WE feel that the country owes some heartfelt gratitude to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), whose willingness to take a substantial risk in the Philippines is helping to completely transform our underdeveloped public transportation infrastructure.
Earlier this month, the ADB announced that it had approved what turned out to be its largest infrastructure investment to date — a $4.3-billion loan package to help finance the construction of a nearly 55-kilometer commuter rail line from Manila to Laguna. The new line, dubbed the South Commuter Railway, will largely follow the existing Philippine National Railway route from Blumentritt to Calamba, connecting along the way with the LRT-1, LRT-2, MRT-3 and the new Metro Manila Subway.
The new line will also eventually connect, by way of a short extension, with the JICA-financed PNR-Clark Phase 1 line from Tutuban to Malolos, Bulacan, which in turn will connect to the Malolos-Clark Railway Project, which is also financed jointly by the ADB and JICA. Thus, when completed sometime within the next few years, the entire North-South Commuter Railway will offer continuous rail service for nearly 145 kilometers from Clark International Airport to Calamba, across the most populous region of the entire country.
According to the ADB, the first $1.75-billion tranche of the project loan will be made available this year, with subsequent installments eyed for 2024 and 2026. The ADB is financing the civil works for the railway viaduct — most of the line will be elevated — the stations, bridges, tunnels, and depot buildings, while JICA is funding the rolling stock and railway systems.
One of the bright spots in outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte's much talked about Build, Build, Build infrastructure program has been its focus and subsequent significant progress in rail development. While it is true that much of the work currently under way is on projects that were first developed during the previous Aquino 3rd administration — or in the case of the LRT-1 extension to Cavite, even earlier during the Arroyo administration — it has only been during the Duterte administration that most of these have evolved from ideas on paper to physical realities. Without the investment support of institutions such as ADB and JICA, none of this would have been possible.
The government's appetite for rail development has been subjected to some criticism, however. The fact that these projects are financed by large-scale loans does not sit well with some critics, particularly at a time when there is a perception that the government has taken on too much debt. Likewise, the focus on comparatively more complex transit systems that take years to complete has been criticized in light of the more immediate problem of a rapidly deteriorating road-based transportation network around Metro Manila.
While these criticisms are not without some validity, in our opinion they are somewhat shortsighted. The financing on easy terms through the ADB and other development partners, especially given that the rail system is a revenue-generating proposition, is far more economical than through other modes such as public-private partnerships. And it is an inescapable fact that rail transport is the most efficient and most environmentally sustainable means to move large numbers of people on land. Electric trains produce no direct emissions, only accounting for emissions from the generation of the electricity needed to power them; which, in any case, can be provided by renewable or other low-emission source1s.
Having a good rail transport network will serve as a sound framework around which the rest of the transportation network can be expanded and improved. If we are to offer one caution, it would only be that any development, rail or otherwise, be undertaken with capacity demand growth in mind. Past projects, such as the existing light rail systems in Metro Manila, were not built with this sufficiently taken into consideration, with the result being that they were operating at or above capacity almost immediately.
As long as demand growth is addressed, however, the new rail developments are truly transport for the future, and we thank the ADB and JICA for the steadfast support of these efforts.
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