The Philippine National Railways: The Past, The Present and The Future

Here is a glimpse of the PNR in Philippine history

Before what is now known as the PNR, different generations have known it to be as Ferrocaril de Manila a Dagupan, Manila Railway Company Ltd. of London or Manila Railroad Company. In fact, the first Philippine railway was formally inaugurated on November 24, 1892. However, it was only on June 20, 1964 that Congress created a government instrumentality known as Philipine National Railways (PNR) to provide a nationwide raildroad and transporation system. The PNR was to take over the operations of Manila Railroad Company of the Philippine Islands. Collectively, in whatever name it has been known, PNR has seen its best and worst years in its 124-year history.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2016 to 2017, the Philippine railway infrastructure is currently ranked 84th out 138 countries in terms of extensiveness and condition or efficiency. Its current state is a mere remnant of an era which was once touted as the golden years.

The The Philippine National Railways (PNR) proclaims the period of 1954 to 1960 as its golden years. The success of the Manila Railroad Company or what is now known as the PNR is attributed to the two men President Ramon Magsaysay appointed to lead its modernization. These two men were Capt. Andres O. Hizon and Col. Salvador T. Villa who served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors and the General Manager, respectively. During their term, they modernized the locomotives from steam to diesel. Under their helm, the company also received the “Business Firm of the Year” award from the Business Writers Association of the Philippines. In the same period, the Congress passed several laws which appropriated money to fund the extension lines. They intended to extend the Southern lines to include Sorsogon and extend the Northern lines from Nueva Ecija to Cagayan. The Congress also set aside money to rehabilitate the lines from Plaridel, Bulacan to Cabanatuan City. 15 years later, the latter is the only one that was completed among all the projects mentioned. The Cabanatuan line made its inaugural run on March 15, 1969.

The circumstances of the following four (4) years is quite the opposite. During this short period, five (5) general managers and six (6) chairmen of the board succeeded each other. The constant change of leadership presumably left the company directionless.

In 1966, Col. Villa was again appointed to the PNR, but this time as the Chairman of the Board. Five years later, a law was passed providing for the rehabilitation and modernization of the PNR. This was apparently to address the deterioration of the PNR. A Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) report pointed out that during the early 1970s, two (2) locomotives were immobile, 11 railcars were burned beyond repair, and eight (8) passenger cars were damaged due to derailment; only two (2) were placed back into operation. The following year, five (5) stations and 50 kilometers of tracks were rehabilitated, and three (3) kilometers of new tracks were constructed. As part of this project, the PNR also acquired 50 passenger cars and 20 locomotive cars.

In 1977, rehabilitation work began on the Main Line South. During this period, the Espana, San Lazaro, and Sucat stations were also completed. They also installed the first automatic block signaling system and double railway tracking. In addition, four (4) long distance coaches were restored and 30 new coaches were added to the fleet. However, a decade or so later, despite the continued rehabilitation of the Main Line South and revitalization efforts, PNR’s finances were in the red and had to be subsidized by the government.

In 1992, through the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund, the Main Line South was once again rehabilitated and additional diesel engine locomotives were acquired. At the turn of the century, the modernization of the commuter line was completed, as well as the onset of rehabilitation of PNR’s rolling stock. Seven years later, another rehabilitation and upgrading project of portions of the Main Line South was rolled out. Seven years thereafter, the PNR conducted its first major upgrade to some of the locomotives acquired in 1992.

Presently, the PNR is currently operating portions from Caloocan to Alabang, Sipocot to Naga, and Naga to Legaspi. It has two (2) passenger services — Commuter Express and Bicol Commuter. During its heyday, however, PNR’s services were offered from La Union to Bicol, covering over 797 kilometers. In the course of its history, it has operated two (2) main lines and a number of branch lines. The two main lines are the Main Line North which runs from Manila to San Fernando, La Union, and the Main Line South which runs from Manila to Legaspi, Albay. Among the branch lines it has operated throughout the years are the San Jose Branch Line which runs from Tarlac to San Jose, Nueva Ecija; the Cabanatuan Branch line which runs from Calamba to Batangas; and the Santa Cruz Branch Line which runs from College, Los Banos to Santa Cruz, Laguna.

Main Line North, which spans 266 kilometers from Manila to San Fernando, La Union, gradually became non-operational in the late 1980s. Main Line South, on the other hand, spans 480 kilometers from Manila to Legaspi, Albay. It also has more of a storied past in recent decades. It has undergone partial rehabilitation in the 1970s, revitalization in 1990s, and another rehabilitation and upgrading project in 2007. Nonetheless, operations have been suspended on occasion. It became non-operational for a time after typhoons traversed its railways in 2006 and again in 2012 and 2015 due to derailment incidents.

Currently, the PNR is undergoing modernization with funding and support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It is set to cover existing and proposed branch lines, approximately 653 kilometers in total. It will include rehabilitation or expansion of railway operations from Tutuban, Manila to Calamba, Laguna; from Calamba, Laguna to Batangas City, Batangas; and Legazpi, Albay to Matnog, Sorsogon. The project will also include a 38-kilometer commuter train from Tutuban to Malolos. The estimated total time of this trip would be around 35 minutes.

A Future of Possibility: Railway Bills

There is quite an interest from our lawmakers in improving railway infrastructure across the country from our lawmakers. In both houses of Congress, a number of bills were filed for rehabilitation and modernization of PNR’s current railways or expansion thereof. Bills were also filed with respect to a potential Mindanao railway. However, a cursory study indicates that there is a quandary on whether the proposed Mindanao railway should be implemented under the PNR charter or another government corporation should be created for it. Finally, there were also bills filed for the creation of new railway systems in Central Luzon and in North Luzon.


Senate and House bills were filed in the Congress which propose to add provisions and amend some of the provisions of laws concerning the PNR. Most of the bills filed aim to amend Republic Act 4516, the charter of PNR. The bills are similar in terms of their amendments except on the authorized capital stock and the requirements set when entering a joint venture.

However, there are a couple of bills which have unique provisions. One senate bill (SB 852) is quite different as it aims to allocate a combined five percent (5%) of annual VAT collections to reconstruct and rehabilitate the existing 479-kilometer stretch of PNR lines from San Fernando, La Union to Legazpi City, Albay. Another bill (SB 127) proposes to restore and rehabilitate the existing railway lines of the PNR in Luzon, along with the establishment of new railway extension lines. The first line will be from Cumon, Daraga, Albay to Matnog, Sorsogon via Bulan, Sorsogon. On the other hand, the second line will be from Calamba City to Batangas City. While (HB 3582) is also unlike the other bills as it only proposes to extend the term of the PNR for another twenty-five (25) years from the date of the approval of the act.


On the other hand, there are bills which aim to create the Mindanao Railways Corporation (MRC) in order to establish, develop, operate, and maintain the railway transportation in Mindanao. Except for one senate bill (SB 103) which does not indicate a term, all bills involved are mandating the Mindanao Railways Corporation to exist for a term of fifty (50) years. The bills primarily differ in terms of the authorized capital stock, continuing annual appropriation, tax exemption, and location of the main office. Some of the Bills from the Senate and Congress indicated that the main office of the MRC will be located in Cagayan de Oro City while others intend to set the main office in Davao City. Lastly, two of these bills (SB 137, HB 1653) do not include the ability of the MRC to contract loans


Aside from the MRC, two Senate Bills and a House Bill were filed intending to create the Mindanao Railway Authority (MRA).


Two bills are proposing for the creation of the National Railway Industry. However, the provisions of the bills are different from each other. SB 644 and HB 1265 are similar as they aim to establish a national railway system, National Railway Industry, which encompasses the islands of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, including the metropolitan areas in the Philippines. They both consolidate all existing rail offices and agencies. As a result, all of the latter’s functions, projects, assets and liabilities will be transferred to the Authority. However, they differ in funding and allocation of department responsibilities.


A bill (HB2027) has been filed proposing to establish a railway system which will connect the provinces of Ilocos Norte and La Union. Another bill (HB 1911) seeks to create a Central Luzon Railways Corporation which would provide a railroad and transportation system for Central Luzon.

The state of the Philippine railway system is far from the state that it could be. A consistent effort from the government to better the railway system is necessary. After all, the railway system is part and parcel of the country’s transportation system which is vital to the economy.


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