The Philippine economy is expected to reap huge benefits from the Philippine National Railways’ North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR) project in Luzon, although passengers will still need to wait a number of years.

The initial phase of the project involves a 38-kilometer elevated commuter train line from Tutuban, Manila,  to Malolos, Bulacan, and its construction is set to proceed following a landmark 241.99-billion-yen (P97,376,145,

568.86) financing deal that was sealed last November with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica).

As its name suggests, the NSCR project aims to spur development in provinces north and south of Metro Manila, the capital region that is home to about 12 million people and powers over a third of the country’s economic output.

With the growing number of cars and the inefficiency of existing mass transit systems, Metro Manila has been suffering from the effects of urban congestion. Jica said this was costing road users about P2.4 billion per day that would swell to P6 billion daily by 2030.

This is where massive train projects like the NSCR, with its ability to efficiently move large numbers of passengers, enter the picture.

Specifically, the NSCR hopes to revive a once robust Luzon railway system that in the 1970s spanned 900 km linking La Union province in the north to Legazpi City in Albay province in the south.

Jica said Luzon’s railway network had expanded only by 5 km over the last decade despite rapid growth in Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

The bigger portion is the NSCR’s south line, which involves about 653 km of railway lines, mainly a Tutuban to Legazpi City long-haul route that was suspended in 2012 due to typhoon damage to bridges along its alignment.

Part of the NSCR project is a 58-km line from Calamba, Laguna, to Batangas City, Batangas, and a 117-km line from Legazpi City to Matnog, Sorsogon.

The south line will be funded via a public private-partnership scheme. But given its massive size, it is unlikely to be auctioned off within President Aquino’s term that ends in the middle of this year.

 Japanese loan

The Manila-Bulacan northern line, which was closed in 1984, is being funded by a Japanese overseas development assistance loan. It can now proceed as its financing is already in place.

The loan carries an annual interest rate of 0.1 percent and 0.01 percent for consulting services over a period of 40 years with a 10-year grace period, according to Jica.

Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya said construction of the Manila-Bulacan line would start by early 2017 and the project would be finished in the latter part of 2020.

The line  is expected to have a total of 15 stations and demand is projected at about 340,000 passengers per day once it opens.

Abaya said the Manila-Bulacan line would cut the usual multi-hour trip to about 35 minutes.

“For a mega city like Metro Manila, a consequence of a growing economy is the growing capacity of our people to own their own vehicles. Clearly, with our traffic, that is not the way to go. And the solution to that natural tendency is to develop mass transit systems,” Abaya said in a previous interview.

He said that the use of public transportation was still dominant, or 80 percent, against the 20 percent for private vehicles. But these were mainly through “smaller modes” like jeepneys, tricycles and UV Express units.

The Jica and National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) highlighted the NSCR’s importance in a joint study that was finished in 2014.

Dream plan

The Jica-Neda report, which outlined an infrastructure “dream plan” of railways, roads, airports and ports valued at P2.6 trillion up to 2030, said the NSCR was “urgently needed.”

Its connectivity to Metro Manila’s three train lines (Metro Rail Transit Line 3 and the Light Rail Transit Line 1 and Line 2) and planned expansion projects would also cut congestion significantly.

The Jica-Neda study said once all projects were running, ridership would increase from about 1.5 million in 2012 to

7.4 million in 2030.

Moreover, the study projected that 2.1 million passengers from Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite would benefit from the system.

Once all train lines are physically connected and once a common fare is applied, ridership will increase 20 percent, the study said.

“With the mass transit network, Metro Manila can address 41 percent of the total travel demand and become one of the successful mass-transit cities in the world,”  the study said.