Brief travel update: Riding the Philippine rails (or not)

Having spent a couple of days in Manila catching up with old friends, it is now time to head to the south. My plan had been to take the Southrail train all the way from Manila to its terminus in Legaspi in the Bicol region at the SW tip of Luzon-a roughly 15 hour ride on the aging pre-WW2 train system with a top speed of around 50km/hr. This travel plan had been slightly augmented when I met a Dutch girl who had just arrived the same day as I to do a four month tour working at an education related NGO and doing research for her MA who was very keen on the idea of joining me on the trip.

We met up yesterday to work out the details, and being somewhat confused by how the time tables on the official website had no relationship with the information presented in the Lonely Planet, printed in 2006, I called the number on the website only to be told in that in fact both time tables were entirely wrong, due to the fact that the line has in fact been closed for around two years. Astonishingly, this rather critical detail is printed nowhere on the Philippine National Railway website that I could discover, nor on the Wikipedia page (at least in English).

After looking around a bit, I discovered that the line has been closed since a typhoon caused major damage in 2006. Since, as I mentioned, the line was ancient and only ran at pathetic 50km/hr (like 30 mph), they had been planning to rehabilitate it and upgrade to a modern system that could at the very least be called “high speed” when compared to the old line. Since the planning for the rehabilitation and upgrade was already underway, it seems that they decided not to even bother with the easier and faster work needed to simply reopen the train as it was before the typhoon, and instead take the opportunity presented by a complete closure to complete the long-term project more rapidly and efficiently. They claim that the new, higher-speed Southrail train will in fact be opening by the end of the year, although considering that New Jersey Transit has been unable to finish the repairs to the Newark Broad Street Station that has kept the Montclair Line that goes from my house to Manhattan from providing weekend service for at least a year past the originally promised date, combined with the notorious Philippines corruption, I have little confidence in this date being kept.

It is worth noting that, as in the good old USA, the Philippines (or at least the main island of Luzon) had a substantially more extensive and better rail system before WW2. In addition to the Southrail, there is also an old Northrail that hasn’t run for many years, as well as some smaller branch lines, and also a number of trams around the Manila area which were completely annihilated by the bombing of WW2 during the re-conquest of the city. Metro Manila mass transit rail has only in recent years begun to be replaced by elevated rail lines, which currently includes one MRT line and LRT lines 1 and 2, to which a 3 is curently under construction and more are planned, including a direct rail link to the new airport at some point.

Having taken this detour to learn a bit about the history and state of the Republic of the Philippines railway system, in the end Joosye (which is pronounced nothing like how you think) and I will be taking the bus.

Stimulus or investment? Japan vs. USA

Ever since the start of our current financial disaster various economists and pundits have been comparing first the US banking problems with Japan’s, and then more recently the infrastructure-heavy stimulus program with Japan’s construction state. Today’s NYT has a substantial article that easily marks the most high profile comparison yet. I’m certainly no economist and I’m not even taking the time to look at numbers right now, but my quick take on the issue is that the comparison is being significantly overblown, but it is still a very worthwhile comparison to make, so that Japan’s various successes and mistakes can be absorbed as lessons. See the following summation of Japan’s massive pork spending:

Dr. Ihori of the University of Tokyo did a survey of public works in the 1990s, concluding that the spending created almost no additional economic growth. Instead of spreading beneficial ripple effects across the economy, he found that the spending actually led to declines in business investment by driving out private investors. He also said job creation was too narrowly focused in the construction industry in rural areas to give much benefit to the overall economy.

He agreed with other critics that the 1990s stimulus failed because too much of it went to roads and bridges, overbuilding this already heavily developed nation. Critics also said decisions on how to spend the money were made behind closed doors by bureaucrats, politicians and the construction industry, and often reflected political considerations more than economic. Dr. Ihori said the United States appeared to be striking a better balance by investing in new energy and information-technology infrastructure as well as replacing aging infrastructure.

Japan’s huge boom in public works spending was less a national stimulus program than a gigantic rural welfare program of pork-barrel projects designed to prop up the ailing LDP in its long decline. The money was largely directed not to the areas where it would benefit the largest number of people, but the areas where it would benefit the largest number of politicians. This was not done entirely out purely cynical political motives but also due to a genuine desire to arrest the decline of the rural regions themselves, in the face of continuing urbanization and a decline in Japan’s traditional and lionized (if anachronistic) agricultural lifestyle. Regardless of intent, a huge proportion (I won’t use words like “most” without looking at actual numerical research) of the spending was “stimulus” but not “investment”.

I am very, very wary of the general principal of “economic stimulus.” I am not opposed to government spending, or even large amounts of government spending, as long as it is being spent on something that is actually necessary or build further value in the future, i.e. services or investment. I think this attitude should be obvious from the mass transit funding letter I wrote and posted here a few days ago. In short, I worry that the discussions on spending currently ongoing in Washington may turn into a series of worthless boondoggle projects oriented at unpopulated rural areas, combined with random tax cuts and other expenditures poorly aimed at short-term (i.e. one election cycle) economic recovery, while continuing to ignore the trillions of dollars in outstanding repairs or upgrades as well as vital new investment that the country needs. I think it’s safe to say that politicians are going to spend this money. The question is, what will it buy us? Would we rather have a bunch of bridges to nowhere, vacant museums and amusement parks in virtually deserted rural towns, and paved-over mountain tops, or would we rather have a modern electrical grid, mass transit that at least meets late 20th century standards if not 21st century, a safe and reliable water system, bridges rated to not collapse, and maybe even an adequate system of public health care?

Mass transit pleas sample letter

I’ve posted the sample latter I published here the other day on a few relevant Facebook groups to try and spread the word, but I want to remind any registered-to-vote American readers to follow up on this. I know everyone reading this is a train fan. You’ve either been to Japan or Taiwan or you want to go, and that means you appreciate what real mass transit infrastrucute can do for a county. If you decided to go ahead and send my letter or a modified version, great-and if you decided to write your own, send it to me or post it here to share.

Mass transit plea

Having been rather frustrated by the lack of much serious discussion of guiding any of the so-called stimulus money towards investment in much needed mass transit infrastructure upgrades, I decided to compose a letter to my two Senators and one local Representative asking them to work towards this agenda. I’ve attached my text below, and I implore registered USA voters to send a similar letter to their own congressional delegation, and to pass along a request to potentially interested registered voters you know. So few people actually write politicians on these issues that a surprisingly small number of contacts can, on occasion, spur them to take at least a mild stand on an issue. This is the first time in many years that Congress has even considered taking an interest in mass transit/rail investment and we mustn’t let it pass Continue reading

The Himeji Monorail

I just learned of the existence of the Himeji Monorail, from my housemates who spotted it today when walking around after a castle visit. Japanese Wikipedia has a decent article on it. It opened in 1966, but shut down in 1974. While it was a novelty, it was so expensive that “two people could ride the bus and have change left over” for the same money, on top of fulfilling no practical need in a small city with a decent bus system and low traffic density. After the novelty factor wore off, ridership declined precipitously and it was left running in the red. The final nail in the common was the withdrawal of Lockheed, who had manufactured the system, from the monorail industry. This made further maintenance impractical, particulalry for a money-bleeding system. After years of “suspended” service, it was officially decomissioned in 1979, but most of the ruins survive.

The car depot/terminal station, which still has all the original cars in it, is currently closed to the general public but is scheduled to be converted into a museum by 2011.

This Japanese page has a bit more info on it, but this one has an excellent collection of images, including original tickets.

Halloween in Tokyo

Apparently the Halloween party train on the Yamanote Line went off without a hitch:

This year’s story is rather interesting because of the crazy 2channeler element—check out the organizers’ assertion that the police showed up to protect the drunk foreigners from crazy organized otaku. Guess the latter get more scrutiny than the former these days.

A visit to Losheng

Update: Photo gallery added on 9.23.2008. The new Flicker flash gallery has a fullscreen mode which is excellent for photos like these. Also added some additional comments by Mr. Chang.

I had meant to write a few days ago about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan, but my friend’s house mate forgot to pay the DSL bill and so I haven’t been able to get online all that easily, so tonight I finally broke down and paid the NT$100 (about US$3) for a 24 hour WiFly (WiFi service in every Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, etc. in Taiwan) access card.

So, today I visited Taiwan’s famous Losheng Sanitarium (樂生療養院), a leper colony built by the Japanese colonial government in Xinzhuang City, Taipei County. As in leper colonies throughout the world, Taiwanese victims of Hansen’s Disease were forcibly imprisoned in Losheng by the government, as they were in Japan by the government there. Although the leper imprisonment order was lifted in Taiwan in the 1950s (I believe someone today told me 1957), they have for the most part remained. With modern medicine the patients are no longer inmates, and no longer contagious, but nothing can de-cripple them or regrow their missing fingers and stumpy limbs. And they have nowhere to go, and no way to survive except by public welfare of some sort.

I had first heard of Losheng perhaps a couple of years ago, due to the wave of protests to the government’s plan to demolish the entire complex to make way for a train depot, as part of Taipei metro’s never-ending expansion plan. Although there are naturally no opponents to MRT expansion itself, there have been severe doubts regarding the sense of building the depot in this particular location, which apparently requires the leveling of mountain to create flat ground which naturally occurs elsewhere and is widely suspected of having been chosen to satisfy local political interests before practical considerations of engineering.

Primary opposition to the plan however, is due to a desire to preserve Losheng. The adage goes something like, you never really appreciate something to it’s gone, and it is born out time and again in the history of urban preservation. New York City’s historical preservation regime was established in the wake of the foolhardy and abhorrent demolition of Penn Station in the 1960s, and throughout the world preservationist activity is often triggered by the threat of imminent loss. The government’s plan to demolish the place made people realize for the first time that it was worth preserving, and recent protests have spurred a surge of interest in the hospital site and its residents that has gone beyond simple preservationism to community organizing attempting to integrate Losheng, which for most of its existence was in principle as isolated as a prison, into the surrounding community. This has led to large numbers of non afiliated visitors spending time with the patients for probably the first time in many years, if not ever.

Since I cannot process the files from my digital camera until I get home to my desktop computer, words will have to suffice for now in describing Losheng. it turns out that from the articles I had read in The Taipei Times, not to mention the briefer pieces I saw in Japanese media I had no idea what it was like. When I read about a hospital/leper sanitarium being destroyed to make way for MRT construction I had for some reason imagined a cluster of shabby old buildings on a city street corner. But of course a leper colony could not be in such a place, and is in fact built on slightly elevated and up-sloping terrain on mountain foothills of a part of Taipei county that, at the time, was mostly farmland. Less a modern style hospital or a prison, Losheng is actually a sprawling and rather pleasant, almost collegiate-looking, campus with abundant greenery and attractive brick buildings. The main hospital building looks properly medical, and the general sense of design reflects its Japanese period origins, with semi-exposed corridors reminiscent of the older buildings on the Japanese Imperial Universities of the early 20th century, such as today’s National Taiwan University or Kyoto National University (the two examples whose architecture I am familiar with). Most other buildings are also in the pre-war Japanese style common in Taiwan, with a few notable exceptions. The least Japanese buildings in Losheng are probably the Buddhist temple, which is in standard Taiwanese style, and the now shuttered Catholic Church, which is perhaps the most spartan Catholic church building I have ever seen, with only a spare cross on the roof and no writing of any kind on the outside, but with a green Chinese roof, oddly complete with dragon tiles on the corners, and outer walls painted in the Chinese temple fashion. It reminds me of nothing so much as the far more elaborate Tainan Catholic cathedral, which is constructed and painted completely in the manner of a Chinese temple, if you do not look too close at the paintings. Of particular interest are the residence buildings for patients (originally, remember, inmates) from particular parts of Taiwan, such as Penghu or Tainan, donated by the governments of that region.

I mentioned above activity integrating the Losheng campus into the greater community. This consists of various activities, such as holding lectures and community meetings inside Losheng, or educational programs for children. As chance had it, I happened to go on a day which was particularly active. Community activists are currently running a summer camp for children from various elementary schools in the area, using various Losheng buildings for different activities. I was taken to see the room being used for a week-long Japanese language class run by a Japanese woman studying a PhD in Urban Planning at National Taiwan University, in the room of the hospital building where the sickest patients were brought, connected by a locked iron door to the much smaller room where they were taken to die. This is either morbidly incongruous beyond belief, or an excellent symbol of the way in which the space is being reclaimed and repurposed from its grim past. But little of that darkness remains. The staff (mostly Taiwanese college students) had cleaned the room fastidiously, and it was festooned with child drawings illustrating various basic Japanese words and phrases.

Then I went to a much larger room, a sort of meeting hall I suppose, where the kids were being led in Japanese songs by some of the old patients who remember their Japanese well. One played the keyboard-no easy task with hands ravaged by Hansen’s Disease, while another sat in front of the stage in his motor chair, leading the children in Furosato.

After the class was over, I spent some time speaking to the old men, who seemed both movingly thrilled and slightly amazed to have so many young people, children, teenagers and 20-somethings, having fun inside Losheng and spending time with the patients as human beings, and not afraid of their no longer contagious disease. As is the case with many elderly Taiwanese, their first language is Taiwanese (aka Minnan, Hoklo, Fukkianese, etc.) Their Mandarin is generally weak and heavily accented, and most of them also speak Japanese to some degree, having undergone elementary education during the colonial period. I spent the most time speaking with one old man, Chang Wen-pin 张文贫 (can’t figure out how to type pinyin with traditional characters on this thing…), whose fluent Japanese was easily the best out of the group.

Mr. Chang, now 81 if my calculations are correct, went to a Japanese colonial elementary school in Taiwan and worked as, I think, a locksmith both under the Japanese and in the early years of the KMT, before he was interned. He was around 20 years old at the time of the 228 incident, and considers Chiang Kai-shek to be the worst thing to have happened to Taiwan.

To paraphrase, translated and from memory:

Taiwan’s history is full of tragedy. After WW2 Taiwan shouldn’t have been given to Chiang Kai-shek, but instead the allies should have occupied it. America, England and Russia should have managed Taiwan and then organized it for independence. If they had done that then we would have avoided the 228 massacre and noone in Taiwan would be speaking Mandarin (lit: guoyu) today!

He went on to mention that he suspected a war between China and Taiwan would involve Japan and the U.S., and expand into not just a nuclear WW3, but literally “becoming the battle of Armageddon as described in the Bible.” He mentioned his strong distrust of Ma Ying-jiu, and his worry that Ma and the other KMT supporters of unification with China would lead to the destruction of Taiwan.

When we were done speaking and I was preparing to leave, Mr. Chang and the others made me promise to come back and visit next time I come to Taiwan, and before I left he made me wait while he went back to his room and brought a copy of the photo and essay book about Losheng assembled by the preservationist activists, which he signed and gave to me.

Countless speakers have said that “A society is ultimately judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.” (Based on a quick search, the source of this quote seems obscure.) The leper has always been a symbol for the lowest in society, and despite having no use for religion myself, I think I can understand why Mr. Chang finds his solace in Christianity, a religion in which the leper is a symbol not of disgust, but of redemption. It says a lot of a society in which lepers are no longer lepers, but patients, and the resurrection of Losheng from a medical prison into a park where children play may be taken as a symbol for Taiwan’s transformation from colony and then military dictatorship into the relatively free and effectively independent country that it is today. But the current metro expansion plan still requires the demolition of something like 30-40% of Losheng’s territory, with some buildings kept in place, a few relocated, and many destroyed entirely. Even the preservationists have abandoned their attempts to save the entire site, with construction of the nearby depot building already well under way, and their best case plan today is the “90% plan.” There is still room for improvement.