Duterte’s railway dreams

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The SONA was undeniably serpentine in form, meandering in pace, and predictably larded with promises. President Duterte vowed to address global warming, and to fight corruption, criminality, and drugs. He promised to forge peace with Communist and Muslim rebels, improve disaster response, and fortify measures to combat terrorism. He promised to protect indigenous peoples’ rights, and promote strategies to uplift the poor, including the full implementation of the Reproductive Health Law. While it is not surprising that these pronouncements, some supported more by strong conviction than substantial programs, were greeted with cynical eye-rolling, criticism in general has been muted. Even the off-script portions delivered in Tagalog and Bisaya, which were blighted by floundering sentences, somehow came across as heartfelt and authentic, and were met with appreciation rather than derision.

The appeal, it seems to me, did not lie in the promises – a politician’s knack for making and breaking promises is soul destroying – but in the ambitiousness of the message and the credibility of the messenger. Take, for instance, the President’s plans to build a national railway system. He talked of transit systems for Davao and Cebu, railway networks on Mindanao and Panay Island, and one that would link Manila to several points in northern and southern Luzon. “Hindi ako nagyayabang” he said,“pero totoo talaga ‘to…six years, lalabas talaga ito. I assure you because it’s going to materialize.”

Of course it’s not clear just how these rail projects will be completed in six years, nor how the money and engineering expertise will be secured. If Chinese money is brought in, as it is being bruited about, any future negotiations regarding the South China Sea disputes are going to be super tricky. The point is, no other Philippine president in recent times has shown quite so much enthusiasm toward building a truly national railway. Why is this so important? Because railways connect a country’s cities, towns and villages, efficiently and swiftly transporting goods and people. Railways are the proud hallmark of an industrialized nation. That President Duterte grasps this is interesting and exciting.

Railways were part and parcel of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. At the cutting edge of rail transport in the mid-nineteenth century, Britain unveiled the Liverpool and Manchester railway in 1830, an inter-city passenger rail service which provided terminals and scheduled arrival and departure times that stood as a model emulated by the world.


In the US, the 1940s and ‘50s were the heyday of the Super Chief, a magnificent train that crossed the continent from Chicago to Los Angeles. In the 1960s, Japan was the first to introduce a high-speed rail service, the Shinkansen or bullet train, which today operates on 2,664 km of track and reaches a top speed of 320km/h. Germany, China, France, and Spain have followed suit and possess the world’s best high-speed rail services.

It took almost 200 years before the idea of an undersea rail network linking London with Paris became a reality. The Channel Tunnel, which took six years to build, is truly a remarkable feat of engineering: the resplendent high-speed Eurostar train runs through a tunnel that was constructed by boring into a layer of Cretaceous limestone, 75 meters at its deepest point below the seabed. The track that had to be laid down is 50.5 km in length.

Train travel should be a barometer of a civilized life and at its best it can be. The Caledonian sleeper train I recently rode is an overnight train that leaves London’s Euston station and arrives in the Scottish highlands early the following morning. Economy class has wide reclining seats, much wider than airplanes, and first class cabins have beds dressed with luxurious sheets. There is a lounge car for snacks and drinks, and the meals show off the food of Scotland. There is salmon, venison, cheeses from the islands of the Hebrides, and single malt whiskies. The changing scenery is a picture book of Britain. The train speeds through city suburbs, concrete wastelands, gentle hills dotted with sheep, and craggy mountains cloaked in mist.

President Duterte hopes to build a railway network connecting the towns and villages of South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos. Will the architecture of the main train station in Davao be strikingly grand? Will the forests, mountains, and lakes of Mindanao come into view during such train journeys? Will Mount Apo or Mount Matutum be seen in the distance? Will passengers enjoy meals composed of tuna lechon from General Santos, fresh pineapples and jackfruit, halal delicacies from Cotabato City, T’boli cuisine such as nélut, the chicken stew cooked inside bamboo cane, and sip laksoy, the distilled nipa sap liquor from Caraga? If this is President Duterte’s railway dream, then it is a dream we should all share.

Rail travel is not just for the rich but for everyone. When there is a national railway system that runs on time, with reasonably priced fares, and gets people and goods to their destinations smoothly, then a government is doing what it is supposed to be doing. Because when passenger trains can travel in safety and tranquility throughout Mindanao for example, the island’s citizenry will be enjoying a standard of prosperity, the fighting between government troops and Muslim rebels will have ceased, and there will be peace.

rachelagreyes@gmail.com

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7 Comments

  1. Don’t worry Rachel, if China builds the train network for us, the south China sea issue won’t be a tricky one, nor a problem. For one, ruling was not really issued by the International Court of Justice, nor The Permanent Court of Arbitration as our ex president and ex foreign Secretary would like us to believe. You can check the ICJ website (distancing itself and the PCA, which merely gave secretarial assistance) regarding this matter. So, it will be back to joint exploration win-win as before.
    China and Japan use different standard. China has around 20,0000 km length of high speed rail, and will add 30,000 km more by 2020 (excluding the non high speed rail) against japan’s 3000 km (high speed rail).
    All ASEAN countries high speed rails, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, myanmar were and are being built by China. China’s plan is to interconnect all of Africa, Europe and Asia thru its One belt, one road (OBOR) plan. China has built almost all (and currently building) railways all over the world using standard gauge. China’s rail is longer than the total rail in the world combined. China rail is already operating up to Western Europe passing thru Russia and eastern Europe. And the Philippines can be connected to this network thru Mindanao going thru Malaysia.
    I hope our president takes into consideration all the above (I believe he already has) in coming up with his decision.

  2. The sorry thing is the Railways should of been built along time ago. What has stopped them, single minded Presidents before being more interested in Stealing during there term and making as much money for their families! The 40 richest families under Aquino grew there wealth during his term to $70 billion DOLLARS! a 70% increase. Duterte is A President for the poor, for the wealthy and for the whole of the Filipino people. I wish him God Speed that he can get the things done. But to truly get the Philippines into a proper! country he needs to STOP the corruption at the Top down. Having big money should not stop the guilty going to jail. He needs to overhaul the entire justice system. He needs to STOP the imports of drugs. Killing the dealers, the users makes no difference if you cannot STOP the drugs coming into the country.

  3. There is a less complicated way: government borrows and build them itself. But of course it will increase government debt stock and debt to equity ratio. Yet, how bad really is it to increase our debt to equity ratio approximating that of, say, Japan or the US, to finance our infrastructure development?

  4. WHY rely on Chinese money? Du30 should compel the elites, those 40 Billionaire families controlling RP economy to bankroll the Nat’nl Railway, or else their useless giant malls and business empires will be sequestered by Gov’t until they do. The railways of these countries you mentioned were funded by their own bankers.

    A huge loan from China is too dangerous a proposition, any defaults on a payment they will seize Luzon, or even the entire RP.

    • What would China do with the Philippines?

      What does Philippines have besides poverty and corruption?

  5. I wish Pres. Duterte will push railway projects thru PPP so we can see the elite real effort and nationalism to industrialize this country and not just privatizing income-generating govt. corporations with sovereign guarantee pa. Although it will take decades to plan, develop and construct, railways from Ilocos -Cagayan Regions to Bicol Regions catering to different class of travelers with large segment for cargo hauling of agricultural and industrial products will attract million of FIlipino travelers and businessmen as time goes. Mindano, too, from Zamboanga to Surigao, Cagayan de Oro to Davao, with connecting railways from other large cities and towns (population and business, wise) are attractive too, to real capitalist an industrialist,

  6. vagoneto rieles on

    The ‘Bicol Express’ and the ‘Panay Railroad’…rickety and decrepit as they were…were still operating up until the early 1970s. None of the six Presidents, since then; and, before this one serving now, have talked…much less did anything about…these facilities’ enhancement or maintenance. These valuable components of an all-important country infrastructure were simply allowed to rust and waste away. A good part of it might have, already, been cannibalized and sold for scrap even as we write; as were the rail-tracks of most sugar centrals and sugar-cane milling districts so destroyed, when the ‘sweet’ sugar industry turned ‘sour’. (Then again, much of it might still be saved if swift action were to be taken now).
    President Duterte did not indulge in empty bombast when he talked of railroads, in his ‘SONA’. Firstly, any self-respecting nation will acknowledge the absolute importance of an efficient and reliable mode of transport for people and commodities. Sri Lanka… a country of 20 million and, less than half the size of the Philippines…currently relies on over 1500 kilometers of railroads. Cambodia, with just 15 million people has over 600 kilometers…and a central station the size of a ‘mega mall’. Secondly, it is proven that it takes less than one gallon of diesel to move one ton of cargo to a distance of 500 kilometers; (can any trucking company make half, or even just a quarter of this performance?).
    For the good of the country, President Duterte should not feel sorry for the loss the ‘freight trucking’ companies might incur; rather, he might rejoice for the savings that the farmers, manufacturers and sundry ‘shippers’ will realize.
    So…please, go for it Mr.President. Rebuild those railway systems.