Choo choo train in Bicol
One early morning last month, I woke up to a distinct, familiar sound though remote, unmistakably from a memorable past, that aroused a nostalgic mixed feeling of longingness and joy in me. I was curious yet unsure if I had heard it right or if it was just a dream. I summoned a security detail nearby and asked what it was, and after he checked outside the gate, he said, “Nothing unusual, everything normal, Madam!”
The same sound came again the following day at the same time. It evoked the same feeling of nostalgia. This time, I had to seek a more reliable source of information from a friend and an expert. It is true! This familiar choo-choo sound of the good old days would now become a regular to Naga City residents. The Bicol Express train is back!
A train of thoughts rushed to my head. So many shared stories of younger years always bring lots of smiles and, at one point, tears of sadness and loss. It was one such moment.
Like pili and abaca, our colonial American-inspired locomotive train has long gained its rightful place as part of Bicol culture and heritage. For those who lived through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, every train journey was a tremendous carrier of memorable experiences aboard, whether cultural, personal, social, economic, or political. When the first rail tracks trailed the Manila-Dagupan Ferrocaril line in 1891, the colonial train, the first land route to Bicol, had its first commercial run up to the region. The Philippine train system has been running for more than a hundred years! I am lucky I had a taste of the old.
The Bicol Express, as we called it then, chugged the 495-long kilometer railroad tracks to Naga City, Camarines Sur, from Tutuban or Paco station of the PNR (Philippine National Railway) and vice versa, where we boarded and landed each time we took the train route.
Throughout childhood, I would join my parents and siblings to board the train from Manila to Naga City to spend summer and Christmas vacations with our grandparents and other relatives. I enjoyed every day-time trip because the train windows were open, and the wind that swept past our faces in the open air was plain and natural. The countryside was in full view, in all its brown shade and greenery, past the unbroken trail of coconut trees and mountain ranges. My siblings and I often would stick out our heads from the open windows to feel the breeze and then look back to try to catch a glimpse of the rearview as the train surged forward at high speed. My Auntie Lung (bless her soul) would warn us that heads would roll if the train chanced upon a tree or an edifice close to the windows.
We would wave our hands to people sun-burned and working under the sun, by the railway tracks, outside some sari-sari stores or the rice fields, past the landscapes of hills and coconut trees, endless rows of “bahay kubo” and poor shanties, sun-burned farmers with cows and carabaos in tow, the coastal waters and high bridges. We would see barefoot children playing, women busy with laundry, or men resting after a hard day’s work. Watching from the windows was a microcosm of Philippine society in the countryside in full natural view.
Cultural and pangmasa
Bikolanos loved the trains because these had long been part of their lives and culture when aircon buses and airplanes were not in vogue yet. They carried people, their goods, commerce, trade, and livelihood. The old trains were open hubs and social exchange, serving as effective and affordable links between Manila and Bicol. They offered a comparatively cheaper mode of public transport for the masses.
The old trains were significant cultural collective channels. The PNR train from Tutuban railway station was the safe and comfortable conveyance the family chose to bring home to Naga, the remains of our late brother, Boboy, who fell victim to a heinous crime in 1990. It brought the family together in a long evening of loving vigil and prayers with the departed. I will never forget it because it was my last train travel with the family.
Every train journey was also a food trip of native homemade foods. The popular Bicol Express delicacy drew its name from the Bicol Express train, where the old peddlers sold spicy coconut-based foods in the 70s. Each time the train would stop in Tagkwyan, Quezon, or at Ragay or Sipocot, I remember eager vendors with bottled water, suman, kalingking, sinapot, other rice flour-based kakanin, boiled saba bananas, rushing up the train planks and inside the train aisles to sell. In the 80s, when the phenomenon that was Nora Aunor became known, I thought perhaps at one of our train vacations in the 60s or 70s, maybe we could have encountered Guy at the train station near Iriga where she said she used to sell bottled water to thirsty passengers.
The choo choo train is back? Previous administrations tried—but failed—to build a sound railroad system for the people. If that happens, it would be a real feat with a bang.