At long last, a project conceptualized as early as the Ramos administration in the 1990s but got bogged down in disputes and controversies in the succeeding administrations will finally get underway. This is the railway that will connect Tutuban in Manila to Malolos, Bulacan, then on to Clark in Pampanga.
The earliest railroad line in the Philippines was built in 1892, the Ferrocaril de Manila-Dagupan, and was expanded in 1902 during the American colonial period. After World War II, various railway lines were operated by the Manila Railroad Company – to Pangasinan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Rizal, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Camarines Sur, Albay. There was a rail service to the north that went as far as Damortis, Pangasinan, where buses transported passengers up to Baguio City via Kennon Road.
Over the years, rail transport gave way to road transport. Railroad links to various parts of Luzon were abandoned. But the idea of reviving the railroad network grew, especially during the Fidel Ramos administration in 1992-1998, driven by the need to decongest Metro Manila and develop the provinces around Metro Manila. Northrail was incorporated in 1995 as a subsidiary to the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA).
An agreement was drawn up by Northrail with the China National Machinery Industry Corp. (Sinomach) during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration (2001-2010) but the succeeding administration of Benigno S. Aquino III (2010-2016) terminated the contract over legal questions. Sinomach sued the Philippines, claiming over $100 million in damages and costs.
Last Tuesday, Secretary Arthur Tugade of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) announced that the government and Sinomach had finally settled their dispute, saving the over $100 million claim for damages and hundreds of millions of pesos in legal fees and arbitration costs. The agreement was signed in the presence of Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano and Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jian Hua.
The railway to the north will now proceed as Philippine National Railways (PNR) North 2 from Tutuban to Malolos and then to Clark at a cost of R150 billion. Work may begin as early as the end of 2017 or the first quarter of 2018, Secretary Tugade said. It will thus be the beginning project of the massive infrastructure program of the Duterte administration known as “Build, Build, Build.”