Currently, the metropolis is facing serious issues as far as its transportation network is concerned. There is the issue of too many jeepneys plying the metropolitan roads which contribute to the constant heavy traffic the city has been suffering. Then, there is the unreliability of the current mass transit network, particularly that of the Line 3 along EDSA. I suppose I no longer have to elaborate further on that one.
These issues are rooted in a stark and sad reality: the current metropolitan transport system is unorganized and in disarray, needing of a long-overdue total overhaul. What’s even more sad is that it was not always like this. In fact, before World War II, Manila had an extensive and efficient transport system that linked different parts of the city and beyond which consisted mainly of mass transport streetcars that were known here as the tranvias
The tranvia system in Manila came about from a proposal put forward to Madrid in 1878 by an official of the Public Works department in the colonial government named Leon Monssour. It was said Monssour was inspired by the streetcar system that was already in existence in New York and Paris; for Manila, he proposed a streetcar (tranvia) system originating from Binondo with a line going to 5 different destinations: Intramuros, Malate Church, Malacañang, Sampaloc, and Tondo. While Madrid was favorable to the idea, a private partner was needed to make it happen.
Enter Jacobo Zobel y Zangroniz, one of the forebears of the present Zobel-Ayala family who came into the scene to help realize this project. With the concession to build the tranvia system now awarded to him, Zobel formed a company to operate it, the La Compañia de Tranvias de Filipinas in 1882, together with his partners Spanish engineer Luciano M. Bremon and Madrid banker Adolfo Bayo. Most of the original 5 lines were built, with the exception of the Malacañang line which was replaced with a line going to Malabon, which was already a bustling, progressive suburb at that time.
By 1889, all 5 lines were already in operation, four of them were using horse-drawn streetcars (12-seater capacity and accommodate as well 8 standing passengers) while the Malabon line used steam-powered streetcars. It is interesting to note here that the Malabon tranvia predated the steam-powered railway trains of the Manila-Dagupan railroad which would not be in existence until 1892. However the Philippine Revolution which broke out in 1896 and the eventual shift in power to American rule by the turn of the century affected the tranvia’s operations. There was also the issue of the growing inefficiency in the operations that by 1902, the La Compañia de Tranvias de Filipinas ceased operating the tranvia system.
A new operator was sought not only to operate the tranvia system but also transition it to the new age, so to speak. That meant converting the tranvias to electric power that was seen to make them more efficient. The concession for the electric tranvia, as well as for generating electric power in Manila went to a lone bidder, a Detroit businessman named Charles Swift who formed a company called the Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company, the company better known today by its acronym MERALCO.
MERALCO proceeded in upgrading the tranvia system, converting many of the lines to double-track lines, powered by an overhead line of 500V. In addition, new lines were built going to Santa Cruz, Pasay, Santa Mesa, Santa Ana, and Pasig. Along with the railway network, Manila and the neighboring suburbs had one of the most extensive and efficient transportation networks that lasted until World War II.
The tranvia service deteriorated during the Japanese Occupation in World War II. Things got worse when the Battle of Manila destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure, including the tranvia system. For some reason, the tranvias were never made to run again, paving the way for the rise of the American military vehicle turned mass transport alternative, the jeepney.
Nevertheless, the tranvia legacy still lives on in one way or another. One of the tranvia lines was converted into a street that was named after the old tranvia line that once ran there, the Pasig Line. In addition, the placement of the Light Rail Transit Authority’s mass transit Lines 1 and 2 somewhat followed the alignment of the old tranvia lines going to Santa Cruz, Pasay and Santa Mesa respectively. One can also see in Intramuros some tranvia-inspired horse-drawn carriages, much like the first generation of tranvias that went through the city in the late 19th century.
Still, it would have been interesting to think what would the metropolis’ traffic would be like today if the tranvias still were operational at least on one of the old lines. At the very least, they would serve not only for transport but also for tourism the same way trams/streetcars do for Hong Kong and San Francisco.
What makes it even more shameful is the fact that the city ever since never got to have a mass transportation with the same level of efficiency and extensiveness it had with the tranvia system. One can only hope that with plans being made to solve the worsening traffic situation in the metropolis, the policymakers get to at least look back at the tranvia system Manila once had as an inspiration that will help formulate sound and long-term solutions to this problem.
Acknowledgements as well to the Japan Railway and Transport Review