19 September 2017

Know More about the Calamba-Batangas Branch of the North-South Railway Project

Image credit: Dutertenomics Build-Build-Build.
Most people in the province of Batangas will probably have some vague notions from frequent enough reports in the evening news that the Duterte administration intends to build a rail network that will connect the northern part of Luzon with the Bicol Region. This network, as readers probably already know, is called the North-South Railway Project.

The South Line that will connect Metro Manila to Legazpi City and even farther south to Matnog in Sorsogon1 is often mentioned in these news reports; but if at all included and often almost as an afterthought is that the South Line is to branch out from Calamba City to the port city of Batangas.

The particulars of this branch line ought to be of interest to citizens of Batangas Province. Regrettably, however, information about this has been remarkably sparse; and especially so since the revival of the line will expectedly impact the lives of many who live in the province. This is what this article intends to remedy.

According to a project information memorandum2 on the North-South Railway Project available at the web site of the Department of Transportation (DOTr), upon implementation of the project, the Philippine National Railways (PNR) shall operate commuter trains between Tutuban and Calamba; and long-haul trains between Calamba, Legazpi and Matnog as well as along the branch line to Batangas City.

Plot of PNR tracks cutting through poblacion Tanauan City.  Image credit:  PNR .kml file plotted on Google Earth.
Plot of PNR tracks cutting through poblacion Malvar.  Image credit:  PNR .kml file plotted on Google Earth.
The National Development and Development Authority (NEDA), which approved the project earlier this month, has extended the commuter line to Los Baños in Laguna3. The commuter trains will be configured to have seats along the length of each car with the space in the middle to be utilized for standing. These trains are to be electrically powered using overhead cables and with maximum speed set at 120 kph.

The long-haul trains, including those that will run the Calamba-Batangas branch line, will be self-propelled with each car configured more for seated passengers. These trains will run at the maximum speed of 100 kph and will use the same tracks used by commuter trains between Calamba and Manila.

The Calamba to Batangas branch will be a 58 kilometer stretch over the existing PNR right of way. This will likely be the same route laid down by the American colonial government between the two World Wars and used for commuter travel within Batangas and Laguna4. The old line has been for all intents and purposes dead for a while, so to revive it will entail laying down new tracks.

There is on Google Maps a PNR plot5 of the branch line which shows the tracks passing through Santo Tomas, Tanauan City, Malvar, Lipa City, San Jose on the way to the port of Batangas City.

Plot of PNR tracks cutting through poblacion Lipa City.  Image credit:  PNR .kml file plotted on Google Earth.
Plot of PNR tracks cutting through poblacion Batangas City.  Image credit:  PNR .kml file plotted on Google Earth.
The forecast daily one way ridership from Batangas to Metro Manila if and when the line is fully operational by the year 2020 is placed at 1,489 passengers. This sounds remarkably conservative, especially since the 114 kilometer journey from Batangas City to Tutuban can be completed, if calculated without stops and travelling at the maximum speed of 100 kph, in one hour and eight minutes.

However, the figure was arrived at from bus station surveys which yielded that 12% of passengers were “extremely likely” to switch from bus to trains, with 22% “very likely” and 32% “moderately likely” for a total of 66%. It is highly likely that many who travel in private cars may also be enticed to use trains instead, especially if the service is reliable.

The fare is expected to be slightly higher than that of bus travel because, as the information memorandum explains, “of the greater comfort/safety with train travel, greater schedule reliability and a surveyed willingness-to-pay for train travel over bus.”

Clearing the PNR’s right of way will likely be among the project’s biggest challenges. According to DOTr Undersecretary for Railways Cesar Chavez, there is a total of 25,000 families of informal settlers occupying the Calamba to Batangas branch line alone. He further said that the DOTr has allocated ₱54 billion for the relocation of these families; and that the department is targeting the completion of the resettlement in 1.5 to 2 years6.

Hopefully, this will not turn out to be a classic case of easier-said-than-done. While Chavez also said that the DOTr is working hand-in-hand with civil society groups and local governments to implement the relocation, for local politicians these informal settlers also represent a voting bloc.

In fact, as I understand it from a source, there are those in Batangas who believe that laying down tracks along the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR) may be the more viable option if right-of-way problems become difficult to overcome.

Construction of the North-South Railway Project, estimated to cost a total of ₱255 billion, according to the DOTr is expected to commence in the last quarter of 2017 and the entire project is targeted to be completed in the last quarter of 2021, just before Duterte steps down from the Presidency. Funding for the South Line Long Haul, including the branch into Batangas, is to be financed by China.

Notes and references:
1 The Municipality of Matnog is at the southernmost tip of the Bicol Peninsula. Wikipedia.
2The North-South Railway Project, South Line,” prepared by the Development Bank of the Philippines, the Asian Development Bank and CPCS Transcom Limited on behalf of and in consultation with the Department of Transportation and Communications and Philippine National Railways, published August 2015, online at the Department of Transportation web site.
3NEDA Approves Metro Manila Subway and Four New Projects,” September 2017, online at the NEDA web site.
4Philippine National Railways,” Wikipedia.
5 There is no way to verify if indeed the Calamba-Batangas line plotted on Google Maps was uploaded by the PNR, but it does look credible.
6DOTr eyes clearing informal settlers along PNR right of way in 2 years,” by Aerol John Pateña, published August 2017, online at the Philippine News Agency web site.

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