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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.

Revisiting Daang Bakal, Antipolo

In a recent trip to a school located near Daang Bakal, I took the opportunity to ask my passenger to take photos of what used to be a railway corridor connecting Manila with Antipolo.

img_3945Section before the Victoria Valley gate (view away from the gate) along which is a community




img_3949One side of the road has been widened. The other has a lot of trees that would have to be cut or balled in order to build an additional lane.

img_3950Widened section towards the Parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

img_3951Section across the Parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary



img_3954Power and light posts are yet to be relocated away and clear of the carriageway after the road was widened

img_3955Many electric posts need to be relocated as they pose dangers to road users

img_3956Section towards Hinulugang Taktak gate – the fence on the left is to secure the national park’s grounds from informal settlers

img_3957Section across Hinulugang Taktak gate

One can only imagine how these places looked like many years ago when the Manila Railroad Company operated the Antipolo Line.

On Antipolo’s railway heritage – Antipolo Station

I open 2017 with a post on history and rails. A reader of one of my previous posts on Antipolo and its railway heritage was very generous to include some photos of what remains of the Antipolo Station of the old (shall I say ancient), defunct railway line that traversed what is now still called Daang Bakal. Those comments and links to photos may be found under the post on old railway lines here.

Here is a photo I found in the Kalye ng Antipolo Facebook page:


From what I see in the photo, this is a photo of the end station of the railway line that stretched from Manila to Antipolo via Pasig and Cainta through what is now Valley Golf and not via Ortigas Avenue as what some people are claiming. The last two stations were at Antipolo at Hinulugang Taktak, where the remains of the old station are well preserved and there is a historical marker, and at the area that is basically at the intersection of the Circumferential Road and San Jose Street, where the end station would have been closest to the shrine. I am also basing my assessment from the topographic features shown in the photo and the fact that there are three sets of railway tracks shown, indicating that this is also probably a depot for trains. Unfortunately, as mentioned by one of my readers, is in a state where it might soon be demolished due to the road widening project for the circumferential road. I hope the Antipolo government recognizes this important part of its history, its railway heritage, and perhaps help preserve what remains of the Antipolo Station and place a marker there for future generations to appreciate.

Antipolo Station of the old railway line

For readers who are interested in the old railway line to Antipolo, please look at the comments section of this old post from November 2012:

What if Manila retained its old railway lines?

Someone (Thank You!) posted about the Antipolo Station, which is the last one along the line and the station closest to Antipolo Church. While the remnants of the old station at Hinulugang Taktak is well preserved and safe (for now) from any future developments, what remains of the old Antipolo Station is now in danger of being demolished. Antipolo and the DPWH are widening the circumferential road located in the area and based on the dimensions of the sections already completed at Siete Media beside the Robinsons mall, the remains of the old station structure may be lost as well.

In my opinion, the city should preserve this part of its history that is also a part of our railway heritage. While such road widening projects may be important, retaining this piece of history is equally relevant as it provides us with a perspective of the past (i.e., how people travelled, what were their destinations of interest, etc.) and learn some lessons about this (e.g., why we should not have wholly abandoned rail for road transport).

Transport Planning in the Philippines (WB, 1976)

I know its been a long while since the posts on UTSMMA (1973), MMETROPLAN (1978) and other studies – past studies and plans concerning transport in  Metro Manila. It seems apt that I finally was able to finish this piece in time for the Philippines Independence Day. Sinasadya talaga. I left a question hanging about what caused the changes in mindset reflected in MMETROPLAN that practically did away with the proposed mass transit network in UTSMMA. Browsing other materials at the NCTS Library, I came upon a report that I thought would have likely influenced the MMETROPLAN study team as well as government officials at the time. This is the report that I think would be the vital link between UTSMMA and MMETROPLAN – for what happened between these two studies and why the “about face” when feasibility studies were already underway for what could have been the country’s first subway line. The World Bank published a report entitled “Transport Planning in the Philippines” in 1976. The report had recommendations that were not favorable to rail transport whether for long distance or urban applications. Some excerpts are shown in the succeeding photos of pages of the document:

IMG09229-20140905-0938Cover of the report indicating some disclaimers and restrictions to circulation. I assume that since a copy is found in a public library then it is already declassified. It is definitely a historical document and a valuable one if we are to understand transport in the Philippines and Metro Manila.

IMG09230-20140905-0943Scan of page 36 showing the WB’s assessment of UTSMMA

IMG09231-20140905-0943Page 37 states the conclusion of the WB report regarding UTSMMA.

I leave it up to the reader how he/she will interpret this but I think it is also important to contextualize this contents of this report to the situation of the Philippines at the time. In my opinion, too, it is basically one consultant’s word against another. From what I’ve learned, the recommended plan in UTSMMA came from a team led by a very senior and well-respected professor of the University of Tokyo’s Department of Urban Engineering. Looking back now, it seems that their work was visionary and its refuting by this WB report was a critical point in the (non)development of Metro Manila’s transport.

IMG09232-20140905-0944A reference to LRT systems, which to some will seem like a counter-recommendation to UTSMMA

The same report suggested taking a look at LRT instead of the heavy rail recommendations of UTSMMA. This eventually led to subsequent studies seemingly having bias towards LRTs and distancing from much needed resources to improve the plight of the PNR.

IMG09233-20140905-0945Recommendations for the long term were explicit about the importance of having a sound spatial strategy for Philippine cities.

One could only speculate what went on in the background that were off the record or not documented. Did the WB exert its influence and ‘convince’ the Philippines to shelve ambitious plans for a heavy rail network in favor of what we now know as ill-planned light rail lines? It is this same WB report that recommended for the reorganization of the then DPWTC and DPH into the DOTC and DPWH that we know today. Thus, it is not only transport policy and infrastructure influenced by this report but also institutions dealing with transport. One person’s guess is as good as another in terms of the thinking back then as there are very few people who were directly involved in planning and decision-making then who survive now and are likely willing to divulge anything that will lead us to the truth and some closure regarding what went wrong at this critical time for transport development in the Philippines.

The data and evidence points to something Marcos loyalists would cringe to admit, that the former President ultimately failed in bringing a modern public transport system to this country and its capital. [No, the LRT wasn’t as modern and progressive as they thought it to be back then. We know now that Lee Kwan Yew got it right by investing in heavy rail urban transit at that same time.] We can only speculate that perhaps the WB and those behind the scenes knew Marcos and his ilk would probably steal much of the funds that could have been allocated for the rail rapid transit system and so did their best to come up with the conclusion that it was too expensive and the Philippines couldn’t afford it. I hope my economist friends would correct me but I am leaning towards thinking that “Uutang ka na din lang, umutang ka na para sa imprastraktura na magagamit di lamang ng mga anak mo kundi pati na rin ng mga apo mo at nila.” This seems to be the basic philosophy applied by other nations that have invested much on their transportation infrastructure. Such infrastructure has already paid off many times more and are part of the backbone of strong and resilient economies.

One colleague offered the analogy that the new JICA Dream Plan for Mega Manila is actually an updated version of UTSMMA. I also believe so and it is an updated and much more validated version of what we had back in the 1970s that was at best only partly realized (the recommendations for roads were mostly implemented). However, the price for such infrastructure will not be cheap and it will only become more expensive while we procrastinate in building them. Perhaps this should be an election issue come 2016 and something that we should strongly advocate for from our leaders.

Metro Manila Urban Transport Development Plan (1990-2000) Project (UTDP)

I stumbled upon an unfinished draft I have on a study or series of studies conducted back in the 1990’s. These studies were conducted by several agencies over a decade. I think I have been procrastinating on finishing this brief post on a project that has had a major impact on Metro Manila transport and traffic since that time and prior to the completion of the JICA-funded Metro Manila Urban Transportation Integration Study (MMUTIS) in 1999. The project actually overlapped with MMUTIS’ implementation from 1996-1999 and probably influenced MMUTIS in terms of what government agencies provided as inputs to the study.

The Metro Manila Urban Transport Development Plan (UTDP) is an inter-agency collaboration among the DOTC, DPWH, MMA (precursor of the MMDA), NEDA, CHPG (Constabulary Highway Patrol Group of the Philippine National Police) and MTPC. This consists of various studies undertaken from the year 1990 to 2000 aimed to determine what projects can be implemented to improve urban transport in Metro Manila towards the turn of the century. Sounds familiar?

Among the most relevant studies conducted was the comparison of proposals for a mass transit system along EDSA. The two proposals compared were the Philtrak bus system and Street-level LRT. The Philtrak option is quite intriguing because its description is very much like the current bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in many cities around the world. However, there is no reference to bus systems already operating abroad at the time (e.g., Curitiba in Brazil already had an extensive BRT network at the time).

The study concluded that the Philtrak was preferable to the LRT along EDSA. Of course, we now know what got built along EDSA – a light rail system (EDSA MRT) that is now carrying more than twice the number of passengers it was estimated to carry. This is despite the conclusion from collaborating government agencies including the DOTC favoring the bus system with an exclusive ROW. It is also now obvious that neither the LRT nor Philtrak is most suitable as a mass transit system along EDSA. What is most appropriate is a heavy rail system that would be able to carry more passengers along the corridor.

[Reference: UTDP reports, 1999-2000, NCTS Library, UP Diliman]

The old railway station at Hinulugang Taktak

The Antipolo City Government recently re-opened the Hinulugang Taktak park to the general public. The National Park and its famous waterfalls have seen better days and is part of Antipolo lore, immortalized in songs and stories about the pilgrimage city. It has been rehabilitated with various initiatives the past few years and with the water again flowing strongly compared to the trickles of dirty water over a decade ago.

Somewhat lost in the promotion of Hinulugang Taktak is a piece of transport history. I am referring to the old railway station located near the gate to the national park. The most convenient and probably most comfortable way to Antipolo and its two main attractions, the Shrine of Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage and Hinulugang Taktak, many decades ago was by railway. Roads and road transport was not as good as today’s. There were no highways like Ortigas or Sumulong. There were no aircon buses, no jeepneys (yet) and cars and motorcycles were not affordable to most people.

IMG10125-20150214-1335Old sign? There is no formal historical marker for the former railway station at Hinulugang Taktak. I think the National Historical Commission of the Philippines should recognize this as a local if not national heritage site.

IMG10130-20150214-1338Trees notwithstanding, this is the view from what used to be the platform of the railway station.

IMG10132-20150214-1339An old drinking fountain that’s probably survived the passing of time and witnessed a lot about the old railway station and Hinulugang Taktak.

IMG10133-20150214-1339What’s left of the former railway station structure are the platform and columns.

IMG10134-20150214-1340Taktak Road was the old Daang Bakal or railroad. Much have changed since the glory days of rail with a line that connected Antipolo with Manila.

IMG10135-20150214-1341The view from the old entrance to Hinulugang Taktak in what also looked like the old railway station’s ticket office gives people (passengers?) a glimpse of the waterfalls.

IMG10136-20150214-1341The old entrance to Hinulugang Taktak.

Someone asked me before if I thought it was possible for old railway lines to be revived. I replied honestly that I thought it was possible but immensely difficult. For one, a lot has changed in the lands on and along which the old railways used to be. The old Daang Bakal, for one, now passes through private residential subdivisions and industries and is now comprised of busy roads. While nothing is impossible, to rehabilitate the old railways will be a great challenge in the financial and social sense. It would be nice to see realized but requires so much from so many people, agencies and local governments who need to commit to such a project. And it requires leadership and a talent for convincing people that it is the right thing to do and that it needs to be done.