Choosing between road and railways as public transport solution

Los Caminos Reales

With traffic congestion an ever persistent everyday topic, pundits and experts alike ponder what the situation would have been if our country persisted in building railways and tramways as programmed by the Colonial government in the beginning of the 20th century. When the American colonizers arrived at the scene they already had a pretty good inventory, taking stock of the existing population and towns, of a pretty comprehensive network of 'Camino Real' [Royal Roads] roads and even a few navigable waterways. Both forms of transportation were quite up to the minute in those days when Spain ruled over the Philippines.

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Road beats Rail

When the British introduced the steam locomotive and railways to the world, they were not remiss in introducing the same to the Philippines with the establishment of the Manila Rail Road Co. in Luzon. As foreseen then, the railroad became the backbone of inter province freight and passenger transport. But after the 2nd World War, the US economy had a change of heart. Owing to previous decades being dominated by the railroad 'robber barons', Detroit, the home of the mass market self propelled motor vehicle, the automobile, was lobbying for more roads as against more rail. Also, after the war, anything America did, was aped by its former colony and we thus found our government building more and more roads and neglecting the rails.

The mass transit capacity gap

Today, our cities are exploding into mega cities with population densities demanding high volume mass transit systems. Whereas many of the mature cities in the developed world are well into 3rd or 4th generation subways, commuter rail and light rail, we are still stuck with an ancient and unresponsive public transport system that relies on thousands of mom/pop owned public utility jeeps and buses. The addition of 3 mass transit rail lines to the city in the past 30 years was not enough to compensate for the backlog in road building, hence the reason for today's overcrowded roads.


By an accident of bureaucratic evolution, our roads or National Highways are under the aegis of the DPWH, who, gains the lion's share of the National Budget, slightly behind DECs. Railway systems, on the other hand are under DOTr. If one looks at the decline and limited coverage of rail in the past 60 years, one would get the impression that DOTr is the tortoise to the DPWH's hare. To be fair, building a road or highway only needs the justification of providing a transport link between population centers, while the population provides for the means [motor vehicles]. Railways, whether for freight or passenger, have to be justified as to the feasibility of carrying a commercial minimum of passengers and freight tonnage. For a railway to work, providing the rails or tracks is useless unless someone provides for the locomotive and the trains. Unlike roads, the concept of private motoring does not exist on rails. Build-build-build proposes to push high capital outlay railways to a compensatory level, where it should be today if it wasn't neglected. But not without untrammeled expansion of roads. For the near future, DPWH's insurmountable lead over passenger and tonnage/kilometers over DOTr will remain insurmountable and still very far from the Euro or Chinese ideal of near parity in carrying the overall national transport burden.

Maximizing limited road infrastructure

The clamor now is to maximize what little road space we have and the agreed solution is to restrict the circulation of private vehicles and phase out or transfer the buses and jeeps to less congested routes in favor of a network of commuter rail and trams. But is our case a case of road vs. rail, either one or the other? Or is it just a matter of horses for courses, i.e. rail for mass transit, road for door-to-door?

The individual vs. the community

First, let us get the absolutes out of the way. For sheer independence, freedom to travel, free to choose company, time and how, nothing beats private transport, which is dependent on roads. Roads literally take you door to door. But for sheer communal predictability, nothing beats rail because railways can only accommodate one train at a time, in one direction. The sheer exclusivity of the rail track gives the rail operator the advantage and the power to dictate when, with who and how you travel. Rail works best when transferring large groups from one passenger collection point to another. Individual journeys to the 'last mile home' are left to other forms of transport. 

The cost of freedom of choice

So far so complimentary. Cost wise, its hard to beat rail. For a rail ticket, you don't have to worry about car maintenance, garage, registration, filling up with gas, insurance, driver – although upcoming autonomous driving programs may soon make the driver redundant – map or navigation, road taxes, vehicle safety inspection on top of the purchase price. So what's in favor of the private car? Privacy and independence. Yes, this freedom costs a lot.

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Ride or Drive?

When your rail system reaches many destinations, works most of the day, is safe, secure, comfortable, fast, prompt, reliable – there is no incentive to drive anymore, unless the freedom or the chore of driving tempts you. The problem comes when the rail system is anything but all the above, or worse, non existent. Self-drive private transport becomes attractive and even necessary, and as in our case as in many emerging economies. In the absence of high capacity rail based mass transit, private transport is more efficient time wise considering all the aforecited criteria.

The private car man's burden

In terms of direct contribution to the national economy, hands down, it is the private car that gives the lion's share. Private car owners pay for registration and road tax. Duties and customs tax for parts and imported units. Private car owners pay the tax on their fuel. Tax in insurance. Private car owners also pay for parking, bridge and highway tolls. Much of the taxes collected from private car owners pay for the roads, on top of the investment that BOT and PPP participants and franchisees pay to build tollways. In the Philippines, the taxes from car making, car owning and car driving pay for the road building that benefits everyone. In fact, the taxes paid by the motorist, the motoring and car industry help pay for more than roads. It subsidizes public transport, including railways. Hence the private car owner is a net contributor to the government's treasury.

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Railway ticket – taken for a ride

In contrast, look at the railway ticket holder. He or she just pays for the ticket. He or she never deals with the expenses and the operational expenses of a private car owner. Rail commuters are hardly taxed and in the Philippines, rail ticket fare is far less than half of the operational expenses of the train line, as fares are artificially held down by populist leaning government eager to cater to voters. Indeed, railways, almost without exception, lose money and would certainly close shop if not subsidized by the government. It actually means that the buck stops with you and the taxes you pay. Hence, cheap rail fares equals a huge subsidy paid by the government and funded by ever higher taxes on the wealth and income of corporations and individuals.

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Profitable rail companies, anyone?

Around the world, it is a truism that all rail networks lose money except those that have a business model that relies on peripheral business to gain revenue. The only rail networks that don't lose money and don't siphon off taxes via government subsidy, are mostly in China, Hong Kong and Japan. Why and How? Profitable rail companies like Japan's JREast [Japan Railway East] and Hong Kong's MRT [Mass Transit Railway] get their main revenue from leasing their high net-worth real estate assets, like their city center train stations, to high paying lessees. But without the windfall from property sales/lease, railways will always lose money.

Railway density compensates for money losing routes

So why is running a railway a losing proposition? For one, railways, except those very dense networks that the Dutch colonizers built for the Indonesian island of Java or the very dense rail network the British Raj built for the Indian sub-continent, can only serve customers as far as where the rails go. How can a railway break even when the train is forced to reach and stop at out of the way places where the passenger take up is equally minuscule? Railways have a high break even point i.e. to be profitable, ridership must at least equal the passenger take of airlines departing for like destination.

From the Edwardian era

Now consider that, railroads are 19thcentury in origin. Compared to paved macadam roads, railways are easier to build even through jungles. High capacity trains, though, need railways that are gradually inclined and curves gently radiused. The rails have to be stronger in order to take the weight of a large steam engine on multiple large steel wheels. The steam engine on the other hand, has to be tough and heavy itself because it has to store the 'fuel' [coal], along with the gigantic steam boiler subject to high temperatures and pressures and is thus made of heavy duty metal. Steam engines serve as heavy duty prime movers for long trains of many many coaches or freight rolling stock. Since the prime mover or locomotive is used to pull a lot of weight several times greater than its own weight, the locomotive has to serve as the anchor/counterweight for the rest of the train.

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The need for weight

Even today's electric and diesel-electric locomotives still have to weigh a lot because of the traction the trains need when climbing or towing a long load of freight cars. Today's commuter trains distribute the traction motors to every 'bogey' or paired set of axles so that weight and traction is equally distributed while changes in direction of travel need not entail turning the whole train around. This has been thought of to be better and more versatile than one big powerful locomotive engine hauling several coaches.

Since the Steam Age

Unlike the highly robotized truck and car making plants abroad, train making, specifically in China, still retain a lot of its human labor assets with work practices dating back to the Edwardian age, the  age of steam locomotives. The design bias is still of the mantra that 'heavy is sturdy', hence the need for heavy lifting equipment in train factories. The high manual labor input is a big burden in high labor cost Europe which is why a lot of the traditional train makers, usually owned by the State either closed shop or is on government subsidy ICU-like drip feed as the labor unions and the State believes that keeping domestic train making, even at high cost, is a strategic necessity. 

Francis Yuseco's PHILTRAK

Investment Banker and RBT – Rapid Bus Transit PHILTRAK circa 1989  – inventor Francis Yuseco exposed that MRT-3 and LRT-1, financed by a so-called grants at concessionary rates, comes with an exorbitant 300% interest rate because it partly finances keeping the train making factory in Belgium [or Czech Republic] open. With many tradition bound countries wedded to the idea of keeping their local train makers alive, the train making industry suffers dwindling orders and over capacity. The more aggressive train makers in Japan, Korea, Canada, France, Germany and China have embraced the latest technology in manufacturing used in the aerospace and automotive industries. Lots of electronics, exotic lightweight metals, ceramics and plastics are used in their lightweight hyper-fast trains which are exported overseas tied to financing grants.

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Hybrid rail-bus

Finally, where does RBT or BRT fit in this scheme of things? As a rail hybrid, RBT uses pneumatic tired buses, instead of railway train rolling stock or rail cars. Many RBT's are powered by the overhead electric catenary systems familiar to trams and trolley buses. Hence, buses cost less to make than heavy engineering rail cars, as buses are already a generic product made in the millions. In some of parts of our country, buses can be made by rudimentary welding body shops, while such is impossible with rail cars.

Junk rail

The key element that makes RBT attractive is that, like a traffic free railway, it uses an exclusive guideway. Contrast this to regular bus service which is just as stuck with all the private cars on regular urban roads, despite their priority yellow or bus lanes. For governments, RBT is quicker to implement and far cheaper to finance, build and operate. Considering the ink on the long term operations contracts of MRT-3 and LRT-1 is still fresh, DOTr Sec. Tugade, realizing the high finance cost of railways, wanted to follow Xiamen's lead and studied junking government owned LRT-2 rail to convert it to PHILTRAK, the original RBT concept. Alas, LRT-2's guideway is narrower than LRT-1 making it less than ideal for RBT conversion. Meantime, PHILTRAK has had a rebirth as a micro-economy along the proposed 5,000km Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao Federal Trackway which will use the DOST's Road Train, includes freight besides passengers and reorganize all informal trackside dwelling communities into employment rich farm support facilities or Trackway dependent economic units.

Gloomy future

We admit, we present a gloomy traffic picture for the next 5 years despite the zeal and the bright direction of the PRRD administration. Even if emergency powers were enacted for traffic alleviation and even if there are willing financiers, the big ticket items like the EDSA BRT and Subway are going to be a heavy debt burden while positive results are not absolutely guaranteed. For our money, the nationwide Phil. Trackway makes a lot of sense but for some reason it is not attracting the kind of serious attention that it should, specially now that someone in the DOTr has finally dug up the PHILTRAK file after it mysteriously disappeared into the doldrums 'crackpot' ideas folder of the DOTC after the term of Sec. Arturo Enrile. Phil. Trackway’s first application will be for all to see, very soon in Panay island. The first stage will be 117kms. of exclusive guideway from a city CBD to suburban communities using the Panay Railroad right of way abandoned for 35 years. 

All is fair

An ideal world is where all forms of transportation – air, water, rail, road, coach/bus, private car, cable car, motorcycle and bicycle – have easily weighed compromises, trade offs and cost/benefit analysis so each transport user can come to an intelligent decision. It is a given that the individual should be as safe, comfortable and convenient as each can possibly be vis-a-vis the other forms of transport. The traveler/commuter's decision will boil down to his/her preference or mood, while duration, cost and safety are taken for granted.

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Example: London to Paris

Take the case of two advanced neighboring economies;  Britain and France.  Getting to either's principal city is almost just as fast from city center to city center.  Take a flight from London City airport to Paris Orly including, transfers to city center, takes just as long via Eurostar high speed train that leaves St. Pancras, London, goes through the Channel Tunnel and arrives at Gare du Nord, Paris. Total Cost? Almost par. A private car journey, whether one crosses the Channel by Tunnel or Ferry, will take far longer and cost far more.

Taken for a ride

Thus if you want to take a ride, you would, perhaps rather have the government be taken for that ride. Despite this, train fares will continue to be cheap because governments still believe that a greater majority benefits from rail, justifying subsidies for the railroad industry. But isn't this a confused chicken and egg situation; i.e. many take the train because they're cheap but its true cost is actually recovered by higher taxes? The reciprocal to this is to raise the train fares to break even point and lower the taxes and just watch ridership fall. 

Go rail!

Witness the low ridership of MRT-3 on inauguration in 1999.  Then Pres. ERAP slashed 70% of the fare resulting in ridership way in excess of capacity at 130%. Still, if and when train service gets to be so good, one would choose to take the train and leave one's car at home to preserve it for those nice long unstressed weekend/vacation drives. It's really not a difficult trade off when you think of it. Go by rail or hybrid rail like RBT/PHILTRAK and you actually get paid to ride. Go buy your private car, and you are paying for everything while you go, along with everyone else who travels by rail.