₱177-B PNR Bicol route rehab plan gets funders, flak

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LEGAZPI CITY — Albay Gov. Joey Sarte Salceda said giant firms San Miguel Corp., Ayala Corp. and Metro Pacific Corp. have indicated interest in the rehabilitation of the ₱177-billion south line of the Philippine National Railways under a Public-Private Partnership scheme.

Called the PNR Modernization Program, the ₱177-billion project will cover the rehabilitation of the 653-kilometer railway from Tutuban to Legazpi, then Sorsogon.

Salceda said he has been pushing for the PNR southbound rehabilitation that would give life again to the once Bicol pride but now idle Bicol Express route and that the Department of Transportation and Communication is ready to auction off the PNR railway project to interested bidders.

He said Ayala is eyeing partnership with Metro Pacific, adding he has also personally discussed the matter with SMC president Ramon S. Ang.

As chairman of the Regional Development Council, Salceda lamented that since Typhoon "Reming" struck in November 2006, the PNR south-bound travel to Legazpi City has yet to be realized due to damages in railroad tracks, surfacing from time to time, especially in the Quezon area, every time a typhoon occurs.

Certain Bicolano leaders, however, are contemplating on blocking the DOTC's plan to conduct the bidding process of the multibillion-peso PNR modernization project, describing it as a wasteful spending.

Known civic leader Melvin SJ Del Puerto of Naga City told senators during the recent Senate hearing conducted by the sub-committee D of the Senate committee on public services chaired by Senator JV Ejercito that the much-vaunted PNR modernization plan is only a waste of money, if not changed.

Del Puerto raised serious concern during Ejercito’s committee hearing that the PNR mega project will not bring significant long-term benefits, considering that the huge amount will not be used for modernization or acquisition of more modern high speed trains, which run on a Standard Gauge Railways (SGR), but only for repair and refurbishing of outdated and slow-moving trains, saying the latter are the only ones allowed to run on a SGR.

Invited by the Senate as a resource person, Del Puerto emphasized that the modernization must have the purpose of providing shorter travel time and durable, reliable train units. PNR travel time from Manila to Naga City entails a minimum of 12 hours, and 15 to 17 hours to Legazpi, he told the Senate.

Del Puerto explained that should the modernization shift to the SGR with modern and faster trains, travel time could be reduced by 50 percent, which he said should be the purpose of modernization.

According to Del Puerto, present trains are running under the narrow gauge, only four units are deemed repairable for its long-haul service and will eat up so much funds for its periodic maintenance and repair, virtually considering them unfit and unreliable for the 653-kilometer Manila-Bicol run.

The Bicolano civic leader appealed to the DOTC and the National Economic Development Authority to hold in abeyance the bidding process for the ₱177-billion modernization plan until his recommendations to consider the modern technology are included in the program.

Del Puerto lamented that of the ₱177 billion, the Tutuban – Legazpi – Sorsogon route will get only around 30 percent which is ₱52 billion; while the Tutuban – Calamba route, which will be elevated like the LRT and MRT, gets the biggest slice which is ₱125 billion.

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