The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 11. Asia 2 The Philippines, or Everything Tropical

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

There are maps of Luzon, Panay and Cebu at the end of the tale.

The republic of the Philippines, not covered in the previous “Garland” piece, features south-east Asian islands – the nation comprises a huge number of them: fifteen or so, of greatly varying “meaningful” sizes -- the rest, tiny. This is a country which has, with one solitary exception, not drawn a great deal of notice from railway enthusiasts. Likely, I would feel, attributable to the Philippines’ being firmly in the USA’s sphere of influence – including their having been under actual US rule from 1898 to 1946, save for a World War II spell in Japanese hands, pleasant for nobody concerned. The US connection meant – broadly speaking – steam traction being eclipsed by diesel on the nation’s public railways, relatively early; so, come the time at which enthusiasts were in a position to go globetrotting in large numbers, the Philippines were not (one island aside) a prime steam destination.

The medium-sized island of Negros – the single exception noted above – featured a large assortment of variously narrow-gauge agricultural / industrial railways – mostly, but not all, in the interests of the cane-sugar industry. Negros was basically discovered by the gricing community in the early 1970s, and afforded great pleasure to it for most of the following three decades – during which, the island thoroughly and remarkably “bucked the trend” of things worldwide, by its railways remaining faithful to steam, in delightful variety. A fascinating and colourful scene to read about, and revel in pictures of – and very many people went there and experienced these splendours first-hand. I was particularly taken with the island’s Insular Lumber Company railway, and its enormous and decrepit Mallet tender loco – a “hoodoo engine”, working on which many men had met their deaths. However, none of the Negros scene involved public-common-carrier lines; so after this brief salute to it, I’ll move on to elsewhere in the archipelago.

The biggest-and-busiest Filipino public rail scene has always been on the group’s northerly and largest island of Luzon -- almost 800km end-to-end -- which contains the capital Manila. A close parallel here, with Puerto Rico a hemisphere away: both were Spanish possessions until the Spanish-American War of 1898, with railway systems initiated by the colonial authorities only a few years prior to the US’s annexing the territories as a result of the war. The concession to build and operate lines in Luzon was won by a British undertaking, titled the Manila Railway Company Ltd. The gauge chosen was 1067mm. Where gauges are concerned, Spain is famous as an “anything goes” country; one may speculate, however, on whether the choice of 1067mm were to do with the British connection, and / or so as to be in step with the use of this gauge by Japan and the Netherlands East Indies, neither of those lands hugely far away. As the name implies, the undertaking was seen as based on the Philippine capital city Manila, roughly at Luzon’s mid-point. The only stretch of the railway to operate in what turned out to be the few remaining years of Spanish rule, was the main line for 195km north from Manila to Dagupan, opened in 1892.

With the US takeover of the Philippines, the MRC Ltd. set up a US subsidiary or “shell company”, the Manila Railroad Company, notionally to operate the railway; but basically “business as before” continued along British lines. Development, and indeed regular operation, of the railway was hindered for a few years, by guerrilla warfare waged against the US by locals who wished to run their own country, rather than exchange one set of foreign rulers for another – in a number of ways, a slightly eerie prefiguring of the Vietnam scene many decades later. When stability had come to prevail, the system was energetically extended over the period 1905 – 1915. The essential picture involved a main-line spine running far both to the north, and to the south-east, of Manila; plus numerous branches of various lengths.

In 1917, the US colonial government of the Philippines took control of the Luzon rail system, ending the era of British administration and – largely – practice. For various reasons, the pace of expansion of the system slackened after 1917; but new lines did continue to be opened. A long-sought goal, worked toward from both ends, was the completion of the main line south-east from Manila, right through to Legaspi near the island’s south-eastern tip: an isolated section at that extremity was in fact opened in 1914 / 15. In the event, the Manila – Legaspi route was not finally opened throughout until 1938. By then, some of the system’s shorter branches had already been closed as unremunerative; track materials recovered from them, were used in construction to close the main-line gap. With further sections being abandoned consequent on the events of World War II; the “closures-and-also-new- construction” factor makes a maximum-extent route length estimate for the Manila Railroad, difficult. A source inferred as most probably from the 1940s, gives the largest likely route-length figure known to the author: about 1030km.

British influence from the railway’s early days resulted in some British touches surviving to a late date, on a system which came to use mostly American methods. For instance, visitors in the 1970s found British-type train staff working still notionally in effect to ensure safe single-line operation; though in fact, by then employees were only “going through the motions” with the staffs, and in practice, American train-order regulation was what was happening.

Given its original British concession-holders and operators, the MR’s motive power for its first quarter-century was mostly from a variety of builders in Britain (Scottish ones seemed to be conspicuously favoured). Tank locos appeared first – 2-4-2Ts and 0-6-2Ts. 4-4-2 and 4-6-0 tender locos, and 4-6-2 and 4-6-4 tanks, followed. In 1911, new 2-8-0 and 4-6-0 tender classes arrived, built by the American Locomotive Company, but visually on quite British lines. A project initiated in British-worked days, but in the end never realised, was for a rack line from Damortis a little way north of Dagupan, to the hill station of Baguio. Six eight-coupled rack tank locos were prematurely acquired, to work this section; they had subsequently to be employed as best possible, on other duties on an all-adhesion system.

After the US takeover in 1917, there was copious ordering of new locos from American firms: this involving twenty 4-6-0s, and a similar number of 4-8-2s and 2-10-2s. Toward the end of the 1920s, two Baldwin three-cylinder classes – ten 4-6-2s and ten 2-8-2s – joined the loco fleet. Prior to World War II, the MR began to use internal-combustion railcars for services on lesser branch lines; this practice apparently continued until the decline in the MR’s fortunes – and the effective end of branch-line services -- in the last third of the twentieth century; with the role largely assumed from the mid-1950s, by Japanese-built (belated WW II reparations) dmus.

World War II damage and destruction of locomotives was made good by allocation to the MR, of fifty-odd Macarthur WWII-built 2-8-2s ex-the US Army Transportation Corps – plus some Japanese steam locos, which seemingly were found unsatisfactory. MR’s last steam acquisitions were seven 4-8-2s from the US Vulcan Iron Works. Dieselisation in earnest of the MR began in the early-to-mid-1950s, with the arrival en masse of US-built diesel locomotives; the process continued thereon. A 1963 visitor, who wrote in a British railway journal about his findings, discovered a little steam still active then, principally for lesser freight, and “departmental” workings; and for seasonal sugar-cane traffic. Major overhauls which he observed then, being conducted on some of the surviving steam locos, suggested that steam would last for a while longer; it is reasonable, however, to hypothesise its having finished by the end of the 1960s. Some sources give dates in the 1950s, for elimination of steam on the MR; but the author feels inclined rather, to believe the gentleman who was there in 1963 and witnessed (and photographed) things then at first-hand. A few of the MR’s steam locomotives, essentially from the railway’s early days, have been preserved on Luzon.

At some time in the later 1960s, the Manila Railroad was renamed the Philippine National Railways (not “Railroads”) – a last faint shadow of the long-ago British connection? The 1963 visitor mentioned above, found the system at that date to be flourishing; it would appear that its fortunes began to go into decline, coincidentally around the time of the name-change. Competition on the part of more-convenient road transport, no doubt played a big part here. By the later 1970s, most branch lines appeared to have fallen into disuse; freight traffic had fallen to a low level, with most surviving action being passenger. A decade later, freight seemed to have virtually ceased. There was a subsequent brief episode of container freight trains being introduced in the Manila metropolitan area, in the hope of giving some relief to the capital’s choked-and-clogged road system; but this move was unsuccessful and short-lived.

The main line north of Manila, progressively “withered” – by the early 1980s, its services had been cut back to near Dagupan; as at the late ‘80s trains had been further curtailed, to terminate at San Fernando Pampanga, 80-odd km north of Manila; with the Tarlac – San Jose branch abandoned. The early 1990s saw the north main line effectively closed for good, north of a terminus for “Greater Manila” suburban workings. A correlation concerning the closure has been suggested, with the eruption in June 1991 of the volcano Pinatubo.

The south-east main line proved more enduring; but this matter has been relative, and the system’s general story over the past few decades has been a chequered and not very happy one. From the late ‘70s on, various infrastructure mishaps caused services to be curtailed to a little distance short of Legaspi. In the earlier 1990s, the south-east main was down to one return working daily “during the 24 hours”, between Manila and Polangui, some 55km short of Legaspi – with unreliable, seemingly almost “random” working and timing, and everything in terrible physical condition; unsurprisingly, these trains were poorly patronised. A year or two later, there were virtually no train services on the south-east main line (a disastrous typhoon in late 1995, had not helped), though seemingly energetic track-refurbishing was going on a little over 100km south-east of the capital. In 1997, passenger services between Manila and Naga (some four-fifths of the way to Legaspi) were resumed; and reopening right through to Legaspi (with many “thrills and spills” likely to befall trains on the furthest-out sections) happened in May 1998. The mid-to-late 2000s (accounts differ somewhat) saw suspension of services once more on the south-east main line; some cite an ugly and fatal accident, with rail theft suspected as being involved – others tell of natural havoc: track washouts, typhoon damage. Thenceforth for some years, the only workings were on “Greater Manila” commuter services, north and south of the metropolis. A report from spring 2012 tells of the south-east main line having reopened once more, as far as the Naga area (referred to above). Heartening to hear of; but the feeling tends to be, “don’t hold your breath” – should I miraculously be able to visit Manila tomorrow, I would pin no very great hopes on being able to travel on the PNR, any significant distance south of the capital.

Over the decades, governments and private entrepreneurs have announced various ambitious plans to revive and rehabilitate Luzon’s rail system, for long distances both south-east, and north, of Manila; but nothing seems actually to have come of these fine intentions... Similar projects had been in the air from many decades back, for lengthy prolongations of the system on Luzon; very much in the unrealised-dreams department.

Luzon’s 1067mm gauge system has continued to function, from early times to the present day – whatever its other vicissitudes – to serve commuters in the huge city of Manila; with suburban workings for some tens of kilometres, both south and north of the metropolis. These services have been provided in recent decades, largely in the form of diesel-hauled coaching stock; with some dmu action also. Manila also has a 1435mm gauge electric light-rail transit system – inaugurated in 1984, with extensions opened since then; which is administered, to some extent, collaboratively with the PNR’s north-to-south commuter route.

The city of Manila was served by trams, for a number of decades; standard gauge just to be different A horse-tram system was superseded by a network of electric tramways, inaugurated in 1905 and reaching a maximum length of 84km. The Manila tram system is understood to have been largely wrecked in the hostilities of 1941 / 42, when Japanese forces invaded the islands, and to have ceased operation thenceforth.

Mindanao, the only other truly large island of the Philippines, has never had public railways. Philippine public-rail incidence outside of Luzon, has been only on two medium-sized-to-smallish islands which, oddly enough, geographically “bracket” the agricultural-steam “paradise island” of Negros: Cebu to its east, and Panay to its west. The one-time Philippine Railway Company operated 1067mm gauge public lines on each of these two islands – one route on each. Their line on Cebu ran for some 130km along the island’s east coast, Argao – Cebu City – Danao: opened 1907, abandoned 1955 or ’56 – thus, minimally known or reported by railfans.

One would assume from the chronology, that up until closure the Cebu line was steam-worked, possibly eked-out for passenger traffic by railmotors. An enthusiast reporting a visit to Cebu in 1993, told of a 1990 map still showing the Argao – Cebu City -- Danao rail route; he emphasised, in fact “not so”. One infers that the reporter had not hitherto been aware of the 1950s-abandoned line; he informed in a conjectural manner, of observing from the parallel road “possible embankments and bridge abutments”.

The 117km line on Panay, between Roxas and Iloilo – opened in 1905 -- lasted a good deal longer. The owning undertaking’s name underwent various changes: Philippine Railway Co., to under the aegis of the Development Bank of the Philippines, to PHIVIDEC (a “pronounceable acronym” with more than one interpretation), to Philsucom, the name which it bore as at closure at the end of 1984. The line would have been fully dieselised, with railcars for passenger service and small Bo-Bo locomotives (reported as by various builders in various countries), presumably in the 1950s / early ‘60s; all first-hand accounts of it of which the author is aware, tell of it in diesel times. A 1975 reporting visitor told approvingly of this line’s railcar passenger service of ten trips each way daily, calling it an “interesting... home-grown Asian version of the European light railway”. Sadly, the operation was unable to survive very much longer, in economic terms; ten years later, it had closed down. Track and some motive power and rolling stock survived for a good many years, and various schemes – none successful – were floated, to get the railway back into traffic. The most recent reports tell of the line’s being mostly dismantled.

On disused or semi-disused lines on both Luzon and Panay, a good deal of action has been observed with home-made rail trolleys – often man-powered, sometimes motorised – called locally “skates” or “barings”. Use of these vehicles is technically illegal; but giving their operators a hard time, tends not to be a high priority for local law enforcement. These contrivances can carry both passengers and freight, and often play a useful local-transport role in the absence of scheduled trains.  In hyper-crowded Manila, with its insatiable demand for any form of wheeled transport, 'skates' manage to co-exist with scheduled rail workings. The business seems to work quite smoothly, with recognised etiquette regarding “skates” meeting on a single-line section: the operator whose place it is to yield, has his vehicle lifted bodily off the track, for the opposing vehicle to get by. [ is a very good video, if you are scared of heights then don't watch]. This phenomenon is quite often found in areas of Third World countries where railways are moribund / out of use, but with track still down. In fact, it has not been completely unknown in Britain: Boyd’s history of the Festiniog Railway tells of episodes in the time while the railway was closed during the late 1940s / ‘50s, when the inhabitants of isolated dwellings on the upper reaches of the line, toward Blaenau Ffestiniog, technically-illegally “borrowed” FR wagons to push along the railway for shopping trips to Blaenau, subsequently pushing the loaded wagon back home – these doings sometimes involving neighbours in disputes and dissension.

The Philippines would appear to have much in common with nearby Indonesia, physically and culturally. Archipelagos of lushly tropical landscape, often mountainous and sometimes volcanic, with friendly and agreeable inhabitants – though the Filipinos can reputedly be, shall we say somewhat hot-tempered. One feels that sixty-some years ago, the Manila Railroad in its steam-operated-plus-a-bit-of-railcar glory, would have been a thing marvellous to relish, with a fine assortment of steam types working through splendid scenes. This impression is reinforced by a rather delightful handbill, put out by the MR – one infers, in the era bracketing World War II -- which states wonderfully succinctly and all-embracingly, and with splendid fatuity, “Everything tropical can be seen from the Railroad Train”. It’s hard not to feel that tourist rail operations nowadays in tropical parts of the world, should widely adopt this fine slogan.

Not to mention, what experiences Cebu and Panay’s lines might have delivered in those times. Indonesia right at that date, with its greater – indeed mind-boggling – variety of steam types, including some which were elderly even then; might have offered a yet greater lure: but in that era, only a very few, very lucky enthusiasts were in a position to “do” either country. C.S. Small – whose theme song might almost have been an adapted version of Geoff Mack’s I’ve Been Everywhere – got to Negros in that era, way ahead of the crowd, but had no ado with the Philippines’ common-carrier lines. By the time that travels to those parts became more widely feasible, Filipino public railways were effectively finished as a steam venue.

For 1980 pictures of Panay's railways in their last years - see

The same photographer also took some pictures on Luzon at about the same time (and later) -

For many historical pictures use the links on (link broken 5th April 2019) (look at the older posts in particular, eg ) and (link dead by 26th April 2014).

Rob Dickinson