The tranvias of Manila
Manila is served today by a lightrail system that is inadequate and unreliable. Queues to get on the trains in the morning are hundreds of meters long. There are not enough cars and long gaps in between train arrivals see platforms fill up dangerously with passengers. All these problems and a recent spate of accidents and crashes have led people to call the MRT our “Mass Rapid Trauma” and the LRT, the “Late Rail Transit.”
We were the first in Southeast Asia to build an LRT. Singapore followed and even hired some of the Filipino engineers who built the first line here. In the last three decades Singapore’s light-rail system has surpassed ours tenfold in reach and efficiency. There is seamless integration with their bus and pedestrian systems, too.
Our pioneering track record in terms of trams goes back, in fact, to the 1880s, when the first franchise for horse-pulled trams in Manila was given to Jocobo Zobel and his partners. The service was a success and transitioned to an electric-powered system with services run by the Manila Electric Rail and Light Company or Meralco.
The prewar tranvia network expanded and became the backbone of commuter transport in the booming capital. At its peak in the 1930s it carried seven million passengers a year. In the ’20s and ’30s, the city expanded beyond to suburbs in Pasay, San Juan (Addition Hills and New Manila) and Sampaloc.
The tranvia system also expanded to reach these points and beyond to Pasig, Makati, Marikina, and Antipolo. It became so complex a system that Meralco issued a city map and pocket guide to help commuters find their way around and also to explain the seemingly complex ticketing system that involved inspectors punching tickets and the various options for transfers to other affiliated modes like autobuses. Below is an excerpt from the main text of the guide: “The fare is 12 centavos cash, 25 tickets for P 2.75, first class. Second class is 10 centavos cash, and six tickets for 48 centavos. Children and scholars are carried at reduced rates in both classes.
“On Pasig and Malabon suburban lines beyond the city limits, there are extra section fares. On all bus lines inside the city, except the Paco-Intramuros line, the passenger has the option of paying a zone fare of 2 centavos per kilometer. Outside the city only zone fares may be paid on bus lines and section fares on streetcars. All passengers paying streetcar fares (but not zone fares) on cars or buses within the city are entitled to free transfer to any point in the city by the most direct route within the time limit punched.
Upon payment of streetcar fare, each passenger is handed a combination fare receipt and transfer, which must be shown to Inspectors who will also punch the transfer destination requested. Zone receipts must be retained and shown to Inspectors when
requested, but are not good for transfer. No receipt is given upon collection of section fares on streetcar suburban lines. Passengers should see that receipts are correctly punched.”
The other side of the guide had a simple map of the city and the lines available with transfer points. Detailed routes for both the “Electric Railway Lines” and autobuses were also included in the guide.
A sample of one route is the Pasay-P. Burgos, Maypojo- Jones Bridge route, which was via FB Harrison, MH Del Pilar, P. Burgos, City Hall, Plaza Lawton, Jones Bridge, Rosario, Plaza Binondo, Asuncion, Azcarraga, Ilaya, Sande, Juan Luna and Maypajo.
Reading these routes makes one realize how many of the names have changed. Plaza Lawton is now Liwasang Bonifacio. Plaza Binondo is now Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz. Azcarraga is now Claro M. Recto.
Plaza Goiti (now called Plaza Lacson) was the main interchange and point of orientation. The map indicates how many minutes it would take from major points to Plaza Goiti. The average was between 20-25 minutes, except for the outlying destinations of Pasig, Marikina and Antipolo.
The system was so extensive that you could take the railway lines to Marikina, Pasig, and even Antipolo. From each route the main mode of transport to most everyone’s final destination was walking. There were also calesas and eventually the auto calesa, the precursor of the jeepney, but the main mode of transport was still the tranvia.
Unfortunately the tranvias and the rails themselves never recovered from the war and the Liberation of Manila in 1945. The car, bus and jeepney lobbies conspired to prevent the tranvias from ever coming back until the LRT system in the mid-1970s.
Today, the metropolis is serviced by a ramshackle system of three different makes and specs of light rail. The system’s interface with other modes of travel involves the sorry commuter risking life and limb crossing bridges, streets and almost- nonexistent sidewalks.
Travel time is still faster than traffic on the road, but kilometric queues and blighted terminals make the journey uncomfortable to all but the fittest and those trained in urban combat. The journey is precarious for women, children and seniors. Elevators hardly work and cellphone robberies are rampant.
Light rail systems and subways are the way to go for any progressive city. Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and now Kuala Lumpur are models of cleanliness, travel comfort and efficiency. That is part of the reason these cities are attractive to residents, tourists and investors.
We can learn a lot from our neighbors and from our own urban history. Light rail systems integrated with pedestrian networks were our past. It is also the only future option that is sustainable and desirable.
Feedback is welcome. Please email the writer at [email protected]
Plaza Goiti was the main orientation for the system and travel times from the periphery to the center of Manila were based on this point.
Back then: Everyone used the tranvia, which had reasonable fares and numerous routes and transfer options.
The tranvia system integrated with the rail system via Tutuban Terminal.
Streetcars were desired: Tranvias serviced the main shopping district of Escolta.
Ogle maps: Meralco distributed a map of route lines and transfer points.
The tranvias punched through the walled city, providing transport for students and government officials.
Plaza Lawton beside the Metropolitan Theater was a major transfer point.