The Philippine Star, 06 January 2014

By Ana Marie Pamintuan


Once upon a time, there was a railway connecting Northern Luzon to the south, all the way to Bicol.

It’s in our history books: the Philippine Army under Gen. Antonio Luna took the train to the north from Caloocan as the seat of the revolutionary government under Emilio Aguinaldo moved away from US forces pursuing the Philippine “insurgents.”

The Americans bombed sections of the railway to cripple the Philippine troops. The railway was rebuilt, but it’s generally been downhill for our train service since then.

Growing up near the railroad tracks in Tondo I still managed to see the railway system in its rapidly fading glory, with the Bicol Express (slow, but it was faster than our current commuter service) killing people and dogs wandering into the tracks with alarming regularity.

Other countries have invested heavily in modern railway systems with high-speed trains that run like airplanes. The trains connect airports to urban centers, efficiently transport cargo from ports, and provide an appealing mass transport alternative to private vehicles in crowded cities.

In the past decade there was an attempt to revive the railway service, starting with the northern section from Caloocan to Malolos and then onward to Clark. Eventually, it was envisioned to be connected to the southern part.

Today the interconnecting section is finished, with nothing to connect. Taxpayers have paid $210.489 million to the China National Machinery and Engineering Group (CNMEG, since renamed Sinomach) for the 32-kilometer NorthRail that has since been mothballed, with the finished railway work worth only $81.474 million, according to the Commission on Audit.

Considering that we have 7,107 islands, interconnectivity should have been given priority a long time ago. But little has been done; we lack road networks, bridges, railways, airports, and transportation facilities.

It’s more expensive to ship anything from Mindanao to Manila than from Hong Kong, according to British Ambassador Asif Ahmad.

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“The basic message for this country is connectivity,” the ambassador told us during a visit to The STAR last Thursday.

We talked about railroads because a little known detail about those lost glory days of the Philippine railway system is that it was built by the British. Those who have watched the Harry Potter movies may see similarities between some of our old train stations and Platform 9 3/4 at London’s King Cross station where the Hogwarts Express begins its journey to the school of wizardry. Ambassador Ahmad was pleased to find some of our old train stations still intact.

He said Britain is hoping to participate in infrastructure development in the Philippines, apart from the reconstruction effort in the areas devastated by Typhoon Yolanda and the powerful earthquake.

The UK can offer even technological expertise in air traffic control, Ahmad said. He pointed out that NAIA traffic could improve even without the expansion or addition of a runway. London’s Heathrow, one of the world’s busiest airports, has only two runways, he pointed out. It has 12 people controlling air traffic at any given time, with only a 30-second interval between flights.

Like other foreigners, however, the Brits are waiting for clearer signals from our government. Officials have presented RAY or Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda to the international donor community and development partners. There are indications that the government plans to incorporate public-private partnerships or PPP into some of the RAY projects.

Echoing the sentiments of several others, Ahmad said the government should provide a blueprint for what it wants to be built in the disaster zones. If the Philippines wants PPP projects, the government should lay down the rules.

“After that there should be no bottlenecks,” he said.

That is a tall order, considering the derailed NorthRail. Even burying the dead is much delayed, with authorities taking two months to start burying 1,400 typhoon victims in a temporary mass grave.

The Brits are aware of the delays in the implementation of major Philippine infrastructure projects.

“If these projects were unblocked, you would have jobs up and down the country,” Ahmad told us.

The country has great potential, Ahmad said, but added that it’s as if he’s watering his garden and his grandson is standing on the hose, preventing the water from flowing.

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The UK has been one of the biggest donors to the post-Yolanda relief and short-term rehabilitation effort, with private and public donations amounting to P11.1 billion so far.

Ahmad, who learned some Filipino in London before coming here, credits the outpouring of British sympathy partly to the fact that “the people of the Philippines spoke to our people in our living room in English.”

The tragedy has raised awareness of the Philippines in the UK, not entirely in a negative way, since there are also many stories of resilience and determination to survive.

While cumulatively the UK has been the biggest European investor in the Philippines from 1999 to 2011 ($12 billion in portfolio and foreign direct investments), there’s a wide room for improvement in economic relations. There are more than 200 British firms in the Philippines, with Shell, operator of the Malampaya deep water gas to power project off Palawan, planning to increase its $5-billion investment by an additional $1 billion.

But we’re still not prominent on the Brits’ investment radar compared with other Asian economies, and not just those belonging to the Commonwealth. Ahmad is hoping this will change with the direct flights between Manila and London.

Like certain other European countries, the UK is strengthening its engagement with the Asia-Pacific, acknowledging that if it continues its economic reliance on its traditional trading partners in Europe and North America, then in Ahmad’s words, “you’re not in a very healthy place.”

So they’re keen on invitations from Manila for more investments, and eager to participate in the post-Yolanda reconstruction. A month ago London sent here a “resident aid specialist” from its Department for International Development to monitor the rehab, which seems to look better in news reports than in reality.

The long-term strategic reconstruction is expected to cost $8.1 billion, with $791 million for 2014 alone. It’s not yet clear how much of the tab Manila is willing to pick up and where the money will be sourced. So the government is considering PPP – not the best idea, considering that only four out of 40 proposed PPPs, and no big-ticket projects, have gotten off the ground since 2010.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, we can indulge in hope that the typhoon rehab will not be derailed like our railway projects.