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.