By Mar S. Arguelles
Inquirer Southern Luzon
Finally, they meet again.
The storied “Bicol Express” train has returned to the land of Mayon Volcano, five years after a supertyphoon battered the Bicol region and damaged vital bridges and stretches of railroad leading to Albay province.
The train clocked a total travel time of 12 and a half hours from Tutuban Central station in Manila to Ligao City in Albay province, in what the Philippine National Railways (PNR) called an “explorer run” that began at 10:05 p.m. on Wednesday and ended at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday.
It was the latest effort by the PNR to restore links to major urban centers in southern Luzon through the Bicol Express line, which was shut down by the devastation wrought by Typhoon “Reming” in 2006.
After acquiring a fleet of trains donated by Japan East Railway Co. and spending about a billion pesos to repair some 400 kilometers of track, the state-run company revived the train service in July, starting with the Manila-Naga City route.
Like the earlier test runs going to Naga, the initial ride to Albay took longer than advertised: The supposedly 10-hour trip at 110 kph was delayed due to a minor landslide along the route.
It was also slowed down by the “other” users of the railroad, mainly wooden pushcarts that have automotive ball bearings for wheels, a makeshift transport for people and goods, locally known as “skates.”
Still, after first passing through the provinces of Laguna, Quezon, and Camarines Sur, passengers were rewarded with a breathtaking view of majestic Mayon.
Located 480 km south of Manila, Albay offers road travelers a clear view of the volcano, the province’s crown jewel said to rival Japan’s Mt. Fuji for its near-perfect cone.
The PNR train that left Tutuban on Wednesay featured three first class coaches with 81 reclining seats, with some 50 VIP passengers led by Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, PNR General Manager Junio Ragrario, members of the provincial legislative board, select local government employees, and members of the media.
“The arrival of the Bicol Express was very timely as we celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception (on Dec. 8),” Salceda said Friday. “It would also offer tourists a protracted and unrestricted view of Mayon Volcano, surrounded by the greenery of Bicol farmlands.”
Salceda said the train service reaching Albay would retain its old name from the 1960s—“Mayon Limited Express”—and would start its regular daily trips to his province in January next year with the completion of a PNR bridge in Guinobatan town. The bridge would stretch the train’s reach to the towns of Camalig, Daraga and Legazpi City.
Much of Albay was reduced to a grey landscape after Reming, but the province had since bounced back. The resumption of the train service could boost local trade and tourism, Salceda said.
The governor said he expected the railway to be a conduit for increased economic activity between Bicol and the Calabarzon-Metro Manila areas.
Closing the loop
Some 300 people led by Mayor Cherilie Sampal cheered the train’s arrival at the Polangui station. From there, it proceeded to neighboring Ligao City, where it was welcomed by residents led by Vice Mayor Patty Gonzalez Alsua.
“The resumption of the Bicol trips closes the loop linking the North and South Rail project,” the PNR said in a statement.
The refurbished coaches from Japan offer comfort to passengers with first class, sleeper and economy coaches, as well as coaches for dining and cargo, it added.
The PNR said it expected its passenger base to increase from the 400,000 a month to 600,000. If current trends continue, the company said it would schedule more train departures per day and reduce waiting time from 30 minutes to 15 minutes to cope with rising demand.