The Trains on My Mind (Part 1)



(This is 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)


By the time Nora rode the train in 2016, the Philippine National Railways in Bikol has already lost its glory. The line has all but stopped except for the short trips to several towns in Camarines Sur and Albay. Thus, when Kristian Cordero shot those scenes for his film, Hinulid, he had to direct crews to shake the coach where the actress was, to simulate movement. The rest of the scenes involving the train chugging its way from Manila to Bicol, with the mother carrying the urn containing the ashes of her son, came alive through the animators, all graduates of Ateneo de Naga’s Bachelor of Science in Digital Illustration and Animation.


Trains played a great part in the life of Nora Aunor. It was at the train station in Iriga where she sold water for a living when bottled water as we know it now was non-existent. The train and its station provided a magnificent finale in Aunor’s “Atsay,” where, the protagonist, after an extended dolorous life, left the moviegoers, especially the fans, wondering if her downtrodden character would be given hope in the person of a man willing to love and protect her. But more than the happy ending, the film itself became a metaphor for the actress herself.


For the cineaste – and fans – Atsay was an entry to the Metro Manila Film Festival, where Aunor’s rival, Vilma Santos also had a film in competition, Rubia Servios. Days before a prediction was issued saying, Nora Aunor would lose and that would be beginning of her downfall. Came the awards night and Aunor was declared the Best Performer, the sole winner for acting category. It was that night where she uttered the famous line from her acceptance speech, “Mali ang hula nila, Mamay.” The film was directed by another Bicolano, Eddie Garcia who was adjudged the Best Director, beating the hottest director of that era, Lino Brocka, the so-called actor’s director and another Bicolano if one considers her father’s roots in Sorsogon.


But the train had always been the source of hope and inspiration for Bicolanos and non-Bicolanos as well.


When we moved from Ticao, we took the train from Legazpi. It was an epic journey, commensurate to the gravity of the decision involving the transfer of an entire household from the comfort of an ancestral house. First, we travelled by jeep to Lagundi, the southernmost tip of Ticao; then we crossed by boat to Masbate mainland. The next day, we took a plane to Legazpi, from where we went to the train station and made the final journey to Naga. From the station, it was a short distance to Tabuco, where my father’s younger sister, Mama Beth, lived in a Chinese enclave.


Were Bicolanos conscious of how slow the train rides in those years? There was no benchmark then about the optimum speed of any means of transportation. Air travel was still a special mode of travel. South road, which took you from Camarines Sur to Camarines Norte before reaching the non-Bikol territory of Quezon province was then deemed unsafe. The Quirino Highway was not yet fully operational. The train was the better option.


There was also something going for the train. It was the go-to services for cargoes. There was amiability inside it, with people able to move the chairs so that they could face each other. Passengers would walk around also while the train was in motion. When Mayon Limited was introduced, the trip from Bicol to Manila happened in air-conditioned setting. Again, there was no way for us to compare how cold it was inside train coaches with other means of transport. The fact was you knew the passengers travelling first-class because they were all decked in thick jackets and scarves.


In 1979s, I was coordinating an exchange program for mostly European exchange students. From Manila, we took the train to Naga where their host families lived. It was in that trip where I found out how unregulated the air-conditioning in the train when the German and Italian students called it a refrigerated coach for meat and vegetables.


But we loved the train then. My older brother had fun travelling with an uncle who, long before the train left the Naga station, was already on his second bottle of Ginebra San Miguel. Was there a law against drinking and being drunk on board a train? Maybe there was, but the train had always been an extension of this region, a moving plaza, or a living room with its own rhythm against the distance. We felt we all owned it.


It was via PNR that I reached Manila for the first leg of my journey to Tokyo as an exchange student. The stop was Paco Station, a Beaux-Arts architecture rare in the country. But nothing really prepared me for the train station that serviced my university in Japan. It was Ikebukuro, the second-busiest train stations in the world, serving nearly 3 million passengers daily through four railway operators. With trains arriving on time always.