THE Asia Pacific Rail Summit 2017, held March 21 to 22 in Hong Kong, covered innovation, technology and strategy for Asia Pacific’s rail industry. Plans to transform the future of rail in the region was also on deck, highlighting the One Belt One Road (OBOR), the digital railway of the future and country presentations from China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, India, United Kingdom, Taiwan, Japan and many more.
Listening to all the presentations highlighted the problematic history of rails in the Philippines and how bad management and corruption led to the demise of the once proud Philippine National Railways (PNR) as well as the plunderous acts done to MRT Line 3. New officials have been appointed to manage the Department of Transportation, PNR and the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA). The success of developing the rail system is now in the hands of Transportation Secretary Art Tugade, who was appointed with a lot of hype, only to be derailed, with the emergency powers proposal and delayed decisions on old contracts of private contractors on MRT1, the common station, among others. Nine months hence, we have not heard of Tugade. The PNR is now headed by former PNP chief Roberto Lastimoso as chairman while the LRTA is chaired by another former police director, Reynaldo Berroya.
The LRTA was created under Executive Order 603 on July 12, 1980. LRTA manages the LRT- 2 that runs from Santolan to Recto, and oversees the Light Rail Manila Corp., the private operator and maintenance contractor of the LRT-1 that runs from Baclaran to Roosevelt.
PNR was created under Republic Act 4156, giving it 50 years of corporate life that began on June 20, 1964. Republic Act 6366 amended the enabling law in August 1971, and among others, reiterated the role of PNR as a part of the national government’s infrastructure program. The third law, PD 7411, was amended in 1975 which, among others, reiterated that the viability of PNR operations must be ensured by the national government to enable PNR to render rail transport services for passengers and freight at the minimum prices possible. Both the LRTA and PNR are attached to the DOTr. Just in the nick of time, Congress and President Aquino enacted and signed, respectively, Republic Act 10638, extending the charter of PNR for another 50 years.
It is pathetic though to see PNR as a bodega of scrap metaland rotting service carriages. You would wonder what happened in the last 30 years because visiting the Caloocan depot, one can readily conclude that the pillage was too much and yet PNR is on its 125th year. Will there be an accounting done, if ever, on who destroyed PNR?
Solving the traffic nightmare of Metro Manila is tied to the full operation of the light railways system as well as that of the PNR. Another unused or underutilized system is the Pasig River. In developed cities, the water tributaries cutting across boundaries are traversed by ferries that cater for tourists, commuters and cargo. The Pasig can be developed by reorienting and reengineering the area. It can be a new metro project showcase just like in Singapore, Mumbai, Malaysia and Jakarta.
The future holds bright with rails. Imagine the country connected by railway for products and people; for destinations and travel via the western and eastern seaboard. Imagine a majority of Metro ns using the light rails, leaving their private vehicles at home. Imagine terminals where experience is the key and not just a loading platform of decrepit escalators and rest rooms. Imagine new townships in every stop. Imagine development brought to the second-tier cities. And the multiplier effect is also tremendous in terms of contribution to GDP and domestic economies.
In fact, the value proposition is such that the formula for sustainable management has been identified already, no need to reinvent the wheel. Take the case of MTR in Hong Kong, a “Rail+Property” long-term financing model, with property development profit filling the new railway funding gap. MTR also adheres to the transit-oriented development (TOD) planning approach where high-density mixed use development is planned above and around railway stations and depots. MTR’s model is so robust that today, rails and trains form just a portion of its business portfolio. Eighty percent of its total rental portfolio is in retail (covering 13 shopping malls), 15 percent offices and 5 percent others.
The DOTr, PNR and LRTA must sit together and formulate the masterplan. No 50-year plan can be made if we bid out and not award the contract as in the previous dispensation. One cannot just cancel contracts and not bother with consequences. Who would want to deal with government if contractual obligations are not fulfilled? And these agencies have to do better when it comes to asset management.
Remember, “nothing was more up-to-date when it was built, or is more obsolete today than the railroad station.” Mess it up today, scrap it will be just like we have now.