It's old, tired, ramshackle and inefficient. Who could possibly love the Philippine National Railways (PNR)? A select group, that's who. They're from Australia, the United States and Europe, and their idea of a dream holiday is coming here and riding the rails.
It's an activity that never occurs to millions of Filipinos, and for good reason. Trains are few and far between. Timetables are followed only in the broadest conceptual sense - 'daytime' and 'nighttime'. And no train will ever be mistaken for the Venice-Simplon Orient Express.
Riding on narrow-gauge tracks, the trains chug along at a pace that mocks the word 'express'. Carriages are often hot and overcrowded. The windows are typically open, which I suppose is all right because the doors are usually open, too. A friend who rode the railway years ago told me she found a pig in the bathroom. Perhaps it had a discount ticket. Along the route, people throw stones at passing trains. At least they're harder and less disgusting missiles than those which toilet-deprived squatters, living beside the track, fling at the carriages.
Given the PNR's parlous state, it is surprising to learn that several websites and a Yahoo group are devoted to it. Apparently, there's a lot to love in the PNR. The sites are put up by foreigners - railroad fans who endure various labels: trainspotters, grizzers and foamers.
They discuss signals, station layouts and whatever happened to that old, steam-powered fire engine. How do I know all this? I'm part of the group. You see, I like riding trains. I remember my first overnight trip more than 30 years ago, a 538km run from Manila to Legaspi aboard the 'Bicol Express'. I recall peering through the train window and seeing, through the cool, early morning haze, the perfect, gigantic cone of Mayon volcano growing slowly in the distance, as the train seemed to cut a swathe through green rice fields and tropical forests.
From its glory days, way back in the 1960s, the PNR has fallen on hard times. But better days could lie ahead, with the government embarking on an ambitious rehabilitation programme. Meanwhile, rail fans have their own programme: a specialised German agency is now advertising a Philippine tour packaged as 'steam and diesel in the sugar fields' - presumably in the sprawling sugar plantations of the Visayas. I feel the country's tourism department is missing out on a possible niche market.
The PNR e-group's foreign and local members are currently in the process of hiring an entire train to make the run to Legaspi. I'm thinking of joining. If you should, later this year, see somebody leaning out the window shooting pictures of Mayon, that might be me. Don't throw any stones, please.