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Bicol Express Run Delayed - INQ

NAGA CITY--With funds coming in trickles, making the southbound train run from Metro Manila to Bicol has been a daunting challenge to Manuel “Ower” Andal, general manager of the Philippine National Railways (PNR).

Andal said the PNR originally targeted to open the railway lines to the region by yearend, but it had to be reset for March next year.

Consequently, a plan to reconnect the southbound line from Tagkawayan town in Quezon to Naga City in Camarines Sur must also be delayed, he said.

The Bicol railway line stretches for 377 kilometers from Metro Manila to Naga, with travel time taking about seven hours. It was closed in 2006 when Super typhoon “Reming” ravaged the region.

Commuter system

The commuter operation will expand with the rehabilitation of the railway lines to other towns going to northern Quezon and south to Legazpi City in Albay. A rail bridge was washed out by Reming in Travesia, Guinobatan town in Albay.

Andal said the railway line from Manila to Naga had yet to be repaired. But he stays optimistic that the PNR could start its services in Bicol one step at a time through the commuter system.

A test run has been scheduled during the Feast of the Peñafrancia on the second week of September, to serve the towns of Pamplona, Libmanan and Sipocot.

Andal explained that making the train run would enforce maintenance of the railway tracks and evaluate the PNR’s new systems, personnel and train stations.

The PNR station in Naga is being renovated at a cost of P24 million. Three other stations – Iriga City, Libmanan and Sipocot, all in Camarines Sur – are to be remodeled within the year.

Andal said local contractors were tapped to do the construction work, including the refurbishing of coaches that are still stable and in good condition.

He hoped that the government’s move to tap the Export-Import Bank of China was being supported so that total rehabilitation of the PNR railway lines and facilities could be done.

Feasibility study

According to the National Economic and Development Authority, the feasibility study of the railway operation in Bicol was completed in 2004.

Hinged on the Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan 2004-2010, the study recommended a two-phase project. The first phase involves the rehabilitation and reconstruction of 89 percent of the southbound railway tracks from Calamba City in Laguna to Legazpi, or a distance of 422 kilometers. It is estimated to cost $627.8 million.

The second phase connects the roll-on, roll-off infrastructure of the Arroyo administration. The study recommends the construction of a 112-km new rail line extending to Matnog town in Sorsogon (takeoff port for the Visayas and Mindanao) from Legazpi. It will cost the government $304.2 million.

The PNR southbound railway system reached Legazpi from Manila in May 1938. It stretches 479 km, traversing the provinces of Laguna, Quezon and Camarines Sur.

Through the years under the Marcos dictatorship, the PNR suffered great losses that destabilized its north and south operations.

In 1973, major floods closed a portion of the north railway. Two years later, Legazpi was cut from the railway system when flood destroyed a rail bridge in Camalig.

Recovery

After the Edsa I uprising, the situation of the PNR services worsened with the southbound train getting no further than Naga.

When former president Fidel Ramos took over the reins of the national government, the PNR experienced a recovery. The Asian Development Bank lent the national government P1 billion to finance the rehabilitation of the southrail to Legazpi.

New coaches were also acquired.

During the administration of then president Joseph Estrada, the PNR acquired from Japan 12-year-old coaches disposed after the country’s main line railways were converted to the present standard gauge.

Under the Arroyo administration, the rehabilitation of the PNR continued through various investments and projects designed to revive the rail transport.

With estimates of close to $1 billion to fully expand and revive the southbound railway services, it remains to be seen when the “Bicol Express” would again chug its way from Metro Manila to the region.

By Juan Escandor Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:17:00 09/09/2009

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