By Augusto V. de Viana, Ph.D
National Historical Institute
Most countries—rich and poor—take pride in their railways system. The train provides a fast, inexpensive and comfortable system of transportation. It helps reduce road traffic and contributes to cleaner air. Developed and developing nations have also found the railways to be a great national unifying force and a solvent for class divisions.
The Philippines is one of the rare countries that has not built a strong, reliable and modern railways system. Blame it on poor government planning, skewed priorities and the automotive-bus lobby. The service has deteriorated through the years, beginning in the sixties and seventies. Yet the first Philippine train service started in the Spanish colonial era, about 115 years ago, when Filipinos could travel from Manila to La Union, and back. Today, one is lucky to reach Malolos, Bulacan, by train.
We asked Dr. Augusto de Viana of the National Historical Institute to write this paean—and lament—to the national railways service to commemorate the launching of the first Luzon railways service on November 24, 1892.
ONE of Spain’s tangible legacies to the Philippines was the introduction of the railroad. Compared to the churches in the country, the first railroads in the Philippines were not initiated by the religious orders or the Spanish government but were funded by private capital.
The first railway was a short one, the Manila-Malabon railway. It was owned and operated by the Compaña de Tranvias under Jacobo Zobel Zangroniz. Consisting of four German-made locomotives and eight nine-passenger coaches, it was formally inaugurated on October 20, 1888.
The rail line served Malabon, which was already prosperous because of its cigar-making factories, bangus culture and a large sugar mill owned and managed by British businessmen. The end of the line was Tondo, then the country’s commercial capital. Its terminal was a simple two-story wooden structure with the first floor serving as waiting area. The Malabon end was located at the roadside under an acacia tree where the conductor sold tickets. The trains had three classes: first class, for 20 centavos; second class, 10 centavos, and third class, 5 centavos.
The colonial government decided to hop on the railway bandwagon as early as 1875 when Madrid sanctioned a project for the Philippines. A committee headed by Eduardo Lopez Navarro called for the building of three railway lines. The first was the Manila-Dagupan line which crossed the fertile central plain of Luzon through the Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac and Pangasinan. This could be extended far north to Laoag, Ilocos Norte.
The second was the Bicol line which was to pass through the southeastern coast of Laguna de Bay to the abaca and coconut-growing regions of Tayabas (Quezon province), the two Camarines provinces and Albay. The third line was the Manila-Batangas route which ended in the town of Taal. The three lines totaling 1,730 kilometers of track could be built by the Spanish government or by a Spanish-owned private company. Foreign companies could also participate in the projects.
Of the three lines, the Manila-Dagupan route received the greatest attention. Invitations for tenders were drawn and advertised and the Spanish government offered a subsidy of $7,650. In 1885 a British consortium headed by George Noble Taylor successfully bid in Madrid. Called the Manila Railway Company, the British capitalists demanded a very high guaranteed interest clause considering the risks. They also demanded fiscal control in the management of the concession.
The Spanish government granted these demands. Under the agreement, the British company was to operate the line for 99 years beginning January 21, 1887. All the risks were to be borne by the Spanish government which would be certainly be passed on to the consumers. If the project turned out to be unprofitable, the British could back out.
Construction of the rail line began in December 1887. Building was done by Filipino laborers. The locomotives, coaches, freight cars and rails were manufactured in England. By March 24, 1891, the first length of track covering 43.8 kilometers was completed followed by the completion of an additional 40 kilometers. On February 19, 1892, a section of track from Bagbag, Bulacan, to Mabalacat, Pampanga, totaling 186.7 kilometers was finished. By June 1892 the tracks reached Tarlac.
Problems dogged the project. There were changes to be made in the structural designs and frequent floods washed away embankments. Numerous compensation claims from the landowners had to be settled. A particularly difficult section was the construction of the Calumpit Bridge. This delayed the project for about 18 months. The turbulent river during the rainy season made crossing almost impossible. According to popular lore, the English engineers had to defer to their Filipino laborers who wanted to perform rites to appease the local spirits and to hasten construction. The bridge with its piers remain standing today.
Corruption in 1892
The worst delays however were caused by the colonial officials who had to be paid off with bribes. Some officials, even those in Madrid, had to be greased with shares in the company. Gov. Eulogio Despujol went to Tarlac and scolded his officials for their dilatory tactics. With the officials whipped into line, the last section of the railway from Tarlac to Dagupan finally opened. The line became operational in November 1892.
The Manila-Dagupan line cost P7,899,000. This was more than double the original estimate of P3 million. It was also the largest single infrastructure project in the country during the Spanish period. It had 29 stations and 16 bridges. A short spur line was built to connect the Tutuban terminal to the quay at Binondo along the Pasig River. This line was used to export goods overseas or to bring in foreign products for the Filipinos.
The rail line reduced travel time from Manila to Central Luzon. Though it took eight hours to travel from Manila to Dagupan, travel to Pangasinan took longer as the province had to reached by boat via the Lingayen Gulf or through the camino real through the Central Plains. Among the early beneficiaries of the Manila-Dagupan railway was Jose Rizal who took the train to see Leonor Rivera in Tarlac.
More goods could be ferried from the provinces to Manila or vice versa. The railway opened new areas for development. Isolated areas in the interiors of Pangasinan and Tarlac were developed. The railway also hired hundreds of laborers, blacksmiths, conductors and engineers. A more far-reaching effect was the increased migration of rural folk to Manila. It broke down regional barriers caused by cultural isolation and natural obstacles.
As a business enterprise, the Manila-Dagupan railway was not very profitable. Inflation during the last decades of Spanish rule and rigidity of tariff regulations stifled its growth. This was also the reason why the other rail projects were not pursued. During the second phase of the Philippine Revolution, regular commercial operations of the trains were threatened. Parts of the railroad were destroyed during the Filipino-American War. The state of the Manila Railroad Company however started to improve with the coming of the Americans.
The American period
In 1917 the American colonial administration took ownership of the railroad from its British owners by nationalizing the entire network. Additional lines were added, including the Manila-Legazpi line. New lines started serving Nueva Ecija, Cavite, Rizal and Batangas. The original Manila-Dagupan line was extended up to San Fernando, La Union, where Baguio-bound passengers could take the bus to the summer capital. Later, this line was extended up to Bacnotan, La Union. There were plans during the American period to build a railway line up to Baguio itself and the terminal would be where the old Benguet Auto Line used to be. Rail lines were also built in Cebu and Panay.
Period of deterioration
Now government-owned, the Manila Railroad Company was renamed the Philippine National Railways in 1964. Though it enjoyed a measure of popularity, from the time of President Ramon Magsaysay to the government of Ferdinand Marcos, ridership started to decline. The causes were competition from bus lines, the auto lobby and inefficiency of the company itself. Squatters started building shanties along the railroad tracks. This led to accidents, unsafe train travel and pollution on the rails.
La Union line abandoned
By the mid-1980s the Manila-La Union Line was abandoned. What are left today are the abandoned tracks, bridges and stations which were taken over by the squatters. Access and the right-of-way were taken over by interlopers. Organized professional squatters grabbed large tracts of land. The politicians encouraged squatting for votes. Service to Legazpi was interrupted by the eruption of Mayon Volcano. The rail service has not been restored.
Today the country’s railway service is a sorry shadow of its old self. The railways of Cebu and Panay are long gone. The challenge to the government or the private sector is how to restore the railway service which has always been the workhorse of all modern and developing countries all over the world.