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Bicol Express Is Back

MalacaƱang: Manila-Naga train travels resume June 29
Bicol Express train travels along Quezon shoreline during a test run last May. (Photo by Vic Nierva)
Bicol Express train travels along Quezon shoreline during a test run last May. (Photo by Vic Nierva)

MANILA, Philippines (June 8 2011) - After getting neglected for more than 3 decades, Bicol Express fully resumes plying the Bicol-Manila railway route starting June 29 this year.

Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda issued a press release today confirming what Philippine National Railway (PNR) manager Junio “Jun” Ragrario announced two weeks ago - that regular train trips from Manila to Naga City shall roll again starting on June 29, one month ahead of schedule.

The early resumption of train trips was made possible by the accelerated rehabilitation of the Quezon-Bicol railroad track and the early completion of the 50-meter San Cristobal Bridge in Laguna.

“This is a month ahead of schedule, made possible by a new workforce and contracts for the Quezon-Bicol portions of the tracks, and vital infrastructure rehabilitation including the completion of the 50-meter San Cristobal Bridge in Laguna,” Lacierda said.

The Bicol Express of old traveled from Tutuban Station in Manila down south to Legazpi City. This time it only goes as far down as the Naga City’s PNR Central Station.

“This ushers in the forthcoming resumption of the famous Bicol Express as an air-conditioned rail service between Manila’s Tutuban Station and Naga’s Central Station,” Lacierda added.

Bicol Express started in 1938 and for decades was the only means of transportation from Bicol to Manila. It's one-way fare of P15 was fair enough, though not totally easy on the pocket at that time, for ordinary Bicol folks. The alternative was air travel at P90, one-third the monthly salary of a public school teacher and beyond the reach of most travelers. Travel by road was unthinkable at that time because of the often impassable condition of the Manila Southroad. Passenger ships were unheard of in Naga.

In 1974 with the improvement of the Manila-Bicol portion of the Maharlika Highway, road travel enjoyed a boom and the role and importance of the Bicol Express diminished considerably. Air-conditioned buses started plying the Manila-Naga route at P45 one-way fare, much less for ordinary buses. Cargo trucks became the preferred means of transporting goods because they offered direct deliveries from source to destination, hence lower handling and transfer cost.

Throughout the rest of the 1970's, the PNR, battered by competition and its tracks devastated by frequent typhoons, started operating at a loss and shortly after grounded all its passenger coaches.

Even after partial rehabilitation of PNR's tracks and coached in 1985, PNR still suffered from lack of patronage and financial difficulties resulting in poor services.

PNR's Bicol operations totally ceased in 2006 when the devastating Typhoons, Milenyo and Reming, were thought to have driven Bicol Express the final nail in its coffin .

Total rehabilitation

The Aquino administration promises total rehabilitation of the Bicol Express.

Newly installed PNR manager Junio “Jun” Ragrario, a native of Albay province, said in a separate interview that last month President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had given the PNR management the marching order to start the operations of the Bicol line this year.

Ragragio also explained that of the 1.5 billion pesos earmarked for the project, about 1 billion pesos were already spent by the Arroyo administration in the initial phase of the Bicol line rehabilitation.

Lacierda has announced that the new PNR management has at its disposal 1.8 billion rehabilitation fund. This is in addition to P250 million earmarked for the cost of shippng and refurbishing of 83 air-conditioned sleeper and commuter coaches donated by Japan, which are expected to arrive this year.

Trains to compete with buses

Both the Aquino administration and PNR are campaigning to lure Bicol visitors back to train travels. Trains are “cheap alternative to buses,” according to Manager Ragragio.

“The projected journey of less than 10 hours will put the Bicol Express at a competitive advantage with buses which take a full 10 hours to make the trip, while offering travelers a superior riding experience at attractive fares,” Lacierda said.

PNR shall implement its operation gradually to accelerate in September in time for the Peñafrancia Fiesta when there shall be 4 round trips per day, each trip rolling in 6 coaches with 400-passenger capacity.

Next year with the arrival of new coaches from Japan, 16 round trips shall be added.

Bicol Express shall have 3 kinds of coaches: tourist class with reclining/rotating deep-cushioned seats, in-coach movie and sound systems; sleeping coaches with rooms or cubicles; and dining car with first class amenities.

A PNR spokesman noted that the wide leg rooms inside the coaches allow passengers to easily interact with other passengers, giving them opportunities to gain new friends.

PNR Bicol area Director Manager Constencio Toledano Sr. projects that train fare shall be “40 percent cheaper than other means of transportation.”

In addition, PNR shall be offering promotional rates in its early months of operation. According to Manager Ragragio, fares from Manila to Naga would start from P500 to P550 for the tourist coaches, P700 to P800 for the sleeper coaches and P1000 to P1400 for the VIP or solo cabins.

Security assured

The PNR shall also hire at least a thousand new employees, including new linemen and members of a security force called, “Railway Police” who will be posted in major PNR stations and junctions from Manila to Bicol.

“We shall employ an additional thousand workers including ‘railway police’ to monitor and patrol the tracks and junctions,” Lacierda said.

Earlier, PNR Manager Ragragio said that one lineman for every kilometer of the 400-kilometer railway stretch shall be assigned to keep constant watch for track damages and signs of possible sabotage.

Passengers shall be protected according to Manager Ragragio. No vendors shall be allowed inside the coaches and trained armed security team shall be on board each trip, he added. First aid kits shall be also provided.

Economic impact

“With the forthcoming resumption of the Bicol Express, new impetus to tourism and the transport of goods has been given. Manila-Bicol rail service resuming this month is a promising start,” Lacierda said.

According to Manager Ragragio, PNR stands to gain P800 million additional income in the first year of operation in addition to providing employment. “Around 4,800 families could benefit from the restoration of the train line,” he said.

The windfall from cheap fares and low freight cost of goods is unquantifiable as yet.

Trains to be part of Bikol again

It has been more than 30 years when the average Bikolano took a train ride to Manila. Those who saw the heyday of the Bicol Express, now in their late 40s and beyond, have the chance to travel through memory lane. For a whole young generation who has not experienced a train ride, lucky for them - Bicol Express is back for them to cherish.

Bikolanos hope that the Bicol Express is here to stay - for good.


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