Tutuban train models at station
City of Manila

The Past, Present, and Future of Tutuban and the Railways

When it comes to rail transportation, Tutuban in the City of Manila would probably be the foremost place that comes to mind for many. Since the opening of the old Tutuban station and the Manila-Dagupan railway line in 1892, Tutuban has served as the heart of Luzon’s (and perhaps the Philippines as well) railway network all throughout its highs and lows.

While the Urban Roamer has talked about old Tutuban station which has been converted into the shopping mall complex Tutuban Center years back, we shall be focusing on the railway heritage of Tutuban, the present state of Tutuban as a railway hub and what the future holds for it and the greater rail transportation network in Luzon.

Old Tutuban

We all know that Tutuban Center’s Centermall was the old Tutuban station but we have little idea how it looked it inside when it was a train station. Unfortunately, there are not any extant photos of its old interiors that can be found online but Diego Torres, president and co-founder of Renacimiento Manila (which organizes walking tours around Manila, which I highly recommend BTW) gave some insights as to what it was like.

The green-painted posts with an ornate design are actually remnants of the original Tutuban train station and this area would be the platform area which passengers board the trains. So you can imagine that back then, people would be standing near those green posts as they wait to embark on the trains which would have been situated where the shops at each sides are at now.

Because the old station had to be leveled to an equal ground level, not to mention having to accommodate stairs and other infrastructure to transform it to the mall that we see today, there are no traces of these railway tracks inside Centermall. However, there are traces of the old railway tracks outside, particularly western section outside the mall. Those particular tracks actually do not go directly inside the mall/former train station. Rather, they go straight towards Azcarraga/C.M. Recto Avenue down to the North Harbor area. In fact, up until the 1990s, there were trains that were plying this particular track, serving to connect the pier to the rest of the Luzon railway network, or what was left of it at that point. Sadly, that connection is now gone though there is hope for the future, which we will get to later.

Tutuban at Present

In telling this story of Tutuban, huge credit must be given to the Philippine National Railways (PNR) , the national body that is overseeing rail transportation in the country, for holding the fort for rail transport in the midst of the decline it faced in the decades since World War II as road transportation became more preferred and administrations who were, at the very least, never cared for railways. Even as it had to close down many railway lines, give away some of its property, or see its property along the former/present rail tracks being infested by illegal settlers, PNR carried on and did what it could.

One of those things they did was put up a portion of its vast Tutuban property for lease, which gave rise to the Tutuban Center that we know today. PNR then built the new Tutuban station a few meters behind the original station, which is what we see today. Unlike the old historic station, the new station’s design was not much to write about, though it is a bit more massive compared to the old one since it also serves as the main office of the PNR.

While the present Tutuban Station served the purpose of being a train station, it was just…there. It just does not have the visual style that would have enticed people to ride the train.

It also did not help that the station did not have enough seats to accommodate the people riding the train, considering that many people take PNR services for their low fares. Same goes for the trains which bore plain livery on the exterior that made it less enticing to get inside but actually provide ample wide space for standing passengers and leather-type soft cushion seats, not the hard plastic ones found in our mass transit trains.

The situation at the present Tutuban Station is emblematic of the current challenges facing PNR. It did the bare minimum in promoting the service but could not keep up with the growing demand for public transportation as the traffic on the road only worsened over time. But all that is expected to change in the future.

Brighter days ahead?

The plans to improve rail transportation in the country have been in place for a long while now. Back in the 2000s, the Northrail project was unveiled which would link Tutuban to Malolos and eventually to Clark Freeport Zone but was eventually scrapped due to alleged irregularities. Eventually, it would be replaced in the mid-2010s by the North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR), a massive railway project from New Clark City in Tarlac to Calamba in Laguna, with Tutuban serving as a major hub station.

For the NSCR, a new station will be built in Tutuban which would be beside the present Tutuban Center Centermall building (incidentally right around where the photo above of the old railway track is located) and it would be more massive than the previous stations there, partly because the railway tracks of the NSCR is elevated like that of our mass transit lines but will use the same right of way as the PNR railway tracks.

Courtesy of the Department of Transportation

Speaking of mass transit, another development being planned is the Line 2 West Extension that currently spans from Masinag in Antipolo City to the part of C.M. Recto Avenue in Manila between Quezon Boulevard and Rizal Avenue. The west extension will see Line 2 extend further up to North Harbor, thus reconnecting the harbor to the rail once more. Three stations in this extension will be built, one of them to be built in Tutuban, few meters off Tutuban Center. It is a missed opportunity though that the NSCR and Line 2 stations will not be closely connected it seems though there might be a provision for an elevated walkway. But still.

Courtesy of the Light Rail Transit Authority

And what will happen to the present railway tracks once NSCR is completed. Actually, they will still be around but will primarily be used for cargo transport and for another component of another railway project in the works, the South Long Haul rail that will run from Sucat, Parañaque to Matnog, Sorsogon.

Impending sacrifices?

At this time of writing, the NSCR project has made significant progress in the northern segment, particularly in Bulacan and southern Pampanga and works are expected to begin soon for the Metro Manila segment. And in order to speed up the construction of the NSCR in Metro Manila and Laguna, there are plans to temporarily suspend railway operations currently going between Malabon and Calamba for about five years. This would allow the construction works to carry on without the possibility of impeding the PNR rail services if they were still going on at that point.

At this time of writing, there is no word yet on the date when the suspension will be implemented or if it will even be implemented at all. In the meantime, PNR plans to deploy a bus service for the meantime for affected commuters using the present rail service in those places. It is also worth noting that PNR will still operate its current South Luzon services from Laguna to Quezon to Albay.

Here’s hoping that these developments will mark a new beginning for Tutuban as a transport hub and our rail transportation system.

Acknowledgements again to Renacimiento Manila for facilitating this tour of Tutuban and Tondo last March 5, 2023. Visit their Facebook and Instagram for information about their upcoming events

Acknowledgements as well to the Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Skyscrapercity, and Wikipedia

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