"What will it take for a Mindanao railroad system to finally become a reality?"
Every national economic plan drawn up by NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) and its pre-1970s predecessor, NEC (National Economic Council) has included a project named Mindanao Rail System, i.e., a project for the installation of a railroad that would span the country's second largest island and bring together its varied lands and inhabitants. The Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 is no exception, and the current national economic blueprint embodies a Mindanao railroad project.
The Mindanao rail project is, in fact, one of the highest-priority components of the Build, Build, Build program of the Duterte administration. One of the biggest chunks of the program's P8.4-trillion price tag has been earmarked for the project, whose enormity can be discussed from the fact that it will be implemented in three stages.
Of course, the Duterte administration and its predecessors are perfectly right to have accorded the highest priority to the installation of a railway system in Mindanao. This country's second largest island accounts for approximately 20 percent of the national population and is the source of much of this country's mineral and plantation-crop exports. If there is any part of the Philippines that needs and deserves a good railway system, it is Mindanao. Indeed, it can be convincingly argued that a major cause of the comparative underdevelopment of much of Mindanao is the absence of a reliable island-wide transportation system.
A railroad would be that system. In the same manner that the railroads spurred the economic development of Western Europe and opened up America's West and countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, so the installation of a railroad will open up Mindanao's economy to more rapid development.
This is not to say that Mindanao has no transportation infrastructure to speak of; it has. There is the Sagre Highway that runs from north to south, and there are other stretches of highways funded by international sources of project financing (mainly the Asian Development Bank and World Bank) and bilateral ones (mainly the overseas aid agencies of Japan, the US and Australia). But the railroad is generally acknowledged to be the least expensive way of moving goods by land, not to mention the most secure way with greater dependability in a country highly vulnerable to the dire manifestations of climate change.
Unfortunately, official treatment of the Mindanao railway project over the decades has largely partaken of the nature of wishful thinking.
With President Rodrigo Duterte's term almost at mid-point, substantial initial work should by now have been done on the project. But the recent Senate hearing on the BBB program showed this to be not the case. The Mindanao railway project is not one of the nine projects—out of 75 'flagship' projects—that have either been completed or are nearing completion.
Is this situation likely to change during the remaining three and a half years of Mr. Duterte's term? On the basis of what is happening—or, more accurately, not happening—I don't think so. I think the Mindanao railroad project can be stricken off the list of likely-to-happen components of the BBB program.
What will it take for a Mindanao railroad system to finally become a reality? Total government resolve and 100-percent official focus—no hyperbole, no grandstanding, just activity on the ground—are the only things that will cause this desideratum to become a reality.
Massive as it is, a Mindanao railway system is a highly doable project. All the needed ingredients—money, technology and managerial capability—are there. All that are needed are government resolve and sustained official focus on the project. Until these latter factors are brought into play, the people of the great island of Mindanao are unlikely to get the rail system that they have long needed and deserved.