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Ferrocarril on Our Mind (Part II)

(This is the second in a series of essays on the trains in Bikol, an interest triggered by this news that in the first quarter of 2022, the reconstruction of the Philippine National Railways will commence. It is said the line will stretch from Calamba in Laguna to Daraga in Albay, and later, at the second phase to Sorsogon)

For us who grew up in the 60s, in the heydays of radio, and radio announcers and comentaristas, the ferrocarril was uppermost in the news then. The term, which is Spanish for railways, was a reference first to one of the most singular mode of transportation, which defined the region. With the mention of railways and the system came also the train.

Why talk about it? The train and the railways connected Bicol – Naga, Legazpi and other places – to Manila and the rest of the world. That connection, however, did not remain always pristine; running the railways and the trains carried with it the issues of corruption.

The train as a system has been attached to the history of the region when its predecessor, the Manila Railroad Company, initiated its travel to the north. Known then as Ferrocaril de Manila-Dagupan and founded by the Spanish administration in 1891, it was only in 1917 that it became part of the Philippine government.

In his book, The Bikol Blend, the foremost historian of Bikol things, Dr. Norman Owen, mentions the train always in his discussion of its role in the economic development of the land. To Owen, quoting sources, which included James O’Brien, SJ (the beloved O’B to Ateneo students) the railway system made it to Bicol in 1938.

Earlier though in the 1934 journal of the American Chamber of Commerce, the newest cargo express was announced and it was called C.O.D by the Manila Railroad Company.

It appears then that the trains and the railroad company behind them had always been part of the Philippine history, broadly, and the history of the Bicol region, in the narrow sense of it. In many accounts, it is written how the transition from the Spanish administration to the American was effected by businessmen rather than politicians. The Manila Railway Company, for example, was acquired by the Insular Government of the Philippine Islands. Somehow, this name of an insular government is lost between the Revolutionary governments ran by the conquering Americans and the brave Filipinos fighting for independence in the interstices generated by the waning powers of Spain and the growing empire of the United States.

The Americans in 1901, they created what was then called “Gobierno Insular de las Islas Filipinas” or the Insular Government of the Philippine Islands. This body followed the military government established when the American forces were gradually subjugating the Filipinos. This insular government can best be understood if we think of it as the form of government eventually supplanted by the Commonwealth.

Complicating the purchase of the Manila Railway Company was the fact that it was a company described as “London-based,” which explained the British locomotives in the said system. The acquisition took place while the First World War raged in Europe.

This insular government would be dissolved in 1935. By 1938, the railway system would be extended to the south, up to Albay. The line would be serviced by locomotive trains now coming from the American Locomotives and under the name Manila Railroad Company.

In 1938 also, a commemorative medal was issued. Made of bronze and measuring 44 mm, the medal has on the obverse side the train curved, speeding with Mayon Volcano at the background. Around the image runs the line “Manila Railroad Company of the Philippines. On the reverse is the name “Manila-Legaspi Line” (note the “s” in Legaspi, instead of “z”). On the middle are the words declaring “Inaugurated by Manuel L. Quezon” and the date, May 1938.

By 1939, an ad is published announcing on one page shipping, car and train. The banner reads “S.S. Mayon,” which on closer inspection is about a ship that travels from Manila to Iloilo, Zamboanga, Cebu and the back to Iloilo and Manila. At the bottom though of that name is the label, Manila Railroad Company, the quickest route. The ad claims it to be the National Transport System.

How did a ship become integrated into a railway system?

Doing a quick research, I found out that S.S. Mayon was originally a steamer first owned by Mr. Vicente Madrigal, the same Vicente María Epifanio Madrigal López y Pardo de Tavera, a successful Spanish Filipino industrialist and politician, born in Gumaca, Quezon but grew up in Ligao, Albay. The steamer was bought by the Manila Railroad Company in 1925 for its shipping operations between Aloneros and Pasacao.

What is the significance between these two points, one in Quezon province and another in Camarines Sur?

A footnote to the railroad system explains the singularity of this narrative: between 1916 and 1919, a new line to Tayabas Province was opened and called the Main Line South. A train was then scheduled to run up to Aloneros in Guinayangan, Quezon only. This was called the first Bicol Express. By 1937, the last rail that was to connect Manila to Bicol was finished. Thus, the train that continued until Albay became the second Bicol Express. By the time the ad came out, the people had already seen how various means of transportation could be seamlessly made to work for each other and for the people.


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