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By Joel Nigos, Marlet D. Salazar and Kenneth del Rosario

IN ONE of the fastest marathon sessions of the Philippine Congress, the 50-year charter of the Philippine National Railways was extended just in the nick of time by another 50 years with the signing of RA 10638 by President Benigno Aquino.

Senate President Franklin M. Drilon was one of the lawmakers who recognized the crucial role that rail transit systems play in the everyday lives of our citizens.

"Any stoppage of the rail service will be of huge inconvenience for our commuting public, especially for our countrymen who hail from provinces and who have to travel to Metro Manila on a daily basis," he said.

Drilon added that it is important then for the government to ensure that the PNR continues to be a convenient, dependable and time-saving transit system for our people.

He hoped that a sound and feasible modernization plan for Philippine railways will soon be legislated and prioritized by the government saying that the rail service, once it is improved, will make a cheaper alternative mode of transportation which could aid in the decongestion of traffic in Metro Manila.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto saw that one of the solutions to the worsening traffic situation in the country was improving and using available resources such as the PNR.

Recto was the principal author and co-sponsor of the bill seeking the continuing operation of the PNR and hastening the rehabilitation and modernization of the country's rail-way lines and stations.

He recognized that the condition of the rail-way system had greatly deteriorated, and that it would need a considerable amount to rehabilitate and modernize.

He saw the need for PNR's charter extension as a means to decongest traffic in heavily populated areas including Metro Manila and other provinces.

Recto said, "It is time to maximize the underutilized asset that is the PNR".

According to the senator, when the rail system operates at its, maximum potential by adding more trains, it can remove at least 14,000 cars on the road. About 70,000 people reportedly avail of the services of PNR daily.

He added that the government should shell out "budgetary support" to the PNR to refurbish its 50 coaches. He also noted that the government could make use of partnerships or official development aid or even the government's own funds.

Sen. Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Sen-ate Committee on Government Corporations and Public Enterprises, said that the PNR should work to develop rail connectivity in the country as practiced in developed countries.

"I appreciate the role of railway systems in bringing growth and development to our less-developed areas in far-flung provinces. It can-not be overemphasized that railways directly contribute to economic growth as demand for transport is directly and positively correlated to growth of gross domestic product," she said.

Villar labored for the extension of the PNR operation before the expiration of its franchise last June 19.

"The passage into Iaw ensures the continued operation of the cheapest form of transportation for Filipinos. Compared to jeepneys and buses that charge P2 per kilometer, PNR provides the cheapest mode of transportation to our people by charging only 71 centavos per kilometer," she noted.

She added that the PNR extension is necessary because "we want to provide our people in the lowest-income bracket a transport system that they can afford."

Villar also emphasized that railways are superior to other modes of mass transportation in terms of minimal impact on environment and efficiency of land use as it can not only carry more people but also don't have emission that pollutes the air we breathe.

"In congested nations with large urban populations like in our country, the effort to match road capacity with exponential growth of vehicular traffic will always be a challenge. Rail-ways use less land than the mad sector, less polluting, and can generate high capacity at that," Villar said.

The PNR's Bicol-bound trains have always been vital in the region's economic growth and development. This is why Representative Leni Robredo has been coordinating aggressively with PNR so the Manila-Bicol trip could be restored the soonest time possible. (Its tracks were damaged by several typhoons.)

'The PNR has been a backbone of the development and progress of the Bicol Region. It has played a vital part in maintaining and developing the competitiveness of the Bicol Region with the more progressive regions in the country. And they shall remain so over the succeeding years as they help in transporting goods and services back and forth the region," said Robredo, who is the Representative of the Third District of Camarines Sur.

Robredo is one of the people in Congress who fought hard to extend PNR's corporate life when the first one was about to expire earlier this month.

She repeatedly pointed out the unfavorable outcome if PNR's charter wasn't extended, especially for people who travel from Bicol to Manila and back on a regular basis.

"An efficient transportation system is vital for the continued development and progress of our country. Extending the PNR Charter en- sured that our railway system continues to function in the distribution of goods and services to the grassroots level," she says.

Now that President Aquino has signed the law on extending PNR's charter, Robredo is still one of the fiercest individual pushing for the train system's complete rehabilitation.

Robredo is an alumna of the prestigious UP School of Economics in Diliman. A lawyer by profession, she is widowed by the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo.

Rep. Raneo E. Abu of the 2nd District of Batangas is co-author of the bill that pushed for the extension of the corporate life of PNR for another 50 years. He believes that a reliable and affordable public transportation system brings economic activity to the areas it serves through the efficient movement of people and delivery of goods and services.

"PNR has played a vital role in the socio-economic development of the country. In its heyday, it used to operate on an extensive route from La Union to the Bicol Region. Though at present it only serves commuters from Metro Manila to Calamba City, Laguna, and certain parts of the Bicol Region, the new law can pave the way for the complete rehabilitation of the entire railway system which would definitely benefit people from far-flung areas going to the capital," he added.
Abu said that during peak hours, these commuter trains are hugely patronized by the working populace of Metro Manila as it serves as a cheaper and faster means of transportation. To date, there have been efforts made for the improvement, reconstruction and rehabilitation of its facilities.

"We have seen problems caused by congestion in Metro Manila. We should not allow it to happen in other cities in the country or in the provinces. With this new law, PNR will become the fastest link between the countryside and the capital thus bringing about economic
growth," he said.

Abu said he has seen how efficient mass transportation systems helped his province achieve progress. His province hosts the Batangas port, Luzon's link to Visayas and Mindanao.
Abu said he is willing to support other legislations which would further improve the PNR as he also envisioned that bullet trains that link the capital to the provinces would eventually replace the current railway system.

Rep. Cesar Sarmiento (Lone District of Catanduanes) introduced the bill that seeks to amend Republic Act 4156 which created the PNR and gave it a lifespan of 50 years until June 20 this year He chairs the House committee on transportation, and his province could be one of the beneficiaries of this extension.

The bill not only seeks the extension of corporate life of PNR but also hopes to open it for partnership with the private sector. However, ownership will remain with the government.

The bill also seeks for tax exemptions on revenues and assets from government-owned shares and import duties on all railway and train materials. It also hopes to increase in authorized capital stock to allow effective rehabilitation that will make PNR operational and
provide much improved service.