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.

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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.

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