The Philippine National Railways (PNR) South Line which services Bicol stopped operations in November 2006 after Typhoon Reming (Durian) damaged many of its infrastructure. It was a sad end to an era of train journey but barely noticed in Bicol since bus travel already completely overshadowed it.
I was lucky enough that I was still able to take a train trip just before it shuttered. It was my first trip in over 20 years and I was raring to find out what changed. Arriving in Naga station I noticed how forlorn-looking and dilapidated the once-vibrant place has become.
The train was much shorter compared to the trains of my college days. We left at past 10am. I was expecting a fast clip over the flatlands and straight tracks of Pamplona and Libmanan. But we were barely making 50kph because the train was buckling like a horse.
I learned that there was no more maintenance work being done for the tracks. They said the PNR was just being given by the national government a subsidy of P10 million a month. Added to the paltry revenues, the amount it handles barely covers the salaries after fuel was paid. Many of the stations and offices of PNR no longer has electricity. Units are being run by just cannibalizing the old units. And retiring personnel are no longer replaced.
Along the way I saw stations no longer in use and many don’t have roofs anymore. Bridges were beginning to corrode and communication lines were no longer working.
In most places we were running at an average of 40-45kph because of the condition of the tracks. In Gumaca I even feared there would be a derailment.
I noticed that at each station a new set of train vendors sporting another set of uniform identifying them will board the train. Since they won’t get off until the Bicol line ends in Hondagua, the midway point, they became too numerous till they outnumbered the passengers (and we were full!). It was getting hot though the skies were generally overcast. My only consolation was our coach was the newer Japan-donated so it was more comfortable than the coaches I rode when I was in college (but not the tracks!)
I was hoping to see much of the line but dusk overtook us in Agdangan, Quezon. But I still saw how small the place was. I was seeing the countryside I knew before from another vista so it was sad that daylight was no longer available.
We chugged along and getting nearer to Manila the warning of our conductor regarding bad elements in the train stations became more strident. Reaching the Espana station at Quezon Avenue at 2am there were admonishions to just walk straight and fast and not to bother to look at the characters inside the station grounds.
I learned that although the trains are no longer running the employees still get their pay. The only hope being bandied about is a “National Railway Authority” will be passed as law so that the line and the stock could be rehabilitated. But with the damage I saw I knew it would take a lot of money.