POSTSCRIPT / June 3, 2021 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Clark train line: It’s more than nostalgia

TRAINS of various types from sleek Shinkansen bullets to light rail commuter cars have shown themselves in advanced economies to be efficient conveyors for moving people and goods vital to socio-economic growth.

While the building of a rail line connecting Manila to areas south and north of it – such as the Clark Freeport in Pampanga –has raised hopes for faster economic growth in Luzon, it should go beyond merely stirring nostalgia among the older folk familiar with trains.

The Duterte administration’s aggressive building of a network of highways linking potential growth areas and modern airports and ports — with the steely backbone of a rail line – will prepare more regions targeted for a post-pandemic development scenario.

Clark Freeport has 113,302 workers employed by 1,229 locator firms that had helped Clark Development Corp. gross P2.6 billion in revenues in 2020.

That number of jobs is way above the 12,000 Filipinos that Clark employed when it was still a giant American air base before the expiration in 1991 of the PH-US military bases agreement.

Clark is situated right at the thumping crossroads of four arteries: the NLEx connecting it to the national capital with its international airport and harbor, the SCTEx giving it access to the Subic Bay port, the TIPLEx opening Northern Luzon to it, and the MacArthur Highway cutting through vibrant populated areas.

Aside from being a conduit for raw materials and finished products under an upgrade of an 1993 plan, the Clark rail line will give Freeport workers a reliable means of commuting to work faster and in comfort. It will also spread their housing options to more towns in Bulacan and Pampanga instead crowding them around the Freeport.

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I DID not expect my last “Postscript” recalling the trains  of my youth to prompt many readers to share their own recollection of how the locomotives and coaches of yore had been part of their lives.

The reactions received did not approximate the nostalgia for the most celebrated train that was, according to Google, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express carrying passengers across Europe in the style of a bygone era that saw “glamorous carriages, sumptuous cuisine, and personal service that will stay with you forever.”

*Reader Modesto Soriano Jr. said: “Hopefully we will be back to good old days of the rolling train. I traveled to Gumaca in my younger years with the itim na kabayo pulling the coaches starting from Paco station, and on until you reach Calauan, Laguna, and a slow climb to a bridge to San Pablo, Lucena, and the beautiful Lamon beach. Those steam engine locomotives were so powerful.

“I hope PNR can restore the beauty of their stations, modernize and use the wider rail width. Your ‘Some former officials should go to jail for that’ (FDP was referring to the borrowed millions dissipated on right of way and squatters’ relocation) should include those who bastardized Tutuban and Paco stations which are heritage structures.” [FDP: We urge the restoration of Tutuban and Paco to the extent possible.]

*Ramon Timoteo: “My father is from Apalit, Pampanga, barrio Balucoc near boundary of Pulilan, Bulacan. We used to take La Mallorca going back to Manila in the 60’s. But if we carried a cavan of rice it was more convenient to have it checked in on the train up to the Sta Mesa PNR station and retrieve it next day. I forgot the Spanish term for that service.”

[FDP: One got an idea of Ramon’s age when he said “barrio” instead of “barangay”. Re the occasional use of Spanish in the train service, one word that stuck to my mind was “Retrete” that was painted on the door of what we now call “CR” (comfort room) of the Mabalacat station. In our Spanish class in UP Diliman, the professor once asked what “retrete” meant. I was the only one who correctly answered “toilet”, thanks to that word on the door.

[Re Apalit that is just across the river from the Bulacan towns of Calumpit and Pulilan, I am reminded of the joke (but it’s true!) that an egg (“ebun”) in Apalit suddenly becomes a bird (“ibon”) in Tagalog once your cross the bridge. I know it’s corny, but…]

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*ASHLEY Manabat, vice chairman and COO of the Capampangan in Media Inc. (CAMI) based in Clark, relayed this reaction of his uncle Pie Manabat residing in North Carolina:

“Yes I remember the train too that serviced Clark employees. ‘Big Boy’ yapin y tatang da ri Fred & Tarsing Halili. Bapang mung Peter megtinda yang sigarilyo ampong danum ketang tren ayta kanita.”

[FDP: In my last column, I mentioned “Big Boy” as the engineer of a coal-fired steam engine pulling trains before the electric GE locomotives were brought in. His behemoth engine fell off the Sapang Balen bridge near the Mabalacat station one afternoon as the train chugged out of the curve from Clark carrying hundreds of workers on their way home.

[I hope Pie Manabat and the others he mentioned won’t mind our translating and quoting his Capampangan reaction above: “Big Boy was the father of Fred and Tarsing Halili. Your uncle Peter used to sell cigarettes and water on that train.]

*Oscar Gumabay: “Our PNR (Philippine National Railways) was still servicing the Tutuban/Legaspi/Tutuban and the Tutuban/SF-LaUnion/Tutuban route during the Marcos time. Only the Philippine Rabbit, Victory and Pantranco buses were the other mode of transpo then. It was during the first Aquino regime that the PNR lost its value as a transport system because of ineptness and incompetence in governance.”

[FDP: Aside from the buses that he cited and the La Mallorca mentioned earlier by Ramon, there were the Pambusco (Pampanga Bus Co.), Rabbit and Pantranco buses, but Pantranco did not pick up passengers in Mabalacat. The conductor clung to the side of the moving bus like Spiderman in moving from the end of one long seat (a Pantranco bus did not have the usual middle aisle) to the next must have been a test of strength and agility.

[Bus conductors also needed super-retentive memory. The conductor would start from the front to ask each of the 50 or so passengers his destination. After working his way to the last seats at the back, he returned to the front and punched the tickets of all the passengers from sheer memory, then distributed the tickets and collected the fare. I have not found an explanation of that feat of memory.]

We hope Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade’s memory and resolve remain just as sharp and firm about his promised delivery by December of the trains for the North-South Commuter Railway first phase from Tutuban to Malolos.

(Update of the original copy published in the Philippine STAR issue of June 3, 2021)

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