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What they are not saying about UTSMMA and Metro Manila’s first subway line

My social media feed is suddenly filled with shares of articles (the same PR text apparently) from the Department of Transportation, its Secretary and his fans and local rail aficionados about the progress of the Metro Manila Subway Project, which is dubbed as Metro Manila’s first subway line. While these posts start and appear as factual narratives, they are silent about certain facts that the writers conveniently did not include as part of their narrative. Perhaps it is because they are currently allied with the son of the dictator who decided vs. building what could have been the country’s first subway line and a game-changer for commuting in the metropolis.

UTSMMA or the Urban Transport Study in Manila Metropolitan Area was completed in 1973 and was immediately followed by a Feasibility Study on the Manila Rapid Transit Rail Line No. 1 that was completed in 1976. Here’s a nice render of a subway station platform from that FS:

Two things that need to be said:

  1. Marcos decided against the subway line in favor of LRT Line 1 after being heavily influenced by a World Bank report and the succeeding MMETROPLAN (funded by the WB). It is also said that he wanted to have the bragging rights to the first mass transit line in Southeast Asia but Singapore’s first MRT line would finish ahead of Metro Manila’s if the Philippines pursued the subway. The latter was a late and fateful decision because commitment to the RTR Line 1 could have been made earlier and construction could have started ahead of Singapore’s (and likely finished ahead if there were no major delays).
  2. The corruption during the Marcos dictatorship led to succeeding administrations including the current being saddled by debt and unable to put up major transportation infrastructure such as a subway line for decades (this is already well documented so denial or refusal to understand is the burden of the denier – no logic or fact can can probably change such people’s views or beliefs) without piling up more debt.

That said, I would caution vs. delaying the subway project any further. It is already almost 40 years since a subway was due and though the alignment is totally different from what was planned in the 1970s, there’s potential here to revolutionize how people will commute in Metro Manila. It will only become more expensive to build in the future.

Is it really a golden age for railways in the Philippines? Or is it just a great catch-up?

The government and many railway fans in the Philippines have dubbed the construction and rehabilitation of railway lines as a “golden age of railways in the Philippines.” Many, especially those who have aspired for railway development in the country agree with this monicker.

But is it really a golden age or are we just playing catch-up due to the backlog of railway projects in the country? Rehabilitation, after all, means there was a period of deterioration, even neglect by the government (i.e., across several administrations starting from Marcos) that led to poor or discontinued services.

A “golden age” is defined as “a period in a field of endeavor when great tasks were accomplished.” Indeed, by definition we can qualify the current one as such but let me point out the facts from history that railways development in the country (both long distance and urban transit) started in the late 1800s before the revolution that led to declaration of Philippine independence from Spain in 1898, and while many of our revolutionary leaders were abroad, mainly in Europe where I’m sure they took the trains and trams to move about. Here’s a link to the website developed by a research program in the University of the Philippines that focused on mass transit development in what is now the Metro Manila area:

Website for the UP-EIDR program on railways development in Metro Manila

Since railway development in the late 1800s started from scratch, perhaps the current development is more of a “second” golden age for railways, and not ‘The’ golden age for railways. This wouldn’t have happened or won’t be necessary if we rehabilitated the tranvia after WW2 or allocated resources to preserve and maintain the PNR and other lines like how our Southeast Asian neighbors did to their own railways. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have enviable railways including preserved, operational steam locomotives that are now practically moving museum pieces. But since we are into catching-up and there’s been significant progress on this end, perhaps the right term shouldn’t be “Golden Age” but “Renaissance”. It’s actually quite a catchy phrase “Railway Renaissance,” if you bother to consider it.

On preserving old transit systems

Many old cities have either retained or phased out their old road-level transit systems. I am referring mainly to rail-based streetcars rather than road-based ones such as buses. Even the indigenous types of road-based public transport may be phased out and usually in the name of modernization. Some though, like Singapore’s rickshaws and Manila’s calesas are still existent but you will find them either during odd hours or in tourist areas.

A good example of a city that has retained and preserved its transit system that is San Francisco in the US. The city still has a running cable car system, and its street cars maintained and operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). These are practically operational, traveling museums. The streetcars, for example, are of different models – a collection of streetcars from various cities around the world that have phased out this transit systems a long time ago. So it should not be surprising to see a different street car every time. And one could try to ride each one in operation while staying in city.

San Francisco’s cable cars are still operational and are used by people on their commutes

Here is an article about Kolkata’s (Calcutta’s) trams:

Schmall, E. (September 2, 2021) “Kolkata’s ‘Fairy Tale’ Trams, Once Essential, Are Now a Neglected Relic,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/02/world/asia/kolkata-india-trams-calcutta.html?smid=url-share [Last accessed: ]

What are your thoughts about preserving or phasing out these transit systems?

Nostalgia: On old photos of transport in the Philippines

I like browsing old photos on the Philippines. Of particular interest are photos showing transportation during the Spanish and American periods. I came upon this photo of a tranvia station at Plaza Goiti in front of Sta. Cruz Church. The church is still there though it looks very different from the structure in the photo below. This is probably due to the reconstruction and renovations done over the years (it was seriously damaged during World War 2).

 

The source of the photo is a collection I found on the internet. Note that if you clicked the photo, you will be taken to another site where you can view other photos as well. Meanwhile, here is a screen capture of the area from Google Street View:

Plaza Lacson with Sta. Cruz Church in the background to the left of the statue of former Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson

Plaza Goiti is now Plaza Lacson with a statue of the former Mayor of Manila standing in the open space. Of course, the tranvia is no longer there but there are buses and jeepneys as well as tricycles providing public transportation in the area. The population is also higher and denser than when the first photo was taken (ca. 1910) but it seems the Sta. Cruz district is still a walkable area. We hope it will remain to be so and more initiatives are taken to have more improvements or enhancements to encourage active transport as well as public transport use over private motor vehicles.

On the Boeing 747

We deviate from our usual topics that are mostly about land transportation to something about air transportation:

Waldek, S. (February 10, 2021) “How the Boeing 747 Changed the Way Airplanes are Designed,” Architectural Digest, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/how-boeing-747-changed-way-airplanes-designed?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=spotlight-nl&utm_campaign=aud-dev&utm_mailing=thematic_spotlight_021021_2&utm_medium=email&bxid=5bd6761b3f92a41245dde413&cndid=37243643&hasha=cf6c402001bc473063a8744033fe9be3&hashb=ec2bb753c2e6299f5107823241955221da67bd1f&hashc=09f65c608bfb62050199733de500e3cd82827631b36d537ce8386d41a3bd1ff7&esrc=FYL_SEG_APR18&sourcecode=thematic_spotlight&utm_term=Thematic_Spotlight [Last accessed: 2/14/2021]

My first flight on the Boeing 747 was back in 1996 when I first traveled overseas to Tokyo. I was booked on a Northwest Airlines (NWA) flight and the airline used B747’s on the regular flights between Manila and Narita. Later, I was on another Northwest Airways, JAL and Korean Air B747’s for homecoming trips and a trip to Seoul. While in Japan, I usually took the Shinkansen for long distance domestic trips. I even had the chance to ride Pakistan Air’s B747 that was a half passenger, half freighter plane. The flight between Narita and Karachi in the 1990s had a stopover in Manila that meant cheap tickets between Manila and Narita (also because passenger demand for the airline was not as high since PAL, JAL and NWA were the airlines of choice between MNL and NRT. I was even upgraded to Business Class en route to Narita the only time I flew on PIA in 1998.

Here’s a model of a Delta B747-400 we got from one of our trips. Delta acquired Northwest and its flights to Asia.

What if Rizal today was the same province it was back in the day?

I write this as a super typhoon is bearing down on us this 1st of November. I found this map on the internet without attribution to the original source. It shows a still-born Metro Manila with only four local government units: Manila, Quezon City, Pasay City and San Juan.

Map of Rizal province in the 1960s

What if instead of the Metro Manila we have now, Rizal retained the towns (that eventually became cities) that were transferred to what became the National Capital Region (NCR)? These are Navotas, Malabon, Caloocan, Marikina, Pasig, Pateros, Mandaluyong, Makati, Taguig, Paranaque, Las Pinas and Muntinlupa. Valenzuela was taken from Bulacan Province. Pasig was the capital of the province (Yes, that’s why there is Capitolyo and the Rizal Provincial Capitol used to be in Pasig where you now have Capitol Commons. Surely, the political landscape could have been different though one could argue that certain families would have still held sway in cities/towns where they have their routes. Imagine, the governorship of the province would have been a coveted post but not by the the current holders but likely by personalities from the more progressive and densely populated cities. Governance would have been different, too, as Rizal would have both highly urbanized and rural areas. Perhaps certain undesirable politicians could not have emerged due to the dynamics of a province with highly urbanized cities? What’s your take on this “what if”?

A little bit of history – on how the US interstate highway system came to be

Here’s one of those quick shares that I usually post here. I am a bit of a history buff and mixing that with transport will likely lead to a post like this. Here is a short article about an event in the history of the US Army that happened 100 years ago:

editor@aashto.org (2019) Celebrating Highway History: The US Army’s 1919 Cross-Country Convoy, aashto.org, https://aashtojournal.org/2019/07/12/celebrating-highway-history-the-u-s-armys-1919-cross-country-convoy/ [Last accessed: July 12, 2019]

The article was particularly interesting for me because of two items: the road conditions and the man behind the US inter-state highway system. It took them a little over 2 months to cross the continental US because of poor road conditions. Many people have no sense of history and appreciation of what has been accomplished over the years and how difficult it was to travel at the time. I haven’t done the cross country trip but I have close friends who’ve done it and are thankful for the generally good roads they could use for the experiential road trip. Meanwhile, the person in the article – then Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower – is a man who made his mark in history at first as the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in the European Theater in World War 2, who would later on become President of the US. I read elsewhere that the US interstate highway system was designed so aircraft may use them as runways in cases when the US were at war and the enemy had bombed their airports and airfields (just like what the Japanese did in the Pacific).

Do we have similar accounts for our roads and bridges in the Philippines? Were there key persons who may or may not be larger than life figures instrumental in developing our road infrastructure with their vision and leadership (Marcos doesn’t count because of his bogus military record and corrupt regime)? It would be nice to compile these and perhaps it should be a collaboration between the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and the National Historical Commission (NHC). They could even get the history departments of local universities involved for us to understand the evolution of transportation in this country.

Some snapshots of the PNR ROW along the way to Bicol

I promised to post about my trip and here are a few photos I took of the PNR’s right of way (ROW) showing the railways crossing with the Pan Philippine Highway (Asian Highway 26 or AH 26) at many points.

After traveling in the early hours of the morning, we finally got a good glimpse of the PNR’s south line that basically runs parallel to the national highway.

The single track line will actually go underneath the bridge downstream from where this photo was taken. I just couldn’t get a clear shot from our vehicle. I hope to get one on the way back.

Railway tracks are currently used as access to communities with dirt roads often running just beside the tracks.

Railway tracks leading to what looks like an area that still has a lot of vegetation. Note, too, what looks like check rails in the photo.

Railroad crossing signs along the highway – the standard one is obvious in the photo

Much of the PNR’s ROW has encroachments making it unsafe for modern railway operations.

An obviously unused (dormant?) part of the line in Quezon

The government plans to upgrade or rehabilitate the PNR’s Main Line South with the help of funding (and technical assistance?) from China. A colleague opined that maybe since the north line rehab is to be undertaken with the help of the Japanese, then perhaps the south should similarly be rehabbed with the help of Japan. That should ensure the same quality and standards will be applied throughout the system. What do you think?

More photos and stories soon!

PNR San Fernando, Pampanga

It’s Araw ng Kalayaan (Independence Day) in the Philippines so I thought it was appropriate to feature something related to Philippine history and heritage. Railways in the Philippines played a part in its history being a mode of transport that connected the provinces of major islands like Luzon and Panay. The other railways were more for freight (e.g., agricultural goods) rather than for passengers so the railways in Luzon and Panay, especially the former, had more impact on socio-political events including the wars of independence from Spain and later, the United States. One station that probably figured in the actions during those times more than a 120 years ago is the PNR Station in San Fernando, Pampanga, which was along the main line north that was used by Philippine revolutionaries to transport troops and logistics.

Following are photos of the station, which has been converted into a museum. The proposed revival of this northern rail line will mean that a new station will have to be constructed but it would be good to integrate the old one with the new. Those responsible should work towards heritage preservation in this and other cases of railway stations.

A bridge too far

I’m currently in the Netherlands and after fulfilling my responsibilities here, I decided to go on a trip to Arnhem. Arnhem was the site of one of the more memorable events during World War 2 when the British 1st Airborne attempted to take the Arnhem Bridge as part of Operation Market Garden. The drama that unfolded is told in the movie “A Bridge Too Far” where Arnhem was the titular bridge that was to be taken and held by the British. However, only Lt. Col. John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion made it to the bridge and had to defend it against a superior German force.

My first look at the historic bridge over a river branch of the Rhine

A view of the bridge from the platform in front of “Airborne at the Bridge” 

Airborne at the Bridge is kind of a museum with video retellings of the events pertaining to the bridge. It includes material of Operation Market Garden, which was a massive land and air operation that was supposed to lead to an end of the war in Europe before Christmas 1944. They also have a shop selling literature about Market Garden and the events of the bridge as well as souvenirs.

A memorial to Jacob Groenewoud who helped gather intelligence for the allies during the operations to take the bridge. He gave his life to this cause, falling after being shot by a German sniper.

Airborne Memorial – an old artillery piece is set-up as if targeting the bridge. This was the side the British held until defeated by the Germans after what was a costly battle. The British lacked supplies as ground forces that were to relieve them were delayed at other bridges before Arnhem.

A view from under the bridge

A view of the bridge from the end that was held by the British. There are now bicycle and pedestrian lanes on either side of the bridge, which is now called the John Frost Bridge.

There is a plaque and memorial on the bridge retelling what transpired there in September 1944.

Liberation route marker near the bridge

I had thought about going to Arnhem during this trip in The Netherlands. I am a military history buff and would have regretted it much if I wasn’t able to go to this site of one of the more dramatic events during World War 2. I picked up a few souvenirs at the memorial shop and will remember this experience quite fondly.