out the public transport system of the cities I am visiting. My first day in Melbourne gave me an opportunity to familiarize with the city’s transportation including the trams and bikeways. Following are some photos I took as I went around the city center on-board their trams. I actually purchased a myki card but discovered a bit later that tram rides were free when you’re within the zone defining the city center. You only need to swipe or tap when you leave the zone where transit will charge the corresponding fares to your destination.

Tram passing by the stop where I decided to stand by to take a few photos while familiarizing with the network map.

Melbourne transit network map and information on priority seats

Inside the circle tram that goes around the city center

Typical transit stop

Vintage tram

Tram crossing an intersection

Modern transit vehicle

I found Melbourne’s transit to be quite efficient and the coverage was comprehensive enough considering the city was walkable and bicycle-friendly. This meant people had many options to move about and this mobility definitely contributes to productivity. More on transportation in Melbourne and Sydney in future posts.

Some thoughts on the proposed Metro Manila subway

The detailed design for the proposed Metro Manila subway is supposedly underway. Here’s a graphic of what the system may look like underground. I got this from the American Chamber of Commerce newsletter.

What is not shown, and which I think should also be emphasized, are the drainage tunnels that need to be constructed in relation to the underground transport system. Tokyo’s subterranean drainage, for example, are so extensive and spacious that it could handle the precipitation/runoff during rainy days so its subways are flood-free. Metro Manila stands to benefit much if similar drainage systems are built together with the subway. I think a lot of people can appreciate this feature of the subway nowadays when we all feel the impacts of the intense monsoon rains (Habagat) not to mention the typical typhoons that come our way. The subway’s construction may be seen not only from the transport perspective but also as an opportunity to improve the metropolis’ drainage system.

MRT 7 on the way

The construction of the much-delayed Line 7 is underway. Hopefully, this project will be completed and be operational (or at least partly) before the end of the current administration. This would be one of the game-changers in terms of commuting along a corridor that has steadily increased in population and therefore travel demand. The ultimate end of the line in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan also means it will be serving relocation communities, many of whom are employed in Metro Manila and have to travel every weekday using buses, jeepneys and vans. Following are photos we took along the Commonwealth in the Fairview and Litex areas.

Construction is underway and this means traffic congestion as the number of lanes along either direction of Commonwealth Ave. has been reduced to provide space for the staging areas of the project.

A column going up near the rotunda near Litex Market

MRT Line 7 worksite along the Commonwealth Avenue median is secured by lines of barriers cum fences on either side of the median.

These full-grown trees in the middle of Commonwealth will be or already removed

What has been a green row in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue will give way to an elevated railway line. I sure hope the proponents do some landscaping after the structure is built to restore the greenery.

More updates on the project soon…

Construction starts for the Line 2 Masinag Station

After several months of waiting, the Masinag Station of the Line 2 Extension project will finally start construction. The contractor has already mobilized and very soon the actual construction work will be starting. Following are photos I captured via my dash cam:

The contractor, DMCI, already installed temporary traffic signs from Masinag Junction.

The contractor, DMCI, also already installed concrete barriers to delineate their staging area for the project.

This is the likely location of the elevated Masinag Station; right across SM City Masinag and Cornell Hospital.

Masinag Station will probably be the highest station for any railways in the entire country judging from the height of the elevated tracks. I have yet to see the plans for this station but it should be a challenge in accessibility. How many steps would it take to go up or down the station and the platforms? How will, and will it be integrated with the surrounding developments like SM?

The Antipolo City Government’s official Facebook page already announced the official ceremony starting the construction to be held on May 30, 2017 (Tuesday). The advisory also cautioned travelers about the traffic congestion expected in the area affected by the construction. Masinag is a major junction where Marcos Highway and Sumulong Highway intersect. Construction period will be 18 months or 1.5 years but given the efficiency by which the same contractor was able to complete the elevated tracks, I am optimistic that they may be able to complete Masinag Station in less time. I wonder though if the ceremony tomorrow also includes the start of construction for the Emerald Station across Robinsons Metro East in Pasig. Let’s just hope that the Line 2 Extension will be operational by end of 2018 and be able to help alleviate the traffic woes along its corridor. This will definitely help improve the transport to the east of Metro Manila and directly benefit those from Antipolo and Cainta in Rizal, and Marikina and Pasig in Metro Manila.

Landscaping for the LRT Line 2 Extension

A friend posted about the removal of trees along the median of Commonwealth Avenue as part of the construction of the MRT Line 7 in Quezon City. Many if not all trees in the Fairview area have been cut or balled. A similar thing happened during the construction of the Line 2 Extension from Santolan, Pasig City to Masinag, Antipolo City. All the plants and trees along the median island were removed to give way to the construction of the elevated tracked of Line 2. Recently though, as the median has been cleared of construction materials and equipment, landscaping work was implemented. This makes sense considering there is enough space to make the area underneath the elevated tracks green. Trees and other plants can grow here providing a natural barrier for traffic as well as to improve the overall environment along Line 2.

Following are photos taken as we passed by Marcos Highway, taken a few weeks ago. Some of the plants have survived and but many seem to have simply dried up. Wha seems to be the early arrival of the wet season should help bring life to the plants under the elevated tracks of Line 2.