The Choo-choo train needs the Cha-cha

By Buddy Gomez

Posted at Dec 17 2014 02:54 PM | Updated as of Dec 17 2014 10:55 PM

A couple of weeks ago, Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Jose Emilio Abaya announced during the reopening of the ‘Choo-Choo train’ station in Calamba, Laguna that “the government will leave to the private sector the rehabilitation of the Philippine National Railways.” It will be undertaken under the auspices of the current administration’s Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) and is estimated to cost “at least P300 billion.” Hoping for the National Economic and Development Authority’s approval soon, DOTC expects to bid it out and award a contract within 2015.

The chance of this scenario playing out is rather iffy given the shoddy record of both DOTC and PPP. (Just remember NAIA and MRT.) Furthermore, what Abaya does not mention is that ownership, control and management of Philippine National Railways (PNR) will continue to be government’s. Therefore, PNR remains subject to the vagaries of Philippine politics, with every change in national leadership that ensues. Such has been the infernal bane of the PNR. Remember, it is “the rehabilitation” that will be left for the private sector” and not ownership and control. The prospects of throwing good money after bad is therefore real while uncontrolled and unmoderated greed of political operatives appointed as managers of government-owned commercial enterprises still persists. Having said that, it is highly unlikely that there will be takers for rehabilitation without the definitive stake of private ownership and control put on the table.

Over time and revolving-door political administrations, attempts at PNR rehabilitation and/or improvements have been spawned but have never tasted fruition. It appears that “privatization” as a problem-solving concept had always been anathema to parochial political interests and was never regarded as an option. There never was an active government intent to solve the PNR problem by specifically selling off to private interests the railroad business for the ultimate betterment of its public service. Evidently, our government has held on tenaciously to their unflinching belief that they are the only qualified entity to run the railroad system.

The Philippine government acquired the Manila Railroad Company in 1917 as one of the very first GOCCs (Government-Owned and -Controlled Corporations) under the guise of economic nationalism, the company having been owned then by British interests incorporated in London. It is well to remember that most GOCCs have been and are the sources and venues of immoral if not unlawful largesse doled out as partisan spoils.

Railroading as an essential element of a nation’s economic development has long been recognized, albeit evidently never fully appreciated, consistently neglected and side-lined in the Philippines. Unless one is a Philippine Railroad history buff, one will not know that as early as 1892, recognizing the substantial economic contributions that the Cagayan River Valley can unleash towards national development, plans were afoot to extend the rail service all the way to Tuguegarao, running through Central Luzon, with a main hub somewhere in Nueva Ecija and burrowing a tunnel through the Carballo mountains. There, too, was the Philippine Railways Company (reportedly with the financial interests of the Vanderbilts and the Salomons) that operated short-run rail services in Cebu, Negros and Panay before WW II. In one U.S. War Department (overseer of the Philippine Territory during the first decades of America in the P.I.) report to the U.S. Congress mention was even of a railroad project for the length of the island province of Samar!

Privatizing PNR and opening it to private and foreign investors is irresistibly attractive if we were willing to admit that government is the least qualified to run a commercial enterprise. But, of course, transportation being a public utility, the existing Constitutional restrictions on the extent of foreign investments in certain economic sectors need to be addressed if its desirability and efficacy in our country’s development is to be harnessed effectively.

And where PNR’s future is concerned, that is where the Choo Choo needs the Cha Cha (Charter Change).

As Speaker Sonny Belmonte espouses it, inserting the phrase “unless otherwise provided by law” in the relevant sections (re: public utilities, natural resources, property, mass media and education, etc.) of the Constitution and submitting the Resolution to a plebiscite (and its subsequent approval) as part of the electoral exercise will cure the reality that our Constitution is currently much too protectionist for progressive comfort, denying ourselves the beneficence of foreign investments. Plenary deliberations have commenced last August and there is expectation that this initiative referred to as Resolution of Both Houses No. 1 (RBH1), listed as a priority bill, will be approved on second reading by the last day of the current session which is tomorrow, December 19. It appears that this Congressional development is a product of Speaker Belmonte’s meetings with the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce and concerned business groups. It deserves the support of every Filipino all over the world who believe that the Mother country does not possess all the wherewithal for a more perfect economic advancement.

Along this thread, here is another brainstorm to chew the fat of. Another example of “Imagineering.” Why not privatize PNR’s south-bound run, popularly known as the Bicol Express, from Makati/Taguig all the way to Legaspi (and even to Matnog, Sorsogon, eventually.) This is not an original idea. Some Bicol stalwarts have expressed a desire for this prospect. The idea needs to be revived. And, from a strategic station going southwards, it can develop a westward spur that leads to the wharves in Batangas City, for obvious reasons. Ayala’s development of the former Food Terminal can expand to include a Grand Central-cum-depot for “ PNR South” (or whatever they wish to name the new entity), in the ground level, below a podium that can also support vertical development.

By privatizing and breaking up the National Choo Choo Train company into separate North and South corporate entities, the railway right-of-way that cuts across Metro Manila will no longer have any dedicated and exclusive use for railroad purposes. Thus freed, government can convert and utilize the space of the railroad bed as the foundation for a new elevated freeway that cuts through Metro Manila.

“PNR North” ought be likewise privatized with its own Grand Central/Depot somewhere north of Manila close to where the North Expressway commences.

But first, the Choo Choo needs the Cha Cha.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.