Runaway trains - Blueboard by Hansley A. Juliano

November 27, 2018

I had the opportunity to revisit Japan last November 16-19 for the 2018 Philippine Studies Conference in Japan (PSCJ) in Hiroshima University. While I could have taken a direct flight to Hiroshima (give or take a layover to another country), circumstances compelled me to land in Kansai International Airport (KIX). From there, I took multiple train line transfers (including the Shinkansen) from KIX to my hotel in Hiroshima.
Fourteen hours riding train cabins gave me a first-hand appreciation of the complexity and efficiency of Japanese megacities’ rail systems. Newcomers and long-time riders openly laud the sense of comfort and order these interconnected rail systems (both public and privately-run) provide the riding public.
Indeed, nearly every globalizing Asian country today looks to the Japanese experience in trying to build its own railway complexes—as seen in cities like Seoul, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Inevitably, however, this exposure to Northern Hemisphere efficiency makes me look wistfully at the dismal state of railway transport in Metro Manila.
Here at home, upgrading train wagons can take decades. A train line not breaking down for a fortnight is a miracle. We have 3 lagging train lines in a metropolis that in any other country will already require way more. Let’s not even get into how equivalent rail systems have not been replicated in other provinces and urban areas in the nation.

But instead of simply lamenting the failings of land transport governance in the Philippines, I feel there might be more critical questions. What exactly went wrong in our pursuit of railway mobility? What, in turn, did most countries with working systems succeeded at? Finally, to what cost are these mobility infrastructures run and maintained—and whose?
Serendipitously, the answers were waiting for me at Hiroshima. The Third World Studies Center (TWSC) of the University of the Philippines-Diliman is pursuing a project on the history of The Mass Transit System in Metro Manila. Their current findings presented in PSCJ 2018, in brief, could be summarized as follows.
First, much of our pre-war tranvia and bus systems, commandeered and destroyed during the Second World War, were never properly rehabilitated. Attempts to resurrect mass rail through the Philippine National Railways (PNR) also fell through due to bad management (coinciding with the Martial Law years). These were further compromised by market forces, both local and international, pushing for the primacy of cars.
Second, our current existing Metro railway lines (the LRT1, LRT2 and MRT3) have all been beset by uncompetitive bidding, incomplete planning and ill-thought agreements since their inception. All of these were signed and maintained under governments (from Ferdinand Marcos to Noynoy Aquino) in state-private sector partnership schemes. The results, as seen in our train lines’ dismal performances, would be prioritizing the profits of private partners, instead of addressing actual public needs.
The lesson we glean from these kinds of stories is that railway governance cannot be solely a “nationalization”/”privatization” debate. If ill-minded political will and irresponsible business interest already holds sway, we can expect this reality. Neither available technological advances nor balanced public-private schemes of ownership will benefit the riding public.
This emblematic policy disconnect persists to this day. In Asia, the lesson is already being learned with harsh effects to commuters and taxpayers.
Since his re-election this 2018, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad engaged in widespread investigation of his much-criticized predecessor Najib Razak’s railway projects. Nearly all of the proposed systems are tinged with corruption and collusion with foreign Chinese capital. It was likely to cost Malaysians decades of debt servicing if they proceeded.
Even back in Japan, the railways privatization scheme of the Japanese government means the high-quality service provided for by the Japan Railways Group (JR) remain exclusive to urban residents. Meanwhile, semi-urban and rural areas throughout Japan have local railway systems suffering from declining ridership and infrastructure quality.
This brings us to the uncomfortable reality of transport infrastructure policy. For most countries, efficient train access is concentrated to the mega-cities. It seems reasonable for governments to focus on upgrading railway and access facilities in heavily-urbanized areas. After all, they house the bulk of national business and drive economies aloft.
Yet it is visible that these policy schemes directly contribute to core-periphery inequalities. Cities become major centers of economic and social activity while the suburban and peri-urban fringes are left to wither away. If not, these make them very vulnerable to property developer speculation and takeover.
Such was dramatically illustrated in Arnisson Andre Ortega’s recent award-winning work Neoliberalizing Spaces in the Philippines (published by ADMU Press). Urban restructuring in the Philippines is directly facilitated not only by predatory broker local governments (often dynastic). It is also normalized by exclusivist mind-sets cultivated along urban middle- to upper-classes—ripe impetus for predatory property development.
If the Duterte administration’s approach to infrastructure building is any indication, we are likely to see more of government irresponsibility, lack of transparency and non-consultation of affected sectors. These fears have been solidified with its trade deals with Chinese President Xi Jinping last November 20. Most of these are to be executed with Beijing’s oversight and directly conflicting with existing land rights issues.
Even the most current attempt at expanding railways, the Araneta-sponsored MRT-7, is being hounded by right-of-way and expropriation issues. Furthermore, communities in Bulacan directly affected by construction are complaining that it will not only displace around 300 farming families and 10,000 urban poor. It may also wipe out around 600 hectares of farming land.
To be sure, I definitely appreciate the value of train-riding and mass transit systems. I still dream that apart from rehabilitating land transport, we also begin properly investing in mass rail. Yet ultimately, the right to the city always has to be determined by people and communities, never by official state fiat or by grasping private investment. Otherwise, we only reinforce an exclusionary road to progress.
Hansley A. Juliano serves as Lecturer in the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for various sectoral issues (such as labor rights and agrarian reform).