News is that the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) has approved a Feasibility Study to proceed for the proposed Mindanao Railway Project. The map above gives an indication of the scope of the proposed railway system.It’s been a long time coming. An overview of railways in the past can be found in The Colonial Iron Horse: Railroads and Regional Development in the Philippines, 1875-1935 by Arturo G. Corpuz. The British, of course, were railway pioneers in the Philippines, and as this report on a US Congressional Hearing in 1904 shows, the Americans were wary of British commercial interests in this regard. See also a 1907 journal article by Frank McIntyre, Railroads in the Philippine Islands.
The Philippine Diary Project gives a glimpse into the first glimmerings of a railway scheme for Mindanao. These glimpses are through the diary of Francis Burton Harrison, former Governor-General, and who served as an adviser to the Commonwealth of the Philippines from 1935-36 and again from 1942-44 (and after independence, on foreign affairs). Aside from having been a chief executive, Harrison was a longtime resident of the United Kingdom and was thus attuned both to British psychology and their reliance on railways, in contrast to the American preference for highways. See Planes, trains, and automobiles from July 16, 2008 for some background:
Courtesy of Augusto de Viana is The railways in Philippine history which, however, so compresses the most interesting years, the 20s to the 50s, as to render that section meaningless. Oh well. Viviana overlooks the ambivalence and even hostility American officials felt towards railways, since it would affect the Philippine market for automobiles… When autonomy was achieved, railroad development accelerated. And the policy debate on highways versus railways also began, along with still-unrealized plans such as a railroad for Mindanao (the development of Maria Cristina Fall’s hydroelectric power was originally envisioned as primarily powering the Mindanao railways: there are interesting snippets on these debates in F.B. Harrison’s diary: as an Anglophile, he was pro-railways, pointing with envy to Britain’s not altogether altruistic promotion of its own steam engine industry in its colonies…
Harrison’s interest in railways can be seen in his entry for October 25-29, 1935, Harrison records an extended conversation with Alejandro Roces, the leading newspaper publisher at the time:
Roces, Sr. advocates a National Transportation Corporation to take over all the motor bus lines –capital required now is about three million pesos but they would take shares or installment payments; they can be run as feeders for the Railroad. Paez agrees with him. Roces advocates moving Bilibid prison out of town and making the site a central market and the hub of motor buses –thus cutting out the middleman. This has been tried in Spain –and is a success.
His interest is also shown by railways-related details he notices. Two days before the inauguration of the Commonwealth (November 13, 1935), Harrison visits Pasay and noticed,
Called at Pasay. Quezon was closeted with General MacIntyre, General Creed Cox (Chief of the Bureau of Insular Affairs), Osmeña, Roxas, Paez and Carmona –I believe they were discussing the subject of the bonds of the Manila Railroad.
Harrison quite early on (the idea was first broached in broad strokes on November 2, 1935, thirteen days before the inauguration of the Commonwealth) was engaged as an adviser on communications, and his first task was advising the Philippine government on how to handle the British owners of the Manila Railway Company. See his diary entry for November 26, 1935:
We then discussed my appointment as Adviser on Communications and he asked me also to help him in the reorganization of the government. He is to put me in touch with Quirino and Paez on the purchase of the Manila RR. bonds from the English.
Harrison seems to have immediately set about getting himself up to speed on the railway situation. See his diary entry for November 27, 1935:
Talk with [James J.] Rafferty and McCreery, who is auditor and acting manager of the Philippine Railway. He said that the Iloilo line, is practically self-sustaining. Cebu is not suited to a railway.
Two days later, he was actively taking up the task assigned him with the railways manager. See his diary entry for November 29, 1935:
Conference 9-10 a.m. with [Jose] Paez over the proposed purchase of the Manila RR. Southern 4’s from the Southern Syndicate. He is much in favor of accepting the British offer, and says that if the plan is carried thru’ the RR. can meet its indebtedness for interest even in bad times.
About a week later, he was being consulted by representatives of investors on what to do, see his entry for December 6, 1935:
[John H.] Pardee wants to know whether the Philippine Railway Co., should pay its Dutch bond holders on a gold basis, or whether the Manila RR. had decided that under American law they could pay only 4%. If so, the Philippine Railway Co., would pay only 4%, because the gold clause was not in their bonds and upon “instructions” from the Secretary of War in the time of Taft this had not been followed by a vote of their board. No written word of this exists in the War Department today.
Three days later, the government position was formally communicated to the new National Assembly. See Message of President Quezon to the First National Assembly on Railroad Bonds Redemption, December 9, 1935.
Politics being what it is, by December 15, 1935 Harrison was noticing political intrigue concerning his assignment on railways:
[A.D. Williams] reported that it is now rumoured that I came out here this time to advance the interests of the English in the Manila RR. bond redemption. (Exactly contrary to facts –as usual). Says Paez insisted on resigning if the bonds are not redeemed. I feel certain we could have made a better bargain with the English; that I could have done it; and that it is legally possible to avoid paying them receipts from the “gold clause” in the bonds, and that the English know it. (N.B. Quezon asked me to prepare “advise” on this subject and then never asked for my opinion.)
Five days after that, Harrison records his discussions with the president, and then with the British consul on December 20, 1935 (along the way it’s an interesting glimpse into the contending interests that come into play whenever any commercial interest is affected by government policies –press, politicians, governments local and foreign, get into the act):
Then I asked him [Quezon] what was the matter with the Manila RR. bond purchase? He said it has been held up to enquire of the United States Government as to whether they considered that the Philippine Government was resposible for the principal of these bonds; they had replied thru the High Commissioner in the affirmative –so Quezon said the bill would go through because this meant that the United States would act on the maturity of the bonds and seize the Customs House. He said that if the American Government had decided this Government was not responsible for the principal, he was going to say to the English that he had been in favour of purchase but the Legislature demands better terms. I told him that this Government was not responsible for principal of these bonds –that just as we had bought the railroad we could sell it. Then he said Confesor (Assemblyman) had told him of F. Theo Roger’s (of Free Press) story that I had come out here to get what I could for the English! He said that he had authorized Confesor to state the true facts in the Legislature –that this impugned his honor as well as my own– that he would put Rogers in prison if he printed such a gross libel. He asked me to bring him the memorandum on these bonds which I had prepared for him on December 6, which I did…
…I then went to home of A.P. Blunt, British Consul General –he did not get there until 8 o’clock, having been at work in his office, getting off in the mail all his reports on governmental development here… As I left, Blunt asked me in a casual voice what had happened about the purchase of the Manila RR. bonds –I said there had been “a hitch.” He eagerly enquired “what hitch?” I said it had been caused by Vicente Villamin’s speech –“ah!” he said “they fear the wily English bankers, whereas our fellows would rather get this agreement now than perhaps lose everything later.” I replied that there was much to be said on each side, but I really thought the deal would go through –(it passed the Legislature just about that time).
The story resumes some weeks later, on January 16, 1936:
I asked him [Quezon] whether he wanted me to talk public business at luncheon, and he replied that he enjoyed it with people he liked. Told him I had just been with Paez and had written for him (Quezon) an opinion on the Manila RR. I advised him to instruct the public utilities commission to stop for the present issuing any more “certificates” or licenses for the bus lines. Said he would do so. Told him it was fortunate he could put the railroad and the busses under one control –other countries could not now do so but he was catching the situation nearly as it began.
I also expressed the hope that he would be able to get the Legislature to agree to permit the Manila Railroad to abandon those branches which were (dead) unprofitable.
(a few days later, on January 20, 1936, Harrison would note that he submitted a memorandum on Manila Railroad plans “for the next few years”). A few months later, the situation seems to have been resolved, as recorded in his diary entry for March 19, 1936:
Quirino said to me that my silver purchase suggestion was “gaining ground.” He also remarked that I had helped in the purchase of the Manila Railroad bonds, because I knew the “psychological background” of the English bondholders.
But this entry is about the proposed Mindanao Railway. And here, Harrison gives insights into the thinking behind the Mindanao Railway –and the opposition to it.
The entries related to a Mindanao Railways plan start on February 18, 1936, when A.D. Williams, the American adviser of the government on public works, makes an inquiry with Harrison:
A. D. Williams came in to enquire whether there was any basis for Quezon’s newspaper statement that it was being considered whether to build main roads in Mindanao, or railroads, which would cost ten times as much and probably be a heavy loss. We agreed that roads were the modern solution, and that a railroad was only justified if leading to a mine or other heavy industry.
A month later, Harrison, on March 17, 1936 notes that Teofisto Guingona, Sr. (who would be Commissioner of Mindanao and Sulu) had a different point of view:
Guingona is in favour of constructing roads rather than railroads in Mindanao.
The clash between these points of views is discussed in his entry for March 25, 1936:
Busy morning at office. Miguel Unson has seen Quezon…
We talked over the issue of railway vs. roads in Mindanao: he says the plan is to take down there that useless railroad outfit in Cebu, and perhaps in Iloilo as well, and to build roads as feeders. I also saw Osmeña for a moment before the Cabinet meeting and he talked on the same subject: says the time has come to decide either for railroad or roads, and not to make the same mistake as in Luzon, where they run parallel.
It seems that the issue continued to remain unresolved –or that those opposed to railways were still lobbying to change the policy. See Harrison’s entry for April 28, 1936:
At Malacañan. A. D. Williams had just come from a conference with Quezon, Paez and Ramon Fernandez; says the President is set on building railways in Mindanao, and “A.D.” and Fernandez tried to convince him they would not pay. “A.D.” said he thought he had offended Quezon still more by replying to his (Quezon’s) complaints that the roads offered too unfair competition to the Manila Railroad, that the competition from trucks was unfair and when they had finally managed by January 1, 1936 to get the tax on trucks raised from one peso to two pesos per 100 kilos, the rate had at once been reduced again. This was Quezon’s own doing on the advice of Geo. Vargas, and they both looked pretty glum.
But the policy remained. See May 8, 1936:
This morning, Quezon gave a press interview to both “foreign” and “local” reporters. Evidently, he had important things to give out. The newspapers published:
(a) A statement that Davao land “leases” would go to the courts.
(b) The President contemplates the construction of a 150 kilometer (300!) electric railway between Davao and Cagayan de Misamis, and also would complete the Aloneros-Pasacao gap in the southern lines of the Manila Railroad. The Maria Cristina Falls in Lanao are to be used for part of the power for the first project.
(c) That the Philippines would sooner ask for immediate independence than wait for the end of the ten years period if there are no prospects of improving the provisions of the economic clauses of the Tydings-McDuffie law.
Still, the opponents of the railways scheme hadn’t given up, as recorded in this entry for May 9, 1936:
[A.D. Williams] told me again of a talk with Quezon concerning transportation. It arose out of a project to build a wharf for the Cebu Portland Cement Co. Williams pointed out that this would reduce the revenues of the Cebu Railway. Quezon replied: “our guarantee of interest on the bonds expires next year. We will have to buy the road and move it.” Williams agreed and suggested moving it to Negros. Quezon remained silent. What he wants is to move it to Mindanao which Williams opposes since he believes that a railroad would be so much more expensive to maintain and operate than roads.
The policy, however, still remained. As the entry for May 18, 1936, the railways head was dispatched to Mindanao to conduct an inspection:
Quezon returned from Hong Kong and after a day at Malacañan left for Baguio. His office work is greatly in arrears and is in confusion. Vargas handed me a memorandum prepared by Quezon dated April 14 in Iloilo, addressed to me, (and unsigned) asking me to prepare papers to carry out the recommendations of the annual report of the Manila Railroad Co. This I received May 18!! Vargas says he found it “on the boat” (Arayat?). I hardly think it was meant for me, anyway, but probably for Paez who is away inspecting the line for the proposed railroad in Mindanao.
A month later, the lobbying of the National Assembly included a pitch for the Mindanao railways scheme, see June 6, 1936:
Before making wharf at Iligan, Quezon addressed the Assemblymen, asking for funds for the development of Mindanao. He used maps, and said that an electric railway was to be built from Misamis, via Bukidnon to Davao, the water power for this project coming from the falls in Lanao. Only four or five of the Assemblymen had ever been in Mindanao before. The gathering seemed to be willing to vote the money, but wanted to know how they were to get the colonists? Quezon replied “Open roads, and they will come of themselves.”
These behind-the-scenes stories in Harrison’s diaries, help provide context to the official declaration of policy in the Second State of the Nation Address, June 16, 1936 in which the railroad bonds, and future plans, including the expansion of the railways system, were discussed:
Manila Railroad Company –A very important measure approved by the National Assembly is Commonwealth Act No. 4 providing funds to be loaned to the Manila Railroad Company for the purchase, before maturity, of certain outstanding bonds of the said Company. In accordance with the provisions of this Act, I directed the Insular Treasurer to loan to the Manila Railroad Company P9,900,000, and authorized the Philippine National Bank to use P3,360,000 of its funds in the purchase of said bonds.
On January 29, 1936, upon payment to the Manila Railway Company (1906) Ltd., through the Chase National Bank, New York City, of the sum of $6,698,631.41 covering the principal, interest and exchange premium, all of the Souther Lines 4 per cent gold bonds maturing May 1, 1939, held by the English Company, with par value of P16,340,000, were delivered to the order of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, Washington, D.C., acting as representative of the Commonwealth Government and the Manila Railroad Company.
The successful culmination of this exceedingly important transaction resulted in great financial advantages to the direct benefit of the Manila Railroad Company and indirectly of the Commonwealth Government, which is the sole owner of the property. The following estimates indicate in round figures the savings that will be effected between now and the maturity of the bonds:
Total face value of the bonds held by the Manila Railway Company (1906), Ltd. …………….. P16,340,000.00 Cost at 80 per cent of face value …………….. 13,072,000.00 Savings in principal …………….. 3,268,000.00 Less –premium …………….. 165,500.00 Net saving in principal …………….. 3,102,500.00 Normal 4 per cent annual interest on English Company holdings P653,600.00 Normal interest for 1936, 1937, 1938 and half of 1939 2,287,600.00 Premium for 3-1/2 years at P441,180 each year 1,544,130.00—————— 3,831,730.00—————————– Total …………….. P6,934,230.00 Less- 2% on P13,350,000 for 3-1/2 years 934,500.00—————————– Total savings in principal and interest …………….. P5,999,730.00================
The above savings on the English Company holdings are based on the principal of the bonds being redeemed at maturity at their face value. However, both the principal and interest are subject, at the holders’ option, to payment in certain European currencies at the former gold equivalent, and if this option should be exercised covering the principal at the time of maturity, the amount necessary to redeem the bonds being held by the English Company would, on the present basis of exchange, represent a total sum of approximately P27,287,800. The purchase of these new bonds at this time for the sum of P13,072,000, therefore, means a saving in interest and principal of about P14,200,000 besides a savings in interest and premium amounting to about P2,900,000 after allowing for the two per cent interest on the loan from the Government, or a total saving of about P17,100,000.
The investment of the Government in the Manila Railroad Company including bonded indebtedness of the Company all told amounts to approximately P28,000,000. This is a respectable sum for any Government and doubly so for a Government whose yearly revenue at present is around P78,000,000 and at its highest peak only reached the total of P92,783,173.70.
Bus and truck transportation due to improved roads in the northern and central provinces of Luzon have caused a large decline in the income of the Manila Railroad Company. We cannot afford to allow this situation to continue and permit the Government to suffer tremendous losses in railroad operation, for the time might come when the Government would either be compelled to suspend the operation of the Railway or carry a yearly financial burden that sooner or later would bankrupt the National Treasury.
The Manila Railroad was acquired by the Insular Government in 1917 in order partly to withdraw from foreign hands the control of our most important means of transportation at that time. Soon after the Government assumed the administration of this property, the railroad began paying interest on the bonds from its revenue, and even extended some of its lines with its own resources. Only during the last two or three years has the income of the railroad begun to decline due, as already stated, to bus and truck competition. If it should be found advisable, I am prepared to authorize the Manila Railroad Company to purchase some of these competing bus transportation companies or else to have the Government establish and operate its own bus and truck services. The Constitution expressly authorizes the Government to establish and operate means of transportation and communication, and, upon payment of just compensation, transfer to public ownership utilities held by private individuals to be operated by the Government.
Another step that must be taken at once is the completion of the railroad line to the Bicol provinces. This, I am informed, will make the southern lines a paying enterprise. In pursuance of the authority vested in me by law, I have directed the Secretary of Finance to purchase P3,000,000 worth of stocks of the Manila Railroad to finance the completion of the Aloneros-Ragay line. It is my understanding that to complete the road the Government will have to invest only P700,000 more in addition to the P3,000,000 referred to above.
But this amount will have to be greatly increased if the Manila Railroad Company is not given permission to abandon the Legaspi-Tabaco, Las Pinas-Naic, Rosario-Montalban and Batangas-Bauan lines which are absolutely unnecessary from the point of view of public convenience and which, consequently, are causing an annual loss of about P100,000 to the Railroad Company. Once these lines are abandoned their materials and equipment will be used in the construction of the Aloneros-Ragay line.
I, therefore, earnestly recommend that a law be enacted authorizing the Manila Railroad Company to abandon the lines above mentioned.
After this, there isn’t any discussion on the Mindanao railways scheme, as Harrison resigned as adviser in 1936. As a postscript, the last mention of railroad planning in Harrison’s Diary is on December 23, 1938 when, during a visit, he mentions the recently-completed Bicol Express:
Staying with the President alone at the Guest House across the Pasig River from Malacañan Palace.
At luncheon we had Don Alejandro Roces, proprietor of the T.V.T. newspapers and Paez, manager of the Manila Railroad Company. Paez told of the success of the new branch of the railroad in the Bicol Provinces –at last, they have through connection with Manila and it is no longer necessary to cross Ragay Gulf by steamer. Quezon mentioned that he had refused the request of residents of those provinces for a highway parallel with the railroad.
For the official record on this, see the Fifth State of the Nation Address, January 24, 1939:
The Manila Railroad Company has at long last completed its southern line. The gap which existed for many years between Tayabas and Camarines Sur was connected at a cost of about P2,000,000. This was one of my dreams that have come true. The significance of this achievement will be readily seen when we consider the fact that a daily, comfortable, fast and inexpensive communication service has been established between Manila and the Bicol provinces. At the same time the completion of this southern line means increased earnings for the railroad.
Some photos (click to enlarge):
We can catch glimpses of the continuing story, also in the official record for the next two years:
Sixth State of the Nation Address, January 22, 1940:
In addition to this public debt, however, the Manila Railroad Company has an outstanding obligation in the amount of P26,472,000 for which no sinking funds are being provided. In order to protect the credit of one of our most important enterprises, the Government will have to assume the payment of this debt maturing in 1956. I recommend that the National Assembly consider a plan establishing a sinking fund for these obligations from the proceeds of the excise tax in the event the Manila Railroad Company is unable to provide therefore.
Seventh State of the Nation Address, January 31, 1941:
With the completion of the Tayabas-Legaspi section of its main Southern Line, the Manila Railroad Company has been enabled to maintain through train operation between Manila and Albay…
The Manila Railroad Company has also outstanding bonds amounting to P28,718,000.00. We have taken steps to enable this company to redeem its outstanding bonds upon maturity. For this purpose the National Assembly last year appropriated P7,000,000 from the Coconut Oil Excise Tax Fund. The present program of the Government contemplates further yearly appropriations from this same Fund until the total bonded debt of the Manila Railroad Company is fully covered.
World War II would put an end to railway schemes. In the years that followed, the story would be destruction and trying to rehabilitate the railways system.
The Bicol Express commenced in 1938 when, half a kilometer from del Gallego town proper in Camarines Sur, a golden nail was driven into a railroad tie, marking the meeting point of the south and north railroad lines and so officially linking Manila and Legaspi City by rail. The devastating weather of the early 1970s devastated the South Railway, and only token efforts were made to restore rail services. The railway was only rehabilitated in 1985, but deteriorated again soon after that. Then rail service between Manila and Bicol ceased in 2006 due to typhoon damage.
See also The Railways and Industrial Heritage Society of the Philippines website.