Killing eight people and leaving hundreds injured, the train mishap in Quezon last month could possibly be the sad end of 40 years of service of the Philippine National Railways (PNR). But leaving aside one of the poorest agencies among the country’s railway sector, Metro Manila’s train systems, at least, are widely being considered as “Asia’s success story.”

“Success,” not particularly in technology used, but in the number of people riding them daily. Both the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) carry about 400,000 passengers per day, about 15 per cent more than the original projection.

According to MRT general manager Roberto Lastimoso, the train is one of the safest and cheapest modes of transportation available.

“MRT has definitely improved the flow of traffic in the road,” Lastimoso told the Varsitarian. “Pollution was reduced and people (are) on time because the trains have fixed schedules.”

According to Jose Inotorio, MRT chief transportation development officer, their trains are almost at par with other countries’. Equipped with an automatic train protection (ATP), the train would automatically stop if it overspeeds; and can also be remotely controlled via a central control center on North Avenue, Quezon City.

“The ATP supervises the driver,” Inotorio said. “When the driver overspeeds, the ATP is triggered and the train stops.”

With a top speed of 65 kph, MRT 30.3 meter-long trains are powered by 750 volts of direct current. They travel over 16.9 kilometers through 13 strategically located stations from North Avenue to Pasay City.

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Meanwhile, the LRT, Southeast Asia’s first light railway transport system, began operations in 1984 and has continued to remain one of the staple modes of transportation for commuters traveling from Baclaran to Monumento—a good 15 kilometers, at 50 kph. But LRT trains are lagging behind as far as technology is concerned, according to LRT Authority (LRTA) engineer Edwin Grate.

“Compared to MRT, there’s a big difference,” Grate told the Varsitarian. “In terms of operations, LRT started in 1984 while MRT started just recently.”

According to Grate, LRT trains are only equipped with on-board emergency braking systems unlike MRT and the new LRT Line 2.

The LRT Line 2, which began operations in 2003, has trains much bigger, faster, and more computerized than LRT and MRT. With travel speed of up to 80 kph, travel time from Santolan to C. M. Recto [13.8 km], only takes 30 minutes.

Wheels of misfortune

But according to Grate, accidents like that of PNR’s can happen even with the onset of computer-ization, especially because of non-maintenance of trains and its tracks.

“Even in other countries accidents happen,” Grate said. “The best safety precaution is the consistent maintenance of the system.”

Recent reports showed the PNR train that derailed while crossing a bend last Nov. 12 was the result of damaged railroad, due to the pilferage of track parts [refer to illustration,] and non-maintenance.

According to PNR engineer Arturo Peracullo, their measly budget—which, according to reports, is about P135 million annually, makes maintenance difficult.

“PNR’s last procurement was in the 1980s,” Peracullo told the Varsitarian, “The coaches being used were donated by Japan.”

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The PNR trains system, considered as one of the most important structures during the late 19th century through the 20th century, links Manila to Legazpi City, stretching over 474 kilometers of tracks. It was built in 1938, while its precedent Manila-Dagupan Railroad, the country’s first railway system, was built in 1892, 60 years after England built the first train.

Rise of the machines

Although the country is moving into an integration of all its railway transit systems in Metro Manila through the Strong Republic Transit System project of the President, the Philippines is still very far behind in terms of technology, especially in high-speed and long-distance travel.

Beyond improbability, engineers have been experimenting on trains that levitate on its track using magnets, virtually eliminating friction that might hamper its speed. Even without an engine, these floating trains could be the best thing since the first train was built.

Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute has been experimenting on magnetic levitation (maglev) trains since 1962, and in 2003, the Yamanashi Maglev test line had attained a record speed of 581 kph.

Using electromagnets, maglevs rely on the opposing forces of magnetic poles to be lifted about 10 cm above the track; and a unique system of magnetic fields to move the vehicle to speeds beyond 400 kph.

Meanwhile, German firm Transrapid International, helped built the world’s first commercial maglev train in China where the usual one-hour taxi ride from the airport to central Shanghai was reduced to a mere eight minutes. But the Transrapid maglev uses the attraction of magnets to propel itself instead.

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But despite much promise provided by maglevs, its costs and implications have derailed any solid plans of implementing them, except in Japan and Germany.

According to studies, the maglev’s dependence on non-conventional rail tracks makes it incompatible for most existing lines in the world today. Further, maglevs do not offer substantial improvements over some conventional high-speed trains available. Reagan D. Tan with reports from Philippine Daily Inquirer, Railway Engineering by Vassilios Profillidis (2000), www.dotc.gov.ph, www.pnr.gov.ph and www.lrta.gov.ph, www.bbc.co.uk, www.transrapid-international.de

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