Poor National Railways? Thousands suffer as PNR cancels 713 trips in only 2 months

AT A GLANCE

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – It takes a lot of sweat and tears for 50-year-old Abraham Villa to travel to and from work in Santa Mesa in Manila every day.

His struggle starts early in the morning as he tries to catch the Philippine National Railway train from the busy FTI Taguig station, where he endures long lines, dilapidated facilities, grumpy train staff, and most of all, the stress caused by unreliable trains and schedules.

Only a week into the month of March, Villa has already been late 3 times. The fourth time would get him suspended for 3 days without pay. If he is late one more time in the next month, he would be suspended for a week. More than that and he’d get fired from his job.

“Kung matanggal ako, hahanap na lang siguro ako ng trabaho na di ko na kailangan mag-PNR…. Mas nakakapagod pa yung sa PNR kaysa trabaho gawa ng balya-balyahan, minsan nga may sigawan pa 'yan. Mapapaaway ka talaga sa loob, iwas na lang,” Villa told Rappler, as he was waiting at the Santa Mesa station for the delayed train going home. (If I get fired, maybe I'll just look for a job that would not require me to ride the PNR....Riding the PNR is more tiring than my job itself because of jostling and shouting. You could really get caught in a fight inside so I try to avoid it. )

Aljay Garduque, 18, and Angelica Garcia, 19, are students at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. They endure the everyday PNR commute and stress because it is what they could afford. They spend P30 daily for a round-trip ride from Bicutan and FTI, respectively, to Santa Mesa.

They have been late to class many times because of the PNR. Its published schedules are rarely followed, its trips are delayed, and its trains break down often.

“It is really too crowded inside. Even if you don't hold the handrails, you could still stand due to the sheer volume of people inside. It's hard for me because I have a problem. There were times I wanted to disembark but then I realized it is still the fastest way to get to school and go home," Garduque said in Filipino.

"Even if the situation is really bad, I have no choice but to still continue using the PNR because it's the easiest way to avoid traffic. But sometimes, it still depends on the mood of the trains because there are times it would stop in one station for how many minutes," Garcia said in Filipino.

Villa, Garduque, and Garcia are just 3 among the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 PNR passengers who have no choice but to adjust and suffer every day. News about the breakdowns of the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Line 3 are common, but left with no other choice, many more Metro Manila commuters take a gamble with the PNR.

PNR used to run nearly 800 kilometers from La Union to Bicol. But consistent neglect and abandonment by one administration after another reduced it to antiquity. 

The Duterte administration now has its eyes set on a massive railway rehabilitation program, but with the current realities on the ground and the decades of PNR inefficiency, will this really happen?

Canceled trips

On Thursday, March 7, Rappler went to the Santa Mesa train station to experience what it's like for a regular PNR commuter.

In just two hours – from 4:20 pm to 6:20 pm – during rush hour, Rappler experienced two canceled trips of the Metro South Commuter (MSC) trains – from Tutuban to Alabang. What's worse was there was no explanation or prior notice, not even on PNR's social media accounts. 

Rappler obtained signed copies of PNR’s 2019 monthly result of operations report for January and February. Documents showed that for the first two months of 2019, there were already a total of 713 train cancellations: 397 in January and 316 in February.

There were a total of 3,291 train runs or scheduled trips that pushed through: 1,703 in January and 1,588 runs in February. Based on PNR data, there were 57 trips each day in January and February.

The train cancellations comprise 18% (713) of the total number of scheduled trips (4,004) for the two months.

These data cover all available routes for the month: Metro South Commuter trains (Tutubang-Alabang-Tutuban, Tutuban-Mamatid-Tutuban, Tutuban-Calamba-Tutuban), Bicol Commuter Train (Naga-Sipocot), and Metro North Commuter trains (Governor Pascual, Malabon-FTI, Tutuban-Governor Pascual, Malabon).

Data showed there were only 15 train sets available in January and 13 train sets in February to service tens of thousands of daily passengers. There is no limit on the number of passengers per train, with Garduque, Garcia, and Villa saying trains are always overloaded.

As for accident records, 5 were reported in January: 4 sideswiping incidents and one near miss. In February, there were 3 accidents: one derailment and two sideswiping incidents.

Rappler obtained separate monthly reports for November and December 2018, which show that there were more operational trains (17), more train runs, and fewer cancellations then than in 2019. In November, 107 trips were cancelled while in December, there were 85. 

At the time, there was still the FTI-Sangandaan Caloocan route, which PNR launched in September 2018 after 20 years of being non-operational. But a few months after, the said route was not included in the January and February reports.

The table above shows that the MSC trains plying Tutuban and Alabang – which Garduque, Garcia, and Villa ride every day – had the highest cancellations out of all routes. This is the route that has the highest demand. PNR data shows they carried 1,002,636 passengers in January and 905,965 passengers in February.

There were 104 cancellations in January and 260 in February, way higher than the 96 trips recorded in November and the 39 trips in December.

A quick analysis of the table shows that the north routes had zero cancellations in February, while the south routes, which have a higher ridership, suffered.

PNR launched the north routes of Malabon (Governor Pascual)-Taguig (FTI) and Manila (Tutuban)-Malabon (Gov Pascual) on December 3, 2018 in an effort to help workers from the cities of Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas, and Valenzuela.

At the time, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade was quoted as saying: “'Promise ko, sir, pagdating ng mga bagong bagon natin, ‘yang gusgusing bagon na ‘yan, magiging bago ho sa Hunyo.’ Kung darating ang panahon na kinakailangang dagdagan ang mga bagon upang sa ganoon, ‘yung mga bumibiyahe ay madadagdagan, gagawin po namin ‘yan." (I promise you, sir, when our new trains come in, those old trains will be replaced in June. If there will come a time that we need to add more new trains to increase ridership, we will do that.)

It was apparent from the data that PNR prioritized the new routes it opened, when current resources could not yet sustain them. The transportation department and the PNR are expecting new trains soon, but until then, the riding public has no choice but to endure the uncertainties.

This could be supported by a February 6 punctuality report obtained by Rappler. The report was prepared and submitted by the Train Control and Terminal Operations division under the PNR Operations Department.

Of the 36 trips scheduled to ply the Tutuban-Alabang route and vice versa that day, only 26 pushed through. This means 10 trips were canceled on a single day: 5 southbound and another 5 northbound. The reason cited was “cancelled a/c [air conditioner], no available del [Diesel Electric Locomotive, a kind of train].”

Meanwhile, there were no recorded train cancellations for the Metro North Commuter trains that day, only late arrivals and departures.

A scan of the PNR’s official Facebook account showed comments from disgruntled passengers.

April Reyes-Alcantara said: “Nag celebrate pa, eh ilang buwan nang canceled ilang trips.” (They even celebrated when, in fact, there have been canceled trips for how many months now.)

Heart Yenyuan also posted: “Canceled naman kaasar namasahe pa papuntang station nyo, pagdating ko doon cancelled pa doble pamasahe tuloy." (Canceled trip. I paid fare to get to the station, only to find out the trip is canceled. I ended up paying twice.)

Another issue is the seemingly arbitrary cutting off of passengers per station. This is an attempt of PNR to ensure that trains would still have spaces for passengers from next stations.

But for Rhael Cruz,* not his real name, PNR is "progressing," although not as drastic as it should be. He rides the Caloocan to Taguig route and confirmed that there are indeed canceled trips, but said PNR is moving forward.

"So far, sa route ko, ok naman kasi mabilis ang biyahe at sobrang affordable kaya for me recommended pa rin siya gamitin. Yun nga lang marami pa rin improvement ang dapat gawin sa PNR," he told Rappler. (So far, with my route, the travel is easy and fast. It is also affordable that's why I still recommend it. Although there are still many improvements that PNR should do.)

Rappler sought PNR General Manager Junn Magno for comment on Wednesday, March 6. Magno immediately replied to say he would send his answers. But until Monday, March 11, he had yet to do so.

The horrors of the PNR commute

On March 7, Rappler met students Garduque and Garcia inside the Santa Mesa station and followed them until they reached their destination. At the station, we also encountered at least 6 more daily passengers who expressed exasperation and hopelessness.

At around 4:20 pm, we arrived at the station, expecting that we would be able to take the scheduled 4:55 pm train to FTI, Garcia’s stop, and Bicutan, Garduque’s destination. Ideally, PNR trains come every hour if the published schedule is followed.

At the station, we were greeted by a long line of passengers trying to buy tickets for the 4:55 pm trip. However, without a public address system, the ticketing staff just said that the 4:55 pm and 5:55 pm trips were canceled. No explanations were given.

There was also no announcement on PNR’s website, Facebook and Twitter accounts. The posts on PNR's social media accounts were about the groundbreaking ceremony of PNR Clark Phase 1 and the contract-signing for the project, among others.

The staff said there would be a shuttle train at 5:45 pm. Shuttle trains are the smaller and faster kind that skip some stations to get to the FTI station. Since we were headed to Bicutan, which was after the FTI station, we had no choice but to wait for the next non-shuttle train at 6:25 pm. We waited two hours inside the station. It was the rush hour at its truest sense.

“Palala na nang palala (The situation is getting worse), Garcia said.

"They increased the fare from P10 to P15, and from P15 to P20 until Sucat. They said they would improve services but how come it's still the same? It even worsened. Before, train intervals were usually 30 minutes to one hour. Now, it's two hours,” Angelica, 19, another PUP student told Rappler while in line.

"I no longer try my luck in the morning. Even if you wake up early, it's still the same. I ride the jeep and LRT even if it will cost me double the fare. No choice, I'd rather not eat than not go to class and not graduate,” Myca, a 19-year-old student, told Rappler.

Other passengers said they would sometimes take the trolley – wooden pushcarts along the rail tracks – to go to the next station in Pandacan to try their luck getting in. But even then, they said there is still no assurance.

Before riding the train, Rappler met Susan and her husband, a senior citizen, who visibly has difficulty walking. Both are regular PNR commuters. Susan sat beside us and ranted about how the ticketing lady shooed her away and told her that her husband should buy his senior citizen ticket at the far end of the station.

During the entire wait, there were several confusing statements and signals from the staff drawing the ire of passengers, who in the end were left with no option but to follow. It would have helped if the station had megaphones or a public address system so everyone could hear announcements being made.

Many passengers could be overheard sighing, complaining, and recounting other PNR horrors they experienced.

Finally, our train arrived a few minutes late. The ride was exactly what regular passengers described.

Due to earlier trip cancellations and the rush hour, people were now packed inside like sardines. Since there was no working air conditioner, passengers had to improvise by opening the train windows for air circulation. Naturally, the car was filled with the smell of people at the end of a long day’s work.

Despite the hassles, passengers jokingly said it was a good trip because there was no train breakdown. Garduque said that just last month, he and other passengers had to wait for almost an hour inside the cramped train while it was being repaired.

Leaving the train was as difficult as entering it. It’s like a battle, with screams and shouts every now and then as people try to squeeze their way in and out.

“Wala silang pakialam kung ano mangyari sa loob, basta mapagkasya nila kami…Minsan may nagsusuntukan na, nahihimatay,” Garcia said. (They do not care what happens to us inside, as long as they could fit all passengers...Sometimes, people would fight, while other would faint.)

“Lugi na raw sila, eh wala na ngang space sa loob. Lugi pa raw sila, samantalang laging overload ang mga tren,” Villa said. (They said they're losing money, but there is no more space inside trains. They said they are losing money, but trains are always overloaded with paying passengers.)

We arrived at the Bicutan station around 7:25 pm, or an hour after we left Santa Mesa. It was a difficult ride but for people who could afford only so much, PNR is the only option.

Consistent problems, findings

The Commission on Audit’s 2016 report already flagged the delay and cancellation of schedules, which led to overcrowding.

In 2016 and 2017, COA recommended that PNR management “increase train trips and provide efficient train services to attract more passengers.”

Nothing has changed. Many regular passengers even said it got worse.

There was a reported standing donation offer from Japan but the PNR opted to buy 9 new trains from Indonesia worth almost P3 billion. The first batch is expected to arrive by July or August, and all trains should be in by December 2019.

In a recent briefing in Malacañang, Magno proudly reported that PNR's operating expenses have been reduced by almost half in 2018 – from P771 million in 2017 to P395 million last year. He also claimed that PNR’s financial status and efficiency are “improving.” But one look at the trains and the plight of passengers could easily contradict these claims.

“We streamlined the logistical processes: buying the diesel, obtaining security and all the stuff. Medyo na-improve namin iyong (We somehow improved) efficiency,” Magno said.

The construction of the PNR Clark 1 project from Tutuban to Malolos in Bulacan officially started last month, February 15.

Many other projects are in the pipeline. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board approved the P211.42-billion PNR North 2 (Malolos-Clark Airport-Clark Green City Rail) project; the P175.32-billion PNR South Long Haul (Manila-Bicol); and, the P124.14-billion PNR South Commuter Line (Tutuban-Los Baños).

But with harsh realities on the ground, paired with PNR's historical struggles and failures, regular passengers such as Garduque, Garcia, and Villa could not help but think it’s too good to be true, at least for now.

“Ito pa nga lang 'di na nila maayos, paano pa 'yun?” Garcia said. (They could not fix the existing lines, how much more the new ones?)

“Kung gusto talaga nila ng pagbabago, sana ito ang unang mabago. Maraming mahirap na sumasakay dito. Walang ibang choice, kundi ito yung mas madali, kaya kami tiis lang."

(If they really want change, I hope they prioritize this. Many poor people are riding this train. There is no other choice because this is the easiest. That's why for us, we continue to endure the hardships of the PNR),” Villa said. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.

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