While the Philippine economy continues to post healthy growth rates, a strong case can be made that the country’s full potential has yet to be realised. This is in part due to inefficiencies in the mass-transport network. Comprised of 16 townships and one municipality, which have had their boundaries blend into each other over decades of growth, Metro Manila has matured into one of the biggest cities in a region known for its megacities.

Automobile traffic is now clogging the streets and impairing economic development, and expanding the options and the capacity of alternative forms of transport has become a central priority for the government. A wide range of options are being explored and initiated to address this problem, ranging from light rail expansion, the tunnelling of subway lines, new bridges and elevated roadways, increased bus services and even the promotion of greater bicycle use.

Current State

Many of the current traffic woes are directly attributed to a lack of low-cost alternatives, with most commuters resigned to packing into the overcrowded metropolitan rail system, which serves a limited area of the National Capital Region (NCR). Although the first light rail tracks for the Light Rail Train 1 (LRT-1), also known as the Green Line, were opened back in 1985, comparatively little progress has been made in expansion over the past three decades.

The LRT Line 2 (also known as the Blue Line) started commercial operations in April 2003, but only 12 of the original fleet of 18 trains were operational as of September 2014 due to the unavailability of spare parts and the lack of a comprehensive pre-emptive maintenance regime. These two lines are supplemented by the Manila Metro Rail Transit System (MRT-3), also known as the Yellow Line. The Philippine National Railways (PNR) also operates a commuter line that serves an area ranging south toward Laguna from Metro Manila. Apart from these four lines, which form a rough circle (the only connecting segment yet to be completed is the link between LRT-1’s Roosevelt Station and MRT-3 near North Avenue) around the greater Manila area bisected from east to west by LRT-2, commuters are relegated to riding the extensive network of traditional jeepneys, buses and taxis. Although limited in their reach, these established lines are heavily used to the point of becoming overburdened with hundreds of millions of passenger trips taking place each year on the LRT lines. Passenger trips on LRT-1 have increased from 156.93m in 2011 to 170.3m in 2014, while LRT-2 traffic has grown from 63.83m trips to 72.85m trips, according to data from the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA).

At the same time overcrowding has increased substantially, as a lack of maintenance and overuse have taxed the system and the number of active passenger trains has declined. The total number of peak-hour rail trips on LRT-1 has declined from 59 in 2011 to 50 by 2014, resulting in an increase in load factor from 77.32 to 98.03 over the same time period and increasing to 102.15 as of August 2015. A similar situation played out on the LRT-2 line, with peak-hour train trips falling from 13 in 2011 to 10 by August 2015, resulting in the peak hour load factor increasing from 38.99 to 59.11 over the same time period. The existing two lines are part of the larger overall transit plan which is eventually to include two more LRT lines (LRT-4 and LRT-6), as well as a new MRT-7 route.

On The Right Track

In order to improve conditions, the government, primarily through the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), has ramped up activity on the rail system over the past three years. The much-delayed $1.54bn MRT-7, originally awarded in 2008, now appears back on track with concession winner Universal LRT Corp. (ULC) committing to financial disclosure requirements after receiving the government’s clearance for the project in October 2014. With this hurdle now cleared, the way is clear for the San Miguel Corporation-led ULC to begin construction in early 2016 on the 22.8-km rail-transit system that is envisioned to operate 108 rail cars in a three-car train configuration with a daily passenger capacity ranging from 448,000 to 850,000. The route will carry passengers from North Avenue at the corner of EDSA in Quezon City, through Commonwealth Avenue, Regalado Avenue and Quirino Highway up to the proposed intermodal transportation terminal in San Jose del Monte City, stopping at 14 stations along the way. The project also calls for the construction of a six-lane, 22-km access road that will connect to the North Luzon Expressway at the Bocaue exit from San Jose del Monte as well as the development of 900,000 sq metres of commercial space throughout the concession period.

The railway will serve an estimated 2m commuters north of Quezon and Caloocan City upon its completion, following an estimated 42-month construction period. The 25-year concession outlines a revenue split under which ULC will receive 70% of net revenue, with the government taking 30% if the return on investment (ROI) is below 11.9%. Profit sharing moves to a 50:50 ratio once ROI reaches 11.9% to 14%.

New Lines

As work is set to begin on MRT-7, in September 2015 the government also approved the roll out of LRT-4 and LRT-6 at a cost of P42.89bn ($952.2m) and P65.09bn ($1.4bn), respectively. Headed by the NEDA Board and implemented by the Department of Transportation and Communication, the LRT-6 project is a 19 km-long railway extending from the terminus of the LRT-1 CAVEX Extension at Niyog to Dasmariñas City.

The proposed right-of-way alignment runs along the Aguinaldo Highway and will include seven stations. The 11.3-km LRT-4, meanwhile, will be built from the intersection of Ortigas Avenue andEDSA in Ortigas to SM City in Taytay City in Rizal. Running from east to west, the proposed right-of-way follows along Taytay Diversion Road and Ortigas Avenue with six stations: EDSA (the transfer station connecting with the MRT), Meralco Avenue, Pasig, Bonifacio Avenue, L Wood Road and SM Taytay. Along with these new lines, services for LRT-1 and LRT-2 will also be improved through fresh investments undertaken in public-private partnership deals.

The Light Rail Manila Corporation (a consortium of Ayala Corporation, Metro Pacific Light Rail Corporation and Macquarie Infrastructure Holdings) won the P64.9bn ($1.4bn) LRT-1 operations and maintenance and the CAVEX Extension project bid in September 2014. However, there have been construction delays due to a variety of different challenges including setbacks in the acquisition of right-of-way, the relocation of utilities infrastructure and informal settlers, as well as station changes due to encroachment issues.

Further Extensions

Along with the 32-year operations and maintenance contract for the LRT-1 line, the project also involves the construction of an 11.7-km extension to the existing 20. 7-km rail system. The new extension will consist of 10.5km of elevated track and 1.2km of at-grade track running from Baclaran to Bacoor, Cavite, and served by eight new passenger stations, three intermodal facilities and one satellite depot along with a substantial upgrade of the existing LRT-1 depot. The line’s currently existing depleted rolling stock will also be replenished, with the contract calling for the addition of 30 new train sets which will mean a total of 120 new rail cars. A second operations and maintenance package for LRT-2 has also been approved by NEDA, with bidding to be in early 2016. Along with the other outstanding projects, this will help guide the future of Manila.