POSTSCRIPT / June 1, 2021 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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My train to Tutuban running again soon!

PARDON my being a bit excited over the reported return soon of the trains linking the grand old station in Tutuban and Clark Freeport in Pampanga. From my boyhood until my college years, trains were my main means of traveling to Manila from Mabalacat City, then a sleepy town.

Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade announced Wednesday that coaches for the administration’s commuter railway project’s first phase connecting Tutuban to Malolos, Bulacan, will arrive this December, other requirements following soon after.

Buses had competed aggressively with the trains until the Marcos regime, after which segments of the rail lines to Bicol in the south and La Union in the north fell to disuse and decay.

In their heyday, buses negotiated the 91-km. distance between our town and Manila in three hours on the old MacArthur Highway. But as far as I was concerned nothing beat the train that let me walk around onboard and stand by the door like nobody’s business.

Besides, I had a pass because my father, Tatang Dikong, worked with the then Manila Railroad Co. and the Philippine National Railways that replaced it. The conductors had come to know me and never bothered to ask for my ticket or pass.

My ima, Apu Liling, and I also took the train when it was time to buy dry goods for our sari-sari store. A bonus I looked forward to was sitting on a stool at a kiosk in Divisoria to feast on my favorite pancake soaked in evaporated milk and then sip pineapple juice.

Topping it all, back at the Tutuban station my Ima would buy me a Captain Marvel, a Batman or a Superman comic book (I was allowed only one) before we boarded the train back home.

A family joke had it that in my Ima’s very first train trip, out of habit she left her sequined slippers at the foot of the steps before boarding the coach in Mabalacat, and looked for them when she got off at Tutuban. I have lots of stories about her but I need an excuse to tell them.

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DID you notice I called the cars “coaches” (I also called them Pullman, by their brand). That early I learned that one car or “bagon” is only a coach and not a train which takes several of them linked together to be called as such. Right behind the engine is usually the “caboose” which carried luggage, cargo and mail.

I had seen up close sweaty train engineers (one of them named “Big Boy”) then operating the sooty coal-fed steam engines before the shift to electric locomotives. One time Big Boy’s engine fell off the Sapang Balen River bridge near the Mabalacat station as it sped down the curve from Clark pulling coaches full of base workers on their way home. Everybody survived.

Practice had given me balance when walking on the smooth riles (rails) on that bridge (one rule: don’t look down at the river running 12 meters below) to go to the station for the Manila-bound train. I learned early in life that the train waits for no one. If you miss it, sorry na lang.

As I carried a train pass, I did not have to walk all the way to the station to buy a ticket. I could just jump into any of the cars and I’d be aboard. Living 11 km. from Angeles where I went to high school, I had taught myself how to latch on or jump off moving buses and similar vehicles.

But one had to be careful with a train because the ground near the track was gravelly and sloping. A just-starting train was actually more predictable (and safer?) than a running bus because a train moved in a straight line unlike a bus that could send you rolling under it.

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WHEN I was granted in 1965 an exchange visit by the State Department, I inserted in my itinerary a train ride from Chicago (one of my key stops) to San Francisco. The only reason was that I wanted a long train ride in the US and share the experience with my father.

The big train was super, compared with the Pullman coaches and Big Boy’s black steam engine. From my comfy roomette, I watched American scenery through the glass window. I missed my Tatang!

The 2,980-km. trip through urban, rural and mountain areas felt slower than I expected, especially with no one to talk to. For meals/snacks, I went to the dining car with a glass roof giving an all-around view and affording me a chance to chat with fellow passengers.

Back in my roomette, one window scene forever etched in my mind was that quiet landscape, I think high in the Sierras, blanketed with snow. As it glided by, I was transported to the world of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago and his Lara Antipova, the fire of whose emotions could not sear through the coldness of their circumstances.

I should have photographed that and other sceneries, but I had forgotten my camera in San Luis Obispo, CA, where I had dropped by to meet the foster parents of a classmate. To reunite it with me, they airmailed the camera to the old Manila Times where it arrived broken.

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SECRETARY Tugade said the coaches for Phase 1 of the North-South Commuter Railway project of his department and the PNR will arrive this December, and the training simulator for personnel between September and October.

Conceptualized in 1993 and with funding from the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Phase 1 is a 38-km. railway from Tutuban through Caloocan, Valenzuela, Meycuayan, Marilao, Bocaue, Balagtas, and Guiguinto, ending in Malolos, Bulacan. Phase 2 is a 54-km. rail line connecting Malolos to Clark. Construction is now at a 45.82-percent overall progress rate, Tugade said.

Previous administrations had dissipated borrowed millions in buying right of way, relocating squatters who kept coming back, and whatever else. Some former officials should go to jail for that.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 1, 2021)

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