Friday, April 29, 2011


During my time in Manila, as a former transport engineer with more than a niggling residual interest, I couldn't help but be amazed by the under-utilisation of the City's legacy National Rail lines. So here are some jottings on why it's bizarre and what the Philippine Government might do.

Transport in Manila

For a City with a population of 16 million people, Manila has surprisingly bad transport infrastructure. It appears to have very little to do with lack of cash and a lot to do with lack of planning.

Throughout the City there are clear examples of pedestrians being given second position to cars. Like many developing-economy cities, streets are jammed with disorderly traffic. Missing or obstructed foot paths, entrenched aggressive driver behaviours like ignoring pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, numerous major intersections force pedestrians under the roads into tunnels (rather than moving the traffic underground). It is truly a nightmare of a city for anyone on foot.

Amidst the gridlock, the fumes, the lack of footpaths, the towering buildings under construction, there is perhaps one particularly bizarre aspect to Manila's urban transport. There are four transit lines. The MRT line, two LRT lines, and the PNR lines. Compared with the transit underpinning London, New York, Mumbai, Delhi, etc, this is very sparse.

Many cities around the world have succumbed to the lure of the private car, and have rendered themselves unliveable and unsustainable as a consequence, so there is nothing particularly extraordinary in that alone. But in the context of the size of the city (more than double the metropolitan population of London or New York), its significant impoverished (non-bike or car-owning) population, and its evident growth, how does it cope with so little transit? This must be an extraordinary burden on the City's wellbeing, efficiency and productivity.

Current Extent of Philippine and Manilla Rail Transport. PNR shown in orange (source: wikipedia)
Current Extent of Philippine and Manilla Rail Transport. PNR shown in orange (source: wikipedia)

The Philippine National Railways Opportunity

The biggest surprise is perhaps the PNR- or Philippine National Railway, has only one remaining operating line. Once covering the island of Luzon from north to south, the only remaining operable section doesn't even transverse the breadth of the Manila metropolitan area.

Tutuban Station, the historic terminus of the colonial era, recalls better days for rail. 6 platforms of which two are in use, and a largely empty main hall. Two steam locomotives stand at a grand entrance.

PNR Timetable at Pasay Rd Station: less than one-tenth the utilisation it could be  photo: D Caldwell 110430
PNR Timetable at Pasay Rd Station: less than one-tenth the utilisation it could be  photo: D Caldwell 110430

Today, the PNR looks like it is hauling probably 1/10th to 1/20th the passengers of the MRT. And yet, unlike the MRT or PRT, it lies in an exclusive corridor at grade, with superior accessibility on the upside (and some non-separated road-crossings on the down side).
The service frequency is at best twice hourly, but for most of the day the service is hourly. The utilisation of the track is so poor, that at current rates (I estimate 1,000 passengers per hour) better utilisation could be achieved by concreting over the tracks and making it a road (about 2,000 people per hour in both directions).

The PNR route corridor is extremely underutilised, in a City where every other square inch has been applied to the limit of its utility.

Philippine National Railway alignment at Pasay Rd Station taken:110430 D Caldwell
Philippine National Railway alignment at Pasay Rd Station taken:110430 D Caldwell

What's needed

Given the transport jam all around, I have no doubt that if a 5-minute frequency service were run on this corridor, it would be running at seated capacity immediately, and within a few years would be at capacity. This would mean moving approximately an extra 40,000 people per hour in both directions through a corridor that currently handles about 1,000.

This places demands on infrastructure, but they need not be particularly burdensome. Unlike the case pre-MRT or LRT, the corridor is already there, the track is already there.
Given the delapedated state of most infrastructure (track work, train control, stations), and the un-fitness for purpose of the difference (trains), PNR is really nothing more than a corridor with huge potential.

Corridor security

There is evidence along the line of historic train control infrastructure: bits of pole-lines, non-functional active level crossings, signal masts with the heads or lights gone, points rodding and wire supports with the rods gone. It seems that in response to theft and maintenance needs, all safety and train control equipment, with the exception of one interlocking and a few manual controlled crossing gates, has been removed.

An essential precursor to any train control improvements is corridor security, meaning, at least 24hr security patrols of the route on foot, and at best barbed wire fences and security patrols.

Train separation, protection, integrity

There is currently no signalling- other than points indicators- on the mainline. This is an obvious impediment to increasing service frequencies, and by global standards is very dangerous.
At present it is operated as a worst-possible compromise between a tramway and a railway. Lumbering Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) being driven on-sight with no train protection, with high platforms accessed via stairs, and only two doors per car (despite an internal car design more reminiscent of a metro).

Some form or automatic signalling is required, in all probability a popular in-cab system like Ericab or Ebicab for the metropolitan area (down to 3 min headways) and a traditional coloured light/ mechanical hybrid in the provinces (whereby systems can be maintained locals and operated on unreliable power sources). Moving people in the dense metropiltan area is really the challenge here.

Almost all points/ switches require replacement with ones that include facing points locks, and these in turn, at a minimum, need to be interlocked with electric release ground frames with time releases hooked up to the signalling system.

Removal and improvement of grade level crossings

Current operation, technology and management of grade crossings is dangerous and represents a considerable travel time bottleneck and capacity limitation. Plans for separation of all grade level crossing should be gazetted at the first opportunity so that no more infrastructure is planned or built that conflicts with grade separated crossings. A combination of crossing closures and separations is essential to increase utilisation of the corridor. This will almost invariably mean tunnelling roads under the alignment with perhaps a slight vertical realignment of the railway. All remaining at-grade crossing within the metropolitan limit should have standard US highway crossing automatic barriers and lights, like the Westinghouse Type F.

Rolling stock and motive power

Diesel-hauled trains, whether they be locomotive or multiple unit, are totally inappropriate for the urban transport task. They are relatively high-maintenance, heavy, have poor acceleration, and therefore are not suitable for moving large numbers of people. Electrification within the Manila Metropolitan limits is essential to capturing the potential of the PNR corridor.
India offers some great examples of how electrification can be applied and maintained on a budget, e.g. Mumbai.

Rolling-stock must be suitable for its purpose. Low acceleration and few doors are great for long-haul services, but are not appropriate on a railway serving the metropolitan area of the world's 5th largest city. For metro services, the speed at which passengers can alight and board is also critical.

Four-car Electic-Multiple-Unit trains (EMUs), re-configurable as Eight-car EMUs, with each car having four-doors a side, longitudinal seating, and acceleration and braking rates of approximately 1.2m/s^2 are the basic ingredients for a high-capacity metropolitan rail service. There are lots of great examples of narrow-guage trains in the vein, for example Perth Australia's new southern metro.

Land-use and Intermodal integration

Current land-use and intermodal integration in Manila is abysmal. Recent developments like the MRT and LRT show improvements, but there are still bizarre and outwardly unnecessary discontinuities between rail routes and major land-use centres that should have been addressed at a planning stage (Asia Mall and Makati City spring to mind)

Even the most basic level of integration, say providing Jeepney/ bus termination facilities and rail stations are absent.

Some practical application of integrated planning include:

Plan utilisation of the capacity potential of the PNR, currently significantly adjoined by urban decay and slums, and in return for massively increasing the value of station-adjoining land, tax development to support the improvement. This was demonstrated in practice by the Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, CA, USA, and countless other cities since.

Provide Jeepney stops/ turning bays at all stations, and re-route services to train stations. There needs to be something in this for the bus operators as well- hence incentivisation below.
Integrate fare payments through a PNR clearing house. For example, all PNR tickets could include a tear-off Jeepney ticket, remitable to the Jeepney driver by exchanging the tear-offs for an incentivised cash amount. This encourages people to continue their onward journey by a more efficient means, rather than hailing a taxi or tricycle. This reduces congestion and fumes, and economically incentivises urban Jeepneys and buses. By way of illustration, a PNR fare that was 10 Pesos become 19 Pesos, including a 8 Peso onward-journey tear-off, and a 1 Peso incentivisation for the Jeepney driver.

Given the construction going on, Manila is going to need a lot more public transport infrastructure than what is here at present. If development pesos aren't being captured for that infrastructure, the City is setting itself up to fail. Given the most crucial and expensive part- the rail corridor- is already there, developing PNR into a modern, fast, safe passenger and freight railway should be straight forward.

It seems, based on Wikipedia, that various entities have been proposing extravagant half-arsed solutions none of which appear to address the core opportunities. I see some projects which suggest converting the system to standard gauge, never mind Spoornet (South Africa) operating with 40t axle loads on narrow gauge, or metros like those in Perth or Brisbane.

With the World Bank already planning to invest in extensions to the LRT, the current state of the PNR begs the question as to why this immense track-corridor asset is so significantly under-utilised.

UPDATE: Not surprisingly, a Government department is currently planning to sell the air rights to the central PNR corridor. The plan is explained in this Business Inquirer article ( This will permanently hinder grade separation, electrification and expansion works which are essential to re-establish functional heavy rail services in Manilla. This leaves the Philippine economy – particularly freight- captive to road-based liquid-fuelled transport. The PNR corridor, including air rights, should be secured until a rail transport strategy has been developed, including electrification.