I hear the heavy clacking sound of the engines as it starts and the loud honk of the train signalling any living beings to move away from its path. There’s a low grumbling noise under my feet as if something just woke up from a long time slumber. Yes, the Philippine National Railways has revived the Bicol Express and just last night, it started its first commercial run in years. Like a dragon that just woke up, the train howled as it cuts through urban Manila as it heads to Naga City in Bicol.
A gnawing scenery of slums, dilapidated houses and portraits of poverty parade through the windows as the train makes its way out of Manila and some areas of the provinces we passed through. Perhaps one of the reasons it took some time to revive the Bicol Express Line was the sorry state of the surrounding areas of the rail tracks where people would salvage metals and communities living on the tracks are throwing rocks ( I counted 3 while I was awake) to show how unwelcome the train was. But despite this challenge, I must commend the PNR to have finally revived the line even if it took them quite a while.
Currently, the Bicol Express is still at its “soft-opening” stage. The staffs at the ticket counter are still grasping the booking system, the guards at the carts still have no idea which cart number or a certain berth area is. That’s understandable since it’s new and there are only a few coaches available. There are 60 reclining and rotating chairs at the last cart and 30 berths on the other 4 carts. PNR is expecting more coaches to be delivered from Japan when it goes full blast by September.
I stayed at the sleeper area and I found the berths large, soft and comfortable. Better than the ones I tried in Vietnam going to Sapa. Currently there are no pillows or blankets available so it’s advisable to bring them since the airconditioning really gets cool up to a freezing point in the early morning.
The reclining seats area also has very spacious reclining/rotating chairs. I tried them and I found them very comfortable with spacious seats for on an economical price. This definitely tops the hard seat from my 16 hour train ride in China, the cheapest option they have. The restroom and wash area, being new is quite clean at this time. A little cramped but that’s something I would expect on a train.
There is no food and dining carts yet so bring enough food to go by the night, but hot water is available and there are no stops to buy food along the way. Eventually a dining coach would be added once its operation is full blast.
Being the first commercial run and even having done a few test runs prior to this, unexpected things can still happen. On our way to Sipucot, Camarines Sur, we were stopped halfway from Lupi by the locals at Malaguico to warn us of the condition of a rail track. Heavy rains the other night softened the soil and ground causing the tracks to be misaligned. Good thing we were warned as passing through would have been disastrous.
It would took a while to fix the tracks so some of the passengers opted to take the rail skates to Sipucot while the others like me waited for the PNR Commuter Train from Naga which they contacted. I reached Naga fine and enjoyed the sights we passed by. I think if I’ll take the train again, I’d rather take the day schedule so I could enjoy the scenery. According to reports, the Bicol Express train reached Naga before noon.
I like taking the train, as to quote Paul Theroux on his book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star “…probably the best way of getting a glimpse of how people actually live – the back yards, the barns, the hovels, the side roads and slums, the telling facts of village life, the misery that planes flyover. Yes, the train takes more time, and many trains are dirty, but so what? Delay and dirt are the realities of the most rewarding travel”
There are still areas need to fix, tracks to rehabilitate, but as of the moment, I’m just glad the PNR resumed their operations to Bicol and is on the right direction on strengthening our transportation infrastructure which the country badly needs.
Bicol Express Train Schedules:
Manila to Naga leaves Tutuban Station by 6:15pm arriving tentatively by 4:15am. Currently there is only 1 trip leaving for Bicol. Pick-up points would be Tutuban, Pasay Road and Alabang
Naga to Manila leaves Naga Station at 7:15pm arriving 5:15am the next day.
(Update July 1) Currently The Naga and Manila schedules operate on alternating days. They expect daily trips on both ends by July 15, 2011. The engineers already worked on the section at Sipucot.
The Sleeper Berth cost P950
The Reclining Seats cost P548
*Update: PNR Operations to Bicol just resumed last Sept 5, 2011
For more information and seat reservation please call PNR Operations:
Tel: 319-0041 local 122
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.