ALTHOUGH the Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program has resulted in some remarkable achievements, it is an unavoidable fact that, in many respects, the government’s reach has exceeded its grasp and that by the time President Duterte leaves office next year, quite a bit less will have been achieved than was hoped for when he began his tour of duty.
However, one area in which the administration can rightfully claim spectacular success that has exceeded all expectations is in the amazing progress in improving and expanding the commuter rail system in and around Metro Manila. Even if nothing else had been accomplished, because of the value this work will bring to the country’s economic and population epicenter, it would be enough to declare “Build, Build, Build” a historic achievement.
We were reminded of this over the weekend with the release of an update by the operations director of the Metro Rail Transit Line 3 (MRT-3), which as recently as early 2019, was regarded as a world-famous basket case. Since May 2019, when a massive rehabilitation project on the MRT-3 was launched, the once badly overcrowded line prone to frequent breakdowns has had all its tracks and signaling equipment replaced or repaired; has increased its available operating train sets from an average of 10 to 15 per day to about 20 per day; doubled its normal operating speed from 30 kilometers per hour (km/h) to 60 km/h; provided working escalators and elevators in all its stations; and cut waiting and trip times for passengers in half.
Elsewhere, the Light Rail Transit Line 2 (LRT-2) recently announced that two stations of its eastward extension into Rizal province will begin regular operations this month. Repairs and upgrades to the line that had been badly damaged by a fire in 2019, necessitating the closure of stations east of Cubao, were completed in late January, making the full line available from Manila to Antipolo.
New rail lines that once seemed to be ambitious wishful thinking are rapidly taking shape as well. As of last month, the MRT-7 line that will reach from North Avenue in Quezon City all the way to San Jose del Monte, Bulacan was about 60 percent complete and is expected to be fully operational by the end of next year. Likewise, construction is in full swing on the long-awaited common station that will connect the MRT-7, MRT-3, the Light Rail Transit Line 1 (LRT-1), and eventually, the Metro Manila Subway in Quezon City. Delayed for nearly eight years over design and location disputes, the project was resolved and got under way in 2017 and is expected to be largely finished by the end of this year.
On the opposite end of the city, the extension of the LRT-1 southward from Baclaran to Bacoor, Cavite, a project first proposed more than 20 years ago, is now more than 50 percent complete in just two years of construction. Once finished, which is expected to be sometime next year, the 11.7-km addition to Metro Manila’s oldest light rail line will increase its capacity to 800,000 commuters per day, and cut average travel times from Bacoor to Manila from two hours to 25 minutes.
And finally, construction of the first phase of the Metro Manila Subway project, another idea that once seemed impossible due to political and administrative difficulties, has also begun. The first 15-km segment of the system is expected to be operational by 2025. The estimated $7 billion project will eventually extend to 36 km and connect to the four other light rail lines as well as the Philippine National Railway line.
Among mass transit options, rail systems are universally recognized as being the most effective in terms of the volume of passengers that can be moved and have far less adverse environmental impact than other, road-based transportation alternatives. By focusing on completing these long planned but never realized projects, the Duterte administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program has truly made a long-lasting, positive impact on the quality of life and economic productivity for millions of Filipinos, who live and work around Metro Manila.