Skating In Railway Heritage

Feb 2, 2023, 12:24 AM
Eufemio Agbayani III

Eufemio Agbayani III


Whenever we hear the word "railroading," we Filipinos tend to associate it with getting things done so quickly that it bypasses due processes. Recent problems with the Light Rail Transit, Metro Rail Transit and the Philippine National Railways also contribute to the negative connotations we sometimes have about railways.

Fortunately, as we more closely look to our neighbors abroad, we are starting to appreciate the possible benefits of establishing an efficient railway system.

Or, should I say reestablishing, considering that the Philippines started having a long-distance railroad as early as 1891 and in-city tranvias as early as 1883. Our railways were expanding under Spanish and American rule until they were damaged catastrophically during the Second World War, leading to our mostly car-based land transport system.

The PNR continued to chug along, but it would take us decades to build urban railways that would somehow replace the tranvias.

In the meantime, the remaining tracks were used by skates — platforms with motors that could transport a small number of people or their goods across barrios and towns. The unwritten rules of the skates, especially about who unloads and who gets to pass through when they meet, is worth an ethnography about the Filipino understanding of pakikisama.

Now that old railway routes are being revived and more tracks are being planned and built, more people are needed to operate and maintain them.

It was, therefore, opportune that last Thursday, January 26, my colleagues in the National Historical Commission of the Philippines met with a delegation from the Philippine Railways Institute (PRI) led by Department of Transportation Undersecretary Anneli R. Lontoc to discuss an exciting proposition: a possible museum on the history of railroads in the Philippines. It will not only teach our railway history. It is hoped that it will encourage more people to prepare for careers in railways.

The meeting was made more sentimental by the fact that USec. Lontoc is a Quezonin from Lopez, which boasts of the heritage locomotives and wagons parked in Hondagua which was the terminus of a route from Manila. It was opened on May 10, 1916 — effectively connecting Manila in the West to the eastern shores facing the Pacific Ocean. From Hondagua, boats would sail towards Nueva Caceres, now Naga City.

Even after the line was extended up to Legaspi City, Albay (with the two tracks meeting on May 8, 1938 at Del Gallego, Camarines Sur just outside of Quezon), Hondagua remained a prominent stop in this southern route.

Just as the old Manila-Dagupan route could boast of their Spanish-era brick and wooden stations, Quezon could be proud of our stone stations and flagstops, many of which were designed by Pablo S. Antonio, National Artist for Architecture. My colleague at the NHCP, researcher Albert Barretto, had been documenting many of them and posting them online, and it was through him that I first learned of these wonderful structures which will require effort to restore.

Yet, with the PRI’s museum and a growing number of trainspotters and train heritage enthusiasts, I hope that more and more people become aware of the pivotal role railways played not just in daily life but in our national history.

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