By Jaemie Quinto, Juan Escandor Jr.
990 AM, Southern Luzon
Naga City, Philippines—A six-hour delay marred the much-touted “soft run” of the Bicol Express train as it encountered a stretch of soft, potentially dangerous ground on its way here. And, according to one account, the revived railway service also ran into another unexpected hazard: Grass.
Five hours earlier, the train was forced to make a “safety stop” with less than 40 kilometers to go, after “portions of uneven tracks” were discovered in the Malaguico area between Lupeviejo and Sipocot towns in Camarines Sur province, the PNR said.
The uneven tracks were caused by “underground water seepage” that eroded the soil following days of heavy rain brought by Tropical Storm “Falcon” last week, the state-run company explained in a statement.
“In the interest of public safety on its maiden voyage, the PNR crew decided to halt its travel to avoid possible derailment of the train,” the company said. Engineers have been testing the route since last year, the company said, but “unfortunately, due to water seepage in that area, it caused a delayed erosion (Wednesday) night.” After undergoing repairs, the affected tracks were declared safe at around 9 a.m.
According to the PNR, the Bicol Express can complete the Manila-Naga trip (or vice-versa) in just under 10 hours—or about the same time as a bus ride. But the train that left Manila at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday made it to Naga the next day after 16 hours.
On and off
The Bicol Express carries a whiff of nostalgia for many people with its on-again, off-again operations since 1938. Plagued by lack of funds for repairs and new coaches, it has gone idle in the last five years after Supertyphoon “Reming” ravaged the southern Luzon region in 2006. “(This) long hiatus definitely took its toll on the conditions of the rail tracks,” said PNR General Manager Junio Ragragio.
In an interview with Radyo Inquirer, PNR spokesperson Jera Sison said the train to Naga also had to make brief stops to have its filters cleared of blades of grass that got snagged along the way.
In some areas, it was as though the train served as a “lawn mower” as it ran past tall, dense patches of grass on both sides of the track, Sison said.
Still under repair
Aside from the problems with the railway, only one of the two trains that were supposed to start commercial runs on Wednesday made it in time for the soft launch, according to another PNR official.
Only the Manila-to-Naga train was ready that day because the other train that should go the opposite direction at 6:30 p.m. was still undergoing repairs on its window grills, said Constancio Toledano, manager of the southern rail line’s Area 3.
Toledano said the resumed Bicol Express service would offer introductory fares of P440 per passenger for reclining-seat coaches, P760 for four-passenger cabin coaches and P1,120 for single-passenger cabin coach.
The train includes a dining car, cabin coaches with cushioned beds for single or multiple passengers, and a coach with seats similar to that of buses. The air-conditioned coaches also have separate toilets for males and females.
Between the Tutuban and Naga stations, there are also stops in Blumentritt, España, Pasay City and Alabang in Metro Manila; Lucena City and Hundagwa in Quezon province; and Ragay and Sipocot in Camarines Sur province.
Toledano, who started working at the PNR in 1976, recalled that the name Bicol Express first became popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. It then referred to PNR’s economy class train servicing the Legazpi City-Manila route via Naga City, he said.
The different trips even came with their own names: The Kalayaan Express referred to the train that left Naga at 6 p.m., while the Peñafrancia Express was the train that left at 7:30 p.m.
The 3:30 p.m. trip from Legazpi City was called the Mayon Limited, he added.
There was also the the Bicol Night Express that left Legazpi City at 9 p.m., and also the Prestige Train that only consisted of four coaches and could make it to Naga City from Tutuban in just six hours.
Toledano said the Prestige was considered the fastest PNR train at the time but it was decommissioned in 1984 for lack of maintenance.
The official said the PNR, despite the revival of the Bicol Express, had yet to contend with problems posed by illegal settlers virtually choking the railway lines. He said the company was ready to extend financial help to residents willing to relocate outside PNR property, but that it would still need the help of local governments on the matter.