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A New Railway Fiasco

Prominently displayed in this week’s front-page of a leading national newspaper was a picture of one of the six (6) new railcars that arrived at the South Harbor in Manila. Said railcars were made in Indonesia. DOTr Sec. Art Tugade, PNR GM Jun Magno and the Indonesian Ambassador Dr. Sinyo Harry Sarundajang attended this momentous event—the arrival ceremony—the first time in 40 years since PNR last bought a new train, the newspaper report said.

These 6 are part of the 37 brand new railcars and 3 locomotives, which PNR acquired from PT Inka of Indonesia. Deliveries of which start this month until February 2020. Each train unit costs P485.31-million. Congress reportedly allocated P3.5-billion from the General Appropriations Act of 2018 for these trains.

These new railcars are DMU (Diesel Multi Unit)—a multiple-unit railcar each powered by on-board diesel engine contrary to a locomotive train, which pulls the engine-less railcars. They are expected to augment the existing commuter routes of FTI-Tutuban and FTI-Malabon to apparently “ease the commuters’ woes”, the report further said.

While these additional brand new DMU trains and locomotives are welcome news for Manila commuters and Bicolanos’ eternal dream of “Bicol Express” renaissance, people with technical appreciation of the railways have serious concern on the following unsettling issues:

FIRST, these 37 brand new DMU railcars for light rail networks are made for “narrow gauge” rail, with a width of 3’6”—mainly used for commuter railways and designed for short distances with multiple station stops intended for suburban areas. Maximum speed is 80kmh and operational run averages at 45kmh or even less depending on the number of stops and rail condition. The rest of the existing Metro Commuter Rails—the LRTs and MRTs are on “standard gauge” (4’81/2” width) rails and powered by 750V DC overhead electric line.

SECOND, the JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) funded 147km Clark to Calamba elevated commuter railway is to be built with “standard gauge” rail likewise “in compliance with government standards to ensure seamless operations for all sections”. Construction of 37.6kms Tutuban to Bulacan segment of the NSCR (North South Commuter Railway) project is now on-going and full operational by 2021.104 (8 cars x 13 train sets) Japanese-made Sumitomo Electric Multi Unit (EMU) “standard gauge” train cars designed to be low-emission for environmental adherence are supplied and part of the whole JICA contract package. Because of expected fundamental design differences of these EMUs to the newly acquired 37 DMU Indonesian supplied railcars, the latter wont be able to operate in the same railway that will be used by the former, hence, interoperability between them is definitely unworkable.

The Indonesian DMU train cars, therefore, are limited only to run in the old and existing Malolos-Tutuban-Calamba “narrow gauge” commuter routes while the new elevated railway is being constructed where Japan-made “standard gauge” EMU trains will exclusively occupy.

THIRD, if the 3 new “narrow gauge” Diesel Hydraulic Locomotives (DHL) costing nearly P1.4-billion are for Bicol route as reported, they will be there briefly because the P781-billion China designed and funded railway—the South Long-Haul Line from Tutuban to Sorsogon will be in “standard gauge” rail. Construction of which is scheduled to commence in the first quarter of next year as trumpeted by the government with projected completion in 4-5 years.

These brand new locomotives indeed are very expensive consolation for Bicolanos because the trip from Tutuban to Naga would still involve the most arduous 12-14 hrs travel time even with these locomotives unless the dilapidated rails and bridges are massively rehabilitated. This will cost however a separate funding of billions of Pesos again. But, why would the government do that when a new “standard gauge” railway will start construction next year if it has common sense at all?

FOURTH, similarly these Locomotives mentioned could not be accommodated in the soon to be finished JICA funded elevated commuter railways. The basic spec disparities of this railway vis-à-vis the locomotives—rail gauge, weight requirement and signaling conflict, just the same, are just too great to even consider running them there.

Nonetheless, no plausible reason has been offered by the PNR as to the sensible purpose of these latest multi-billion Peso train acquisitions with outrageous compatibility issues to the planned new railways except that they need to increase rider capacity at present.

These Indonesian made trains will certainly be white elephants in 3-5 years time when the elevated North-South Commuter Railway Project is finally done and the new “standard gauge” South-Bicol Long Haul Line is completed as well—both railways will be rendered impassable by these Indonesian trains because of the nature of their rail specs and design discrepancies as explained. Now, what shall we do with them? Your guess is as good as anyone else.

Not that these brand new trains are unnecessary in the face of the daily struggles of commuters in Manila today because it is of paramount importance to alleviate their ordeal—no argument about that. But, it is imperative also in the reasonable analysis of wisdom and foresight to recognize the very costly consequence of this multi-billion Peso train purchases, particularly the P1.4-billion locomotives for Bicol that are deemed unnecessary and preposterous at this time. Yet, the planners ineptly neglect it, or are there hidden agenda into all these?

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