“A successful city is one where people prefer to take public transport,” fellow Inquirer columnist Peter Wallace wrote me in reaction to my “Traffic dilemmas” article last week. I ended that piece arguing that to ease city traffic, there is no substitute to actual reduction in inefficient automobile usage in city streets. But we first need to do a good job at providing an efficient and comfortable mass transit system to effectively lure motorists out of their cars.
Some readers, among them former Transportation Undersecretary Glicerio Sicat, wrote in to argue the need for far more railway commuter transport than we are investing in so far. He shared with me circa 2009 data on some prominent cities that have been able to handle their traffic quite well, like London, New York, Tokyo, Seoul and Singapore. London had 436 kilometers of commuter rail lines, while New York had 337, Tokyo 327, Seoul 317 and Singapore 130. In terms of population density, London had 17,800 people per km of commuter rail line, New York 28,900, Tokyo 27,000, Seoul 33,400, and Singapore 39,100. Bangkok, seemingly a more comfortable basis for us to compare with, had 78 km of commuter rail lines, with a density of 89,700 people per km. But guess what the corresponding numbers were for Metro Manila? We had a measly 51 km of commuter rail line then, and a density of 291,100 people per km!
Using 30,000 people per km as a rough average rule of thumb, Sicat figures that Metro Manila, with a population of around 15 million, ought to have about 500 km of mass transit. On top of our existing 51 km of commuter railways covering LRT 1, LRT 2, MRT 3 plus the Philippine National Railways’ commuter lines, we need some 400 km more of mass transit railways. As doing this via elevated railways would “uglify” Metro Manila, he argues that it’s time we seriously pursued going underground via subway commuter lines. A 16-km subway line is indeed in the pipeline of projects under the government’s Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) program. “While this is a good start, it is too little too late,” Sicat laments. “If one looks at the underground maps of London and New York, one sees a virtual spaghetti of lines crisscrossing the metropolis—and we are proposing only 16 km, which is apparently all we have for the next five years or so,” he observes. “We are very, very late: London started in the 1850s, New York in the late 1800s. It is 2014, and it will be around 2018 before we can ride that shorty subway.” Well, even that sounds rather optimistic to me.
He also believes the proposed subway line’s east-west orientation may not be optimal, citing actual traffic counts done by transport experts. These studies have identified the most critical need to be connecting the high-density areas of Sampaloc, Sta. Cruz, Sta. Mesa and Southwest Quezon City—where many of the office workers live—to the commercial business districts of Makati and Taguig. He suggests that government tap the best local and international experts in the industry (rather than rely on foreign “experts” linked to supplier firms with short-term business motivations) to lay out the alignment of the next 400 km of subway based on the whole gamut of feasibility considerations. These should then be cut up into the best-workable segments, say 25 to 35 km each, prioritizing the segments that will contribute the most in terms of easing city traffic.
Sicat sees the government financing the boring of the tunnels, with concessional loans under official development assistance, bid out under international competitive rules. Tunnel boring can be programmed in segments based on traffic-mitigating priorities over the next 10 to 15 years, with one contractor and one tunnel design to avoid the LRT 1-MRT 3 nonconnectivity fiasco. Prior or simultaneous to all these, Congress needs to clarify the law on land property, to limit the claims of the property owner to no more than 30 to 40 meters underground. This will permit unhampered routing of subway tunnels and save government otherwise huge sums in right of way costs. While the state would own the tunnels, private sector can take charge of the rails, trains, air-conditioning systems, fare collection system, maintenance of tunnel tubes, ownership and maintenance of stations, revenues derived from commercial development in the stations, rentals paid by utility companies piggy-backing on the tube, and so on, all under a PPP arrangement.
Another reader recalls how in the past, “an all-container van train bringing cargo/goods to and from the Port of Manila regularly passed by our area at Vito Cruz in Makati.” He asks why government can’t bring it back. Actually, the Department of Public Works and Highways has indicated plans to build a railway link between Calamba City and Batangas City, initially intended to permit the carrying of cargo from Calabarzon to the container and bulk cargo ports in Manila. This should help decongest Metro Manila roads. The DPWH has also announced the P271-billion, 900-km Integrated Luzon Railway project from Sorsogon to Tuguegarao, apart from the extension and expansion projects for the Metro Manila commuter rail lines.
It seems it’s time, indeed, for us to look more to railways, both aboveground and underground, as a major medium for moving goods and people—and not just for Luzon, but parts of Visayas and Mindanao as well. Other countries have done so or are doing so in far grander ways, in fact. So should we.
Written by: Cielito F. Habito