Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Construction of the Manila-Dagupan railroad started in 1887. Five years later, the 195 kilometer railway link between Manila and Pangasinan began its operations. The 19th century colonial government was able to connect Imperial Spanish Manila and emerging trading post Dagupan in a span of only five years. It may be an unimpressive feat compared to the experience of other countries but it was and still a remarkable achievement for Philippine standards. The country’s 21st century government couldn’t even expand the expressway beyond Tarlac.

The Manila-Dagupan railroad no longer exists. It is one of the numerous railways in Luzon which have been abandoned and forgotten. Before World War II, the Manila Railway Company operated 1,140 kilometers of railways in the island. Its most popular routes were Manila-Legazpi and Manila-Tabaco in Albay; and Manila-San Fernando in La Union. After World War II, only 452 kilometers of the railways were left operational.

The Manila Railway Company was renamed Philippine National Railways in 1964. Its two major lines were Main Line North and Main Line South.

The Main Line North offered a 266 kilometer link between Manila and La Union. It had a 55 kilometer branch line from Tarlac City to San Jose City in Nueva Ecija. Its other (forgotten) branch lines were railway links from Paniqui in Tarlac to San Quintin in Pangasinan; San Fernando, Pampanga to Floridablanca also in Pampanga; and Balagtas in Bulacan to Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija.

The more extensive Main Line South operations featured the popular 479 kilometer route of Manila-Legazpi. It had a 5 kilometer branch line from San Pedro in Laguna to Carmona in Cavite. Its other (forgotten) branch lines were railway links from Calamba in Laguna to Batangas City; Los Banos to Santa Cruz in Laguna; and Sta Mesa in Manila to Barangay Hulo in Mandaluyong.

The floods in 1973 forced the closure of the Manila north line. Two years later, floods washed out the bridges east of Camalig in Albay preventing passengers from accessing Legazpi which is still 12 kilometers away. Before the downfall of Marcos in 1986, the Manila south line diverted its operations to Daraga in Albay and rejoined the old line at Barangay Travesia in Guinobatan, and bypassed Camalig to avoid the flashfloods near Mt. Mayon.

No new railways were developed during the Cory Aquino administration. In fact, the northbound services ended in 1988. The south line service was offered only up to Naga in Camarines Sur and Polangui in Albay. The railway branch line of Tarlac City to Dagupan in Pangasinan was also closed during this period.

Today, the 32.2 kilometer railway line from Caloocan to Malolos in Bulacan is being rehabilitated under the Northrail project. The southbound operations today are Manila-Alabang and Manila-Binan. But tracks, bridges, stations of the south line were damaged by typhoons Milenyo and Reming in 2006.

Railway politics

Railways do not just transport people and goods, they also transport political and economic ideas. They serve the political objectives of the party in power. They can also be maximized by various political forces, even by oppositional groups.

The first railways connected the haciendas of the north to imperial Manila, which was and still the country’s principal trading center. The railway infrastructure sustained the needs of the agricultural economy. The railways connected Luzon north (Dagupan and La Union), central Luzon (Pampanga, Tarlac, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija), Manila, south Luzon, and Bicol region (Tabaco in Albay was an important port facing the Pacific Ocean; Aside from abaca, Visayan goods were also transported through this port). The branch lines of the north and south lines were intended to transport rural goods and crops at a shorter distance, probably to facilitate minor trading between towns.

Then and now, the railways benefited the western corridor of Luzon. No railways were built to cross the eastern frontier of Luzon (Cagayan Valley, east of Sierra Madre).

After the war, the corrupt and puppet governments didn’t develop a masterplan on how to use the railways to promote economic growth. As the country became more dependent on foreign loans and investments, succeeding governments have failed to realize the vital relationship of a robust local agricultural sector to overall national industrialization. Instead of extending the railways, the state preferred to make the country an ideal assembly plant of imported goods, including surplus cars and other automobiles from rich nations. The railways were soon abandoned as economic activities focused on manufacturing and service sectors in mega Manila.

The government is now planning to rebuild the almost forgotten railroads of the north and south through the Northrail and Southrail projects. The aim now is to decongest Metro Manila and to connect former military bases which have been converted into economic zones. The state wants to use the infrastructure left behind by the U.S. military to produce positive economic activities. It is proof that the postwar governments didn’t build cities with adequate infrastructure that would warrant the need to construct and maintain railways in the countryside. Paano pala kung hindi umalis ang mga kano?

Because of the uneven economic development in the country, the rural poor are migrating to the cities and the railways were used by the poor to seek better opportunities in Manila. (Nora Aunor used to sell flowers in a train station in Bicol before winning in a nationwide singing contest.) And since the economy has always been in a bankrupt state, majority of the poor migrants from the provinces were unable to find stable jobs, livelihood and decent housing in the city. Thus, many of the rural poor became the urban poor of Manila, the famed residents of home along da riles. It is no coincidence that shantytowns were established near railways since many of the nouveau poor (after the war) arrived in Manila via the railways.

Today the railway shantytowns in Metro Manila have been forcibly removed already. The old poor are now the new poor in Montalban, Laguna, Cavite and other relocation sites. The Southrail team reported that they still need to relocate 1.06 million households before they can complete the project. The efficient and ruthless state of the 21st century is expected to use modern, business-like methods to prevent the poor from invading the railway space again.

The paranoid and repressive state is also expected to prevent dissident forces from using the railways to challenge the hegemony of the ruling class. Yes, the railways can be used by revolutionary forces. The Manila-Dagupan railroad was finished in 1892, the same year when Bonifacio founded the Katipunan. The anti-Spanish revolutionary government was able to liberate numerous towns along the Manila-Dagupan rail link. Why did Japanese forces destroy the railway backbone of Luzon? Probably because the railways were effectively used by the Huks to defeat the colonizers. How can the rural-based communist forces use the Northrail and Southrail and the other railway projects in aid of revolution?

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Railway politics
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2 Responses to “Abandoned Railways”

  1. Actually, the San Pedro Carmona Line was just constructed during the administration of Ferdinand Marcos. The real line in Cavite stretches from Manila, if I’m not mistaken, to Las pinas, Paranaque, BACOOR, KAWIT, Noveleta and Cavite City as far as I know. It also had a branch line in Naic from Noveleta. here are some posts about the cavite line:

    Let’s pray these railways will come back to life.

    railroad guy

  2. the train goes up to Naic, Cavite


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