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.