(Second of two parts)
Why is running a railway a losing proposition? For one, railways, except those very dense networks that the Dutch colonizers built for the Indonesian island of Java or that which the British Raj built for the Indian sub-continent, can only serve customers as far as where the rails go. How can a railway break even when the train is forced to reach and stop at out of the way places where passenger take-up is minuscule? Railways have a high break-even point — to be profitable, ridership must at least equal the passenger take of airlines departing for like destination.
Now consider that railroads are 19th century in origin. Compared to paved macadam roads, railways are easier to build, even through jungles. High capacity trains, though, need railways that are gradually inclined and have curves that are gently radiused. The rails have to be stronger in order to take the weight of a large steam engine on multiple large steel wheels. The steam engine, meanwhile, has to be tough and heavy itself because it has to store the “fuel” (coal), along with the gigantic steam boiler subject to high temperatures and pressures and thus made of heavy-duty metal. Steam engines serve as prime movers for long trains of many coaches or freight rolling stock. Since the locomotive is used to pull a lot of weight, it also serves as the anchor/counterweight for the rest of the train.
Even today’s electric and diesel-electric locomotives still have to weigh a lot because of the traction needed when climbing or towing a long load of freight cars. Today’s commuter trains distribute the traction motors to every “bogey” or paired set of axles so that weight and traction are equally distributed and changes in direction of travel need not entail turning the whole train around. This is seen as better and more versatile than one big powerful locomotive hauling several coaches.
Unlike highly robotized truck and car plants abroad, train manufacturing, specifically in China, still retains a lot of human labor with work practices dating back to the Edwardian era. The design bias is still of the mantra that “heavy is sturdy”, hence the need for heavy lifting equipment in train factories. The high manual labor input is a big burden in high labor cost Europe, which is why a lot of the traditional train makers have either closed shop or are on subsidy drip feeds as the labor unions and the state believe that keeping domestic train making, even at high cost, is a strategic necessity.
Francis Yuseco’s PHILTRAK
Investment banker and RBT – Rapid Bus Transit PHILTRAK circa 1989 – inventor Francis Yuseco exposed that the Metro Rail Transit 3 and the Light Rail Transit 1, financed by a so-called grants at concessionary rates, came with an exorbitant 300 percent interest rate because it partly financed keeping the train making factory in Belgium (or Czech Republic) open. With many tradition-bound countries wedded to the idea of keeping their local train makers alive, the train making industry has suffered from dwindling orders and overcapacity. The more aggressive train makers in Japan, Korea, Canada, France, Germany and China, meanwhile, have embraced the latest technologies used in the aerospace and automotive industries.
Where does RBT or BRT (bus rapid transit) fit in this scheme of things? As a hybrid, RBT uses pneumatic-tired buses, instead of railway rolling stock or rail cars. Many RBTs are powered by overhead electric catenary systems familiar to trams and trolley buses. Buses cost less to make than heavy engineering rail cars as buses are already a generic product made in the millions. In some of parts of our country, buses can be made by rudimentary welding body shops, which is impossible with rail cars.
The key element that makes RBT attractive is that — like a traffic-free railway — it uses an exclusive guideway. Contrast this to regular bus services that are just as stuck with all the private cars on regular urban roads despite priority lanes. For governments, RBT is quicker to implement and far cheaper to finance, build and operate. Considering the ink on the long term operations contracts of the MRT-3 and the LRT-1 is still fresh, Transportation Secretary Art Tugade, realizing the high finance cost of railways, wanted to follow Xiamen’s lead and studied junking the government-owned LRT-2 to convert it to PHILTRAK, the original RBT concept. Alas, the LRT-2’s guideway is narrower than the LRT-1, making it less than ideal for RBT conversion. Meantime, PHILTRAK has had a rebirth as a micro-economy along the proposed 5,000-km Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao Federal Trackway, which will use the Department of Science and Technology’s Road Train, that includes freight besides passengers and reorganizes all informal trackside dwelling communities into employment-rich farm support facilities or Trackway-dependent economic units.
Ideal isn’t the reality
An ideal world is where all forms of transportation – air, water, rail, road, coach/bus, private car, cable car, motorcycle and bicycle – have easily weighed compromises, trade-offs and cost/benefit analysis so each user can come to an intelligent decision. It is a given that safety, comfort and convenience should be the same as each can possibly be for all forms of transport. The traveler/commuter’s decision will boil down to his/her preference or mood while duration, cost and safety are taken for granted.
Take the case of two advanced and neighboring economies, Britain and France. Getting to either’s principal city is almost just as fast from city center to city center. A flight from London City airport to Paris Orly, including, transfers to the city center, takes just as long as via the Eurostar high speed train that leaves St. Pancras, London, goes through the Channel Tunnel and arrives at Gare du Nord, Paris. Total cost? Almost par. A private car journey, whether one crosses the Channel by tunnel or ferry, will take far longer and cost far more.
If you want to take a ride, then, you’d perhaps rather have the government be taken for that ride. Despite this, train fares will continue to be cheap because governments still believe that a greater majority benefits from rail, justifying subsidies for the industry. But isn’t this a confused chicken and egg situation – i.e. many take the train because it’s cheap but the true cost is actually recovered by higher taxes? The reciprocal to this is that if train fares are raised to break even point and taxes lowered, ridership falls.
Witness the low ridership of the MRT-3 on inauguration in 1999. Then President Joseph Estrada slashed 70 percent of the fare, resulting in ridership that was way in excess of capacity at 130 percent. Still, if and when train services get to be so good, one would choose to take the train and leave one’s car at home to preserve it for those nice long unstressed weekend/vacation drives. It’s really not a difficult trade-off when you think of it. Go by rail or better yet, hybrid rail like RBT/Federal Trackways, and you actually get paid to ride. Go buy your private car and you are paying for everything while you go, along with everyone else who travels by rail.
To be continued
Tito F. HERMOSO is Autoindustriya’s INSIDE MAN
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org