All Aboard the Bicol Express
“I am on the top bunk of a sleeper coach aboard the Bicol Express making its way from Naga to Manila. There’s something very nostalgic about the rocking motion of the train chugging along noisily on the tracks. I find the rhythmic vibrations of the train’s engine, sounds of metal clanging on metal, and echoes of ‘choo-choo’ of the train’s horn oddly comforting.” – excerpt from travel journal written on train 11/3/11 before lights were switched off
My sister and I were little kids the last time we rode the Bicol Express of the Philippine National Railways (PNR) with our parents. My mother says I first traveled by train when I was two months old. She managed to carry my sister (then 2 years old) and I along with all our luggage. Throughout our childhood, we would take the train frequently to shuttle back and forth from our home province Naga to Manila, to spend summers and Christmases with my grandparents and other relatives.
My maternal grandparents would pick us up at Paco Station (which my sister recalls was a grand-looking place with a winding set of stairs that didn’t lead anywhere) in Manila after the 10-hour ride. During the early 1980s, I remember the train being a more popular means of transport because of the bad roads which buses plied going to Bicol. When the roads improved, traveling by bus became more convenient. Airlines also offered flights to Naga, so we stopped riding the train altogether until the trips were discontinued. Lack of maintenance, emergence of informal settlers living along the tracks who would steal the wooden planks and metal rails, and damage to the railway network due to typhoons were just a few of the reasons why the trips eventually stopped.
Earlier this year, when I heard that the Bicol Express would resume operations again, I immediately wanted to try it out. After several failed attempts to ride the train on my own since it relaunched (work and travel conflicts, trips temporarily discontinued due to system maintenance, and then cancelled due to typhoons, etc.), I finally got to board the train again with my whole family. My sister had spent the sem break in Naga with her son Eli and she was heading back with my parents to Manila for a visit so they booked a sleeper cabin. The night before they were scheduled to leave, I hopped on a bus to Naga just so that I could ride on the train with them on the way back. We were all excited since it would be my nephew’s first train ride.
The trip brought back memories of our own childhood rides and from my father, who rode the train as a child himself, in the 1950s. Back then, he says that the windows of the train were open and you could stick your head out and wave to people outside, just like the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. Now, clear sturdy glass covers all the large windows, protected by metal screen grates since people living along the tracks continue to throw stones and rocks every time the train passes by.
Dante David, one of the train conductors, who we got to have a nice nice chat with during our ride told us that despite this, two of the windows had already been damaged because people living along the tracks hurled large rocks against the windows. He remarked how only trains in the Philippines needed to be fitted with these kind of grates to ensure that passengers inside wouldn’t get hurt. Since this would often happen at night and the train was on a strict schedule, they couldn’t just stop anytime to apprehend the people.
I vaguely remember that the old sleeping berths were somewhat dark, enclosed, and each cabin had a metal door. The family sleeper coaches now are pretty clean and comfortable. The orange cushioned beds in the lower bunks double as seats while a small ladder covering the window leads up to the top bunks. One cabin is ideal for a group or family of four, but if you’re traveling alone, you can draw the curtains surrounding each individual bed to have some privacy. There are about three sleeper coaches, each with a 30-passenger capacity, and another coach with reclining seats that can seat 60 passengers. The conductor shared that there’s also a dining cart and executive suite coach (with more private cabins), which they used during the fiesta. However, both dining and executive carts are not used during normal trips.
I remember the bathrooms in the old train being small metal rooms towards the back of the cabin where you could actually see the train tracks and gravel if you looked down the toilet. Now, the train is fitted with modern amenities with several sinks towards the end of the coach and separate flush-toilets for male and female passengers.
My mom shared that when we were kids, whenever a train broke down, we had to get down and ride wooden rail skates to transfer to another train at another stop. There were times when the drivers of the skates would stop to feel the train tracks for vibrations and suddenly make everyone get off with their baggage. They would lift the entire wooden contraption off the train tracks so that a train going in the other direction could pass. Thankfully, nothing like that happened this time, and our ride was smooth and on schedule.
Eli was interested in everything, and wanted to keep climbing up and down the beds. He also made a game of swaying back and forth in the middle of the two lower bunk beds to purposely fall into someone’s arms. Unlike traveling by bus or airplane, the sleeper coaches offered more space for him to move around and play, and it was nice to be able to lounge about and lie down properly. After enjoying our packed dinner of burgers from Bigg’s, we spent most of the ride reminiscing about our early train rides, keeping Eli entertained, and playing our staple road games. This time we chose to list songs that had anything to do with journeys and traveling in general.
When Eli finally fell asleep, the rest of us settled down in our own bunks to get some rest. If you’re not used to bus rides or suffer from carsickness, I recommend you stay on the lower bunks, because the swaying is much rougher at the top bunks. There were times in the night I was jerked awake when the train would swerve violently. Lights were turned on again at about 4:00 am and we got ready to get down at Pasay Road (formerly Pio del Pilar), a very tiny station in contrast to the grand Paco station.
All in all, it was a very worthwhile trip and I was glad I got to experience it with my family again after so many years. If you’re planning to go to Bicol anytime soon, I’d recommend you take this on your way there or back to make your journey an added adventure as well.
- Thanks to Ironwulf’s review of the Bicol Express’ soft-opening ride, I was able to warn my family that no blankets and pillows would be provided. All of the sleeper cabins are fully air-conditioned, so comfortable warm clothes, jackets, socks and blankets are a must.
- If you don’t have a pillow, you can always make a makeshift pillow from your bag of clothes.
- Dining carts are not yet operational, so eat ahead or bring food to have dinner on board. Train staff have converted a broom closet at the end of the coaches into a small store where they sell water, chips, light snacks and coffee.
- The train stops for a maximum of one-two minutes per station for people to get on and off, so double check all your luggage, and be ready to get down quickly.
- Make use of the one-two minute stops to go to the restroom so that it’s not so shaky.
- Lights are turned off at 10:00 pm so people can rest and are turned on again at around 4:00 am to wake people up. The private nightlights per berth don’t seem to work, so it helps to have a flashlight if you want to read.
- The last stop in Manila is Tutuban Station. There are also stops at Alabang and Pasay Road (formerly Pio del Pilar). Departure from Pasay Road to Naga is 6:57 pm.
- The ticketing system is still not yet that organized and passengers can only buy their ticket on the day of departure itself. Trains were fully booked during the Penafrancia Fiesta and All Soul’s Day weekend, but they normally have extra seats/sleepers on normal days.
- You can try calling beforehand to make reservations but we found it really difficult to call PNR’s listed number. In Naga, it was easy enough to just go to the station and buy the tickets. I’m not sure about the system for the Manila-Naga bound trains.
- Free baggage allowance = 20 kilos per passenger.
- Kids 3 ft. and below are free of charge!
- Train 612 – NAGA – MANILA (Departure 6:30 pm – Arrival 4:30 am daily)
- Train 611 – MANILA – NAGA (Departure 6:30 pm – Arrival 4:30 am daily)
Source: PNR Facebook Page
*Discounted 30% flat rates as of November 2011
Reserve your seat before boarding. For inquiries, please call:
- Manila/Tutuban – (02) 3190048
- Lucena – (042) 661-2990
- Naga – (054) 698-2132
More photos of train interiors in Travel Up’s FB page.