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From the time the first rail tracks were laid in the Manila-Dagupan Ferrocaril line in 1891 and the colonial train had its first commercial run, until today when the Mainline South (Bicol line) is being rehabilitated under much public anticipation, Philippine trains have been running for 120 years.

At the Tutuban Central Terminal in a bustling district of old Manila, the train journeys of the Philippine National Railways used to start or stop, to or from the north or south ends of Luzon, the largest Philippine island.

From the Manila center towards Baguio in the north, the line ended in Damortis, La Union while south line stopped in Legazpi City in the Bicol Peninsula. From here to there and back it carried people and their goods, their trade and livelihood. From here to there it ferried passengers and freight, towards beginnings and ends, transitions and celebrations.


The colonial Ferrocaril

Even near the end of the colonial era, when the Ferrocarril de Manila-Dagupan was established by royal fiat from the King of Spain, and when the world was not yet being shrunk by jet flight or electronic media, Luzon was certainly a formidably sized island to span. In this disjointed stretch of archipelago on the China Sea and facing the Pacific Ocean, for this one pioneering railroad in Asia, it was no mean feat.

  King Alfonso's decree on June 25, 1875 required Inspector of Public Works of the Philippine Islands to submit a railway system plan for Luzon. This was barely three years after the Cavity Mutiny, and the subsequent execution of the alleged brains of the mutiny, the priests Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora, more known in history as Gomburza.

This first inkling of a nascent Filipino nationalism coincided more or less with the very first important geographic linking of small trading points in Luzon. And this, ironically, by royal decree of the colonial overlord, the last person to appreciate any restless sense of country in his subjects.

Five months after royal decree was issued, the public works inspector of the islands, Don Eduardo Lopez Navarro, submitted his plan. It was titled, Memoria Sobre el Plan General de Ferrocarriles en la Isla de Luzón, and was promptly approved. On June 1, 1887, a concession for the construction of a railway line from Manila to Dagupan was granted to Don Edmundo Sykes of the Ferrocarril de Manila-Dagupan.

For some reason, this concession is later transferred to a Don Carlos E. Bertodano on July 8, 1887, who represented the Manila Railroad Company, or MRRCo. At the end of the same month, a cornerstone was laid for the building the Tutuban Station and Filipino workers started the construction of the Manila-Dagupan railroad.


First trains run as Revolution brews

At the end of the preceding year, in December 1886, Rizal finished writing the Noli Me Tangere, and was having misgivings he might not be able to publish it and it would remain unread. He was short of funds. His friend Maximo Viola came to rescue and financed the printing of 2,000 copies for P300.00 (today’s equivalent). Noli was published in Berlin in March 31, 1887 and shortly Rizal sent a copy to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt.

In 1891 the Ferrocaril opened its first commercial line to Bagbag in Pangasinan. Rizal had started on his second novel two years after finishing the first and he completed the second, a sequel titled El Filibusterismo, also in 1891. While Noli had a decidedly reformist and satirical tone, advocating education as a means of liberating the people, Fili advocated revolution, despite its ending. It was published in Ghent, Belgium, in 1891. Rizal dedicated the book to Gomburza.

As the first steel wheels of a locomotive rolled against the Ferrocaril and steam whistled from engine's metal innards, unrest was brewing in colonial Philippines. First, Rizal was deported by the Spanish authorities, and soon after, on July 7, 1892, Andres Bonifacio founded the Katipunan, a revolutionary organization. The next month, Bonifacio led the Katipunan members in tearing out their cedula, and the Philippine Revolution had begun.

Rizal was called back en route and was thrown into internal exile in Dapitan. On December 30, 1896, he was executed. His novels had sparked a revolution.
 

Between two colonial overlords

Barely a year after the opening of the first commercial line to Bagbag, the entire line from Manila to Dagupan is completed and put to commercial operations. The total length of the line was 195.4 kilometers. It was inaugurated on November 24, 1892.

In November 1896, the new north line was operating for at least four years when the revolutionary forces overtook it and interrupted rail traffic at various points.

Within two years, the Revolution was relegated to the sidelines when the two colonial overlords, the Spaniards and the Americans, transacted the Philippines as if it were a piece of chattel. This was the false Battle of Manila Bay, where the colonizers surrendered to another colonizer and not to the triumphant Filipinos. And the infamous Treaty of Paris, which concluded the sale.

The Revolution had, as it were, eaten its own children. Bonifacio was executed, together with his brother Procopio, under orders from Emilio Aguinaldo, winner of infighting in the Katipunan and the more influential or skilled revolutionary. As the Americans took over, Aguinaldo was in Hong Kong, heading the revolutionary government in exile.


Revolucionarios and Americanos ride the Ferrocaril

  As the Americans dug in with their colonial ambitions, Aguinaldo declared Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898 on the balcony of his house in Kawit, Cavite. On January 21, 1899 in Malolos, Bulacan, the insurgent First Philippine Republic was established, with the proclamation of the Malolos Consitution.

While hostilities between American troops and Filipino revolutionary forces began in February 4. 1899, the First Philippine Republic officially declared war on the United States on June 2, 1899.

Using the Manila-Dagupan railway, the Americans mounted their campaigns in Luzon and pursued Aguinaldo and his forces in Malolos, leading to major battles there. But the Filipinos themselves used the Ferrocaril transporting soldiers on wagon train from somewhere in Central Luzon to the battlefront. (Arnaldo Dumindin, http://philippineamericanwar.webs.com)

It is not known if Aguinaldo made use of the Ferrocaril, either on his way to Malolos or when he started his trek to his last holdout in Palanan, Isabela with the Americans on his heels. His capture on March 23, 1901 in Palanan effectively dissolved the First Philippine Republic.

The Philippine-American War officially ended on July 4, 1902 although Katipuneros like Macario Sakay continued fighting, and in Muslim Mindanao the Moros continued fighting for almost a decade.


Railroad expansion between world wars

The early 1900s saw the American colonial government overseeing the resumption of a more or less normal life for the colony and for its business and industry. On April 20, 1900, the US military authorities return the railroad to its owner; two years later, in July 1902, the US Congress authorized the Philippine Government to grant franchise and concession for the construction of public utilities and services.

Within the next decades World War I broke out in Europe but did not directly affect the Philippines as a colony of the United States. Sometime in this period, the Ferrocaril de Manila-Dagupan acquires an English name, the Manila Railroad Company (MRRCo.). In January 1917, the Philippine Government effects the final nationalization of MRRCo.  

Under the commonwealth government ownership, in the halcyon days before the country is embroiled in the next global conflict, MRRCo. expanded its railroad network to some 1,140 route-kilometers. On September 13, 1931, the first Bicol train is put into operation. Before the end of the decade, On May 8, 1938, the unified system of railroad from San Fernando, La Union in the North to Legazpi in the South was formally inaugurated.

World War II is generally considered to have started on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. It had been going on for almost two years in Europe when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, forcing the United States to join the War. The Japanese occupy the Philippines one year later and the Imperial Army takes control of the railway until the close of the War in 1945.


Devastation and modernization

Most of the improvements on the rail network are lost during the War. Of the more than a thousand route-kilometers of railroad before the war, only 452 route-kilometers were operational after it. On February 1, 1946, the US Army restored the control of the railway to the Commonwealth Government. On July 4, 1946 the American Government, never having recognized Aguinaldo’s declaration of Independence in 1898, granted its own version of Philippine independence. For several years after the War, work was undertaken on what could be salvaged of the railroad system.

Despite the post-war challenges, the Philippine railroad entered into the modern age. From 1954 to 1956, the Manila Railroad Company converted its fleet of trains from steam into diesel engines. Within the following decade, the Manila Railroad Company was given a new charter under Republic Act No. 4156, and the company changed its name to Philippine National Railways.

What follows would seem to be the golden era of the railroad in the Philippines. Although the War devastated most of its network, and barely fifty percent was rehabilitated, during the 60s and early 70s the train and the railroad provided the transportation backbone of Luzon. It had also become the wealthiest among government agencies in terms of assets, with such diversified investments and properties such as hotels, bus lines, and freight services.


Decline

In the decade of the 70s government priorities shifted and a pan-Philippine highway was built. And the railroad was relegated to its own backwaters as the buses and trucks and the much faster airliners took over. By the late 1990s to the present decade, PNR trains and the railroad looked battered and reeling from neglect, mismanagement, and typhoons.

In 1995, supertyphoon Rosing devastated much of the line between Lucena and Naga. It was restored one year later. Twice within the decade, on September 28, 1996 to be exact, nature sent Typhoon Milenyo to practically demolish San Cristobal Bridge and other PNR infrastructure in Quezon and Camarines Sur. A little more than two months later, on November 30, Typhoon Reming struck, and brought down Travesia Bridge in the Ligao-Guinobatan section, and most of PNR’s station buildings and communication facilities.

During the administration of Corazon Aquino, the North Main Line was closed, with trains unable to reach various provinces in the country. Even the South Rail was also closed due to typhoons and floods, and the eruption of Mayon Volcano in 1993, in which ash flows and lava destroyed the rail line and its facilities.


A second rehabilitation

After the devastation from World War II, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, and neglect, a second rehabilitation was attempted by the Gloria Macapagal administration. It began with the removal and relocation of informal settlers along the tracks and other PNR right-of-way.

An ambitious project to revive the North Mainline through foreign loans was undertaken but it was saddled with issues of anomalous arrangements with foreign financiers. What has finally been launched into service up to the present are metro-commuter diesel multiple units (DMUs) purchased from South Korea. During peak hours, these commuter trains maybe said to be patronized by the working populace of the Metro Manila more than 100 percent.

When President Benigno Noynoy Aquino III assumed the reins of government in 2010, he was fully aware of the plight of commuters as much as the state of public utilities. He vowed to alleviate both, including the PNR and its infrastructure. With the people’s will and the President’s support and inspiration, Philippine trains are running again.