Throughout Northern and Southern Luzon, the Philippine National Railways (PNR) once had over 1,100 kilometers of wooden sleepers and steel rails spanning from La Union to Legazpi. Much of this vast network was destroyed in World War II, with any remaining tracks having been replaced by roads or left disused. Currently, the PNR only has commuter lines between Metro Manila and Laguna and a single track in the Bicol Region, totaling less than 100 kilometers of track.
This, alongside the lack of accessible and efficient transportation in the Philippines, has made the open rails home to trolleys—improvised rail cars made of wood and propelled by human strength—which were introduced by locals in an effort to use the tracks as an alternative means for transport and other purposes.
Life on the line
Every day is a life lived on a tightrope for trolley operators like Rodolfo “Sangkay” Maurillo, a trolley boy who has been on the job for more than 40 years. “Mula pagkabata ko pa, nag-trotrolley [na ako], hanggang [ngayong] nagkaroon [na ako] ng pamilya [at] ng anak,” shares Maurillo as he narrates his experiences as a trolley driver, traveling to and from the Sta. Mesa and Pandacan stations.
(Ever since I was young, I have been operating trolleys, until now that I have a family and a child.)
The life-threatening dangers of operating trolleys do not shake trolley boys like Maurillo. In fact, it is one that they bravely bet on, as trolley operating puts food on the table. Although admitting that the occupation is frightening, Maurillo reckons it was his inner fortitude, fearlessness, and ever-ready mentality that got him by, “‘Pag bumusina [na ang] tren, kailangan handa ka na. Kahit malayo pa, alerto ka na.”
(If the train blows its horn, you need to be ready. Even if it’s still far away, you have to be alert.)
On the other hand, Sophia Aurelio (III, CRW-BSA), a commuter who uses trolleys to get to school, says that the advantage of using trolleys lies in their accessibility, especially for those whose homes are situated near the stations. “[People] would rather take the trolley for 10 pesos than [take] the [PNR] for 15 pesos,” she says. Since no other means of public transportation would directly bring passengers to and from Pandacan, commuters would rather take the risk and ride the trolleys than wait for unreliable PNR trains.
Using the trolley is a two-way responsibility; the trolley riders must also be mindful and prepared when riding trolleys, as the burden does not only lie on the operators’ shoulders. As such, Aurelio ensures she does her part by being knowledgeable about the PNR schedule and inquiring about the subsequent train’s expected time of arrival. A miscalculation of the train’s appearance by both parties could put their lives in a disastrous peril, “[We have] no choice but to [either] jump to the river or be hit by the train,” Aurelio expresses. In fact, Maurillo cites an instance wherein his passengers jumped from a moving trolley, causing them scratches and minor injuries. “Sabi ko, ‘Teka sandali, hihinto pa lang!’. [Eh bigla silang] tumalon [habang] tumatakbo pa ako,” he recalls.
(I said, ‘Hold on, I’ll stop the trolley!’. But they immediately jumped off while I was still pushing.)
Rolling with odds
The informal nature of trolleys and the risks that come with them have, on multiple occasions, put them at odds with the PNR’s management. “We do not allow [trolley operations], kaya lang, kumikitang kabuhayan nila eh,” says PNR Operations Manager Joseline Geronimo, who also served as the station manager at Pandacan station for five years.
(We do not allow [trolley operations], but it’s the only way the operators can earn a living.)
Geronimo notes that the trolleys mainly take advantage of the long headways on the PNR, which can range from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the time of day. “Malaki yung window [of] time, kaya talagang nagkakasalisi talaga,” she elaborates. Furthermore, the trolleys also provide a much more direct route—such as between Pandacan and Sta. Mesa—than what would normally be possible with the current transportation system. “Ang layo ng iikutin mo, samantalang magbabayad ka ng bente pesos, at wala pang 10 minutes, nandun ka na,” she notes.
(There is a lengthy window of time, so they are really able to get by. You’d have to make a lengthy detour when you can just pay 20 pesos and be there in under 10 minutes.)
For commuters, using trolleys is never the preferred choice. But because of its convenience, passengers are indirectly compelled to use it—to participate in a community that tolerates it, despite the hazards that it brings. “People mostly have no choice but to take the trolley because of the government’s failed transportation system,” Aurelio opines, emphasizing the Filipinos’ ever-existing problem with their transportation system. “If PNR trains were efficient, trolleys would not even be a choice for most commuters.”
Geronimo echoes the sentiment, saying, “Kung marami lang biyahe, maraming sasakay [ng tren]. Magtetren yung mga ‘yon kesa mag-take ng risk na mag-trolley.”
(If there were frequent trips, many would ride the trains. They’ll take the trains instead of taking the risk of using trolleys.)
What lies ahead
With the evolution of transportation and the need for railroad improvements, passengers and operators alike have one question left to ask: what lies in the future for trolleys?
Upon the 2026 completion of the North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR)—an elevated, high-speed railway that will connect Clark and Calamba—Geronimo noted that the NSCR would pave the way for more stations and more frequent trips. “Kagaya ng LRT and MRT na every three minutes ang headway,” she says.
(It would be just like the LRT and MRT with three-minute headways.)
The current ground-level PNR tracks would then be converted to serve cargo routes exclusively and will be fenced for safety and as a precaution, as Geronimo states in Filipino that “there will finally be a fence to clearly define the PNR property line.”
The days of the trolley are limited, but Maurillo is glad at how the trolley has benefitted trolley boys like him. “[Dahil sa] trolley, maraming [nakatapos] ng pag-aaral,” he cheers, noting that their hard work has enabled them to send their children to school and get better jobs.
(The trolley has helped many finish their schooling.)
When the time comes, Maurillo sees himself working as a pedicab driver. But due to the ills of the boundary system, he’ll continue working his trolley for as long as he can, “Bagama’t may trolley pa, dito muna ako sa trolley ko.”
(While there are still trolleys, I’ll stick to mine.)