Mindanao railway project

Presidents, starting with Manuel L. Quezon, come and go and each has either come up with a promise or a plan for a railway project in Mindanao but nothing has ever come to fruition.

Nearly a century had elapsed, a Mindanaoan President Rodrigo R. Duterte finally gave a ray of hope that the 1,500 kilometers Mindanao Railway Project may soon become a reality starting with a 105 -kilometer Tagum-Davao-Digos segment.

But unlike in other countries around the globe, we have this penchant for delving into problems rather than focusing on solutions and opportunities.

MRP is no different. One of the biggest hurdles in horizontal infrastructures like roads and railways is the acquisition of road rights-of-way. That problem is commonplace and while it remains to be challenging there is always a solution to it otherwise not an inch of roads, railways, water pipelines, power pylons, and cables will be constructed.

Davao City First District Rep. Paolo “Pulong” Duterte raised some issues of concern and surprisingly he and Benguet Rep. Eric Yap wanted a congressional probe on MRP. It’s all right for Congressman Duterte to raise questions but what is the business of a certain Yap from Luzon to dip his fingers in the Mindanao Railway Project?

Sometime in 2016, I had the opportunity to lead a group of print and broadcast journalists from Davao and General Santos City to travel to China and had a singular opportunity to learn how railway systems in China evolved and their impact on the development of that great country. We were given special accommodation by China Railways officials who gave us a briefing on the massive development of railways in China. What we saw were all modern trains that crisscrossed that huge nation in the continent of Asia where more than 19,000 kilometers of railways slither through. It was just an amazing spectacle.

After the briefing, we were assigned a special coach all for ourselves. Traveling at the speed of 305 kmph through a distance of 1,500 kilometers we see highly developed metropolis and growth centers along the way. It simply demonstrated that where efficient railway infrastructures are present, progress and development follow.

But here we are complaining that MRP passes through the densely populated area without the appropriate geological surveys or proper public consultation with the affected communities.

Excuse me, sirs. Let me get you back in time … I mean Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s term.

In 2018, the Asian Development Bank commissioned Ove Arup to conduct a geotechnical study for the Tagum-Davao-Digos Segment. A total of 78 boreholes were drilled along the alignment, and the geotechnical report indicates that the alignment is stable enough for railway construction.

The TDD’s Environmental Impact Assessment partook in a series of public consultations from August 2018 to October 2020, and thereafter a Project’s Environmental Compliance Certificate was issued on 25 January 2021.

On record, not less than 4 public consultations were conducted for every barangay within the affected areas. Again the Duterte administration is quite strict when it comes to the environment.

Despite his concerns, Rep. Pulong wants the railway project accomplished. He suspects, however, that there might be shady deals in the valuation, acquisitions, and expropriation of properties that were subjects of the tedious rights-of-way issues.

I do not think that the Department of Transportation can go beyond what is mandated by the laws that govern ROWs. There are hundreds of private properties affected and giving extra value to one land owner, for certain, cannot simply be hidden from the rest. You do not attempt that in Davao but I do not know whether this anomaly can happen in Benguet which I doubt can happen anyway.

After all that is said and done, the MRP is still practically at the starting point. The issues raised by Rep. Duterte and Yap are matters that took place during the Duterte government. All these problems and accomplishments had been carried over to the present administration. President Bongbong Marcos has given the country’s “Mr. Railway Man,” Department of Transportation Undersecretary Cesar Chavez, to go full speed ahead with the railway projects. This means we will have our chugga chugga choo train rolling maybe before the Marcos term ends. This means reducing travel time between Digos and Tagum from 3 by bus to 1 hour by train. It will help ease traffic congestion along the way.

Railways are important projects that spell the difference between a feeble and dynamic economic development. Marcos is picking up from where his predecessors left.

Loans have to be renegotiated and contracts have to be procured. We should not telegraph our grumblings which can be construed by the foreign financing agencies and contractors that DoTr is talking to as opposed to these vital projects.

As I write this piece I watched in envy brand new trains from China unloaded in Indonesia while we are hobbled with petty bickering.

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