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A lot of people are starting to get suspicious at the sudden “eagerness” of some people at the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) to ditch the existing narrow gauge rail system and shift to standard gauge for the North-South Railway Project (NSRP).
The proposed rail project, which will span from Metro Manila to Legaspi in Albay, is part of the Duterte administration’s ambitious “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program that is envisioned to spur economic development especially in areas outside Metro Manila. After years of delay, businessmen naturally want to see these mega projects start moving since time wasted also means lost business opportunities.
However, the insistence of some DOTr officials to shift to wider tracks will cause further delays and bloat the project cost from P170 billion to P260 billion — or a huge markup of P90 billion that could be utilized for other badly needed transport infrastructure projects. People familiar with the project admit that narrow gauge tracks which have already been laid out up to Naga City only require rehabilitation.
In contrast, switching to standard gauge will put the project back to square one because it will mean having to reconstruct the tracks. Aside from that, the government will have to contend with additional right-of-way (ROW) problems that are a bane to the speedy implementation of projects. It can be recalled that ROW issues hindered the completion of the NAIA Expressway project which was targeted for the 2015 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Manila. The NAIA Expressway was supposed to be an opportunity for the Philippines to drumbeat its progress as far as infrastructure projects is concerned with the visiting heads of state among the first to use a portion of the toll road.
And then there’s the P69.3 billion, 22-kilometer MRT-7 project connecting Quezon City to Bulacan that should have been started in February 2016 and slated for completion in August 2019. As usual, ROW problems — which have yet to be resolved — will set back the project to 2020 or perhaps even beyond. NSRP project consultants have already recommended that NEDA stick to the narrow gauge, saying that the ROW is not big enough to accommodate bigger tracks, and that “faster trains will not be optimized because of the number of intersections.”
Some DOTr officials claim that narrow gauge is becoming obsolete, but rail experts say that is not exactly the case. On the contrary, narrow gauge technology will still be very much around for decades. In fact, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia continue to utilize trains running on narrow tracks. The recently launched Shiki-Shima train of Japan — dubbed as a “futuristic, super luxury train suite” — runs on narrow gauge.
One of our insiders familiar with the NSRP disclosed that it’s not also true that sticking with narrow gauge will pose supplier problems. General Electric, whose GE Transportation division is acknowledged as a leading manufacturer of freight and passengers trains in the world, has stated that narrow gauge trains will still be operational in the next decades. In short, train manufacturers will keep producing narrow gauge trains and of course, the spare parts needed.
Besides, the narrow gauge system perfectly fits the design speed of both the PNR’s north line (running from Tutuban to Malolos in Bulacan) and south line (from Tutuban to Naga City) whose trains run at a top speed of 140-kph with an average speed of 80-kph. DOT’s insistence on shifting to the wider gauge system will most likely result in the PNR’s commuter service to be stopped completely during the reconstruction and relaying of the tracks that could last for months or even years – which means that the 30,000 or so daily passengers who rely on the trains will also experience derailment. And let’s not forget, this costly and unnecessary switch to the tune of P90 billion will be passed on to Filipino taxpayers.
So if it ain’t broke — why switch it?
Shiki-Shima train redefines luxurious travelTrains are usually one of the more cost effective ways to go from one place to another. However, Japan’s Shiki-Shima train suite is making travel by train a very upscale experience, with fares that can cost anywhere between $6,700 and $12,000 for two- to four-day tours.
Running on narrow gauge tracks, this “futuristic” train that was launched just this May has become so popular that tickets have been completely sold out until March 2018 — and anyone who wants to get on board will have to try his luck because future accommodation from April to June next year is being done via lottery.
The gold-and-champagne colored Shiki-Shima – reportedly designed by an expert who also designs for Ferrari and Porsche — is certainly no bullet train as it only runs at a top speed of 70 mph, but passengers will have the ride of their lives, so to speak, because of the luxurious accommodations in the 10 coaches (which can take in a maximum of 34 passengers) that feature a bathroom and comfortable beds worthy of a five-star hotel. In fact, the two deluxe suites have aromatic wood baths.
A split-level dining car features Michelin-starred cuisine, with service provided by butlers in white uniform. There’s also a lounge where passengers can listen to live music (there’s a piano on board) or if they prefer, read, have a chat with other passengers, or just watch the scenery roll by as they wait to disembark on destinations that showcase the unique culture of the eastern region of Japan.
This article first appeared on www.philstar.com
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