News that a train line had, yet again, ground to a halt in the Philippines is no longer news. This is because train network stoppages are now more the rule than the exception for the average Filipino commuter. For the hapless Filipino commuter, every morning heralds a day of abject uncertainty. The question every morning is no longer “What time will I get to work today?” It has become “Will I get to work today?”
For many societies, train systems are a source of pride. They are showcases of their ability to both serve one of their publics’ most important needs (efficient transportation) and apply technical and organisational prowess in the operation of a complex vital network of many moving parts involving a dizzying array of variables. In the best of the best, service levels go way beyond merely keeping trains operational. Standards of excellence are baselined against an ability to opperate to tight timetables that require trains stopping at stations for no more than a minute (within which time passengers exit and enter the trains) and keeping gaps between train arrivals at no longer than five minutes.
Furthermore, vast information systems and networks are built to keep the riding public well-informed enough to make travel decisions. In stations themselves, there are monitors displaying real-time information on how trains are running vis-à-vis their scheduled arrivals and departures and changes in the schedules themselves. Available information on the pipeline of train arrivals also goes two or three trains back so that commuters know how close or far behind the train they need to get on is. Most basic of all is a stable timetable or schedule. Booklets where one can look up every train arrival and departure time at any station over the entire network are given out for free. Passengers are able to plan their entire days or even weeks in advance to the minute around these schedules.
Suffice to say, a truly excellent world-class train system is orders of magnitude beyond anything that Filipinos are currently capable of building and operating or even imagining. At the moment, Filipinos are stuck at merely getting their trains to work and, worse, even just getting the trains they buy to fit the rails they laid. An entire “national debate” on the fate of a 1940s-era public utility vehicle –the jeepney — competes with discussions around the problems beleaguering Filipinos’ train systems. Both “debates” are emotionally-charged but, unfortunately, equally intellectually-impoverished.
The discussion around jeepneys centres around the fate of their poor “hapless” drivers who will be left with none of the employment they are seen to be entitled to if those calling for the rightful phaseout of these clunkers have their way. In the case of the trains, the “debate” is more a case of trying to wrap Philippine society’s top talking heads’ brains around the notion that a scheduled, tightly-interdependent, and complex system such as a train network cannot be run with prayers and good intentions alone.
At the heart of excellent public services lies a profound respect for people’s time. But Filipinos are known for their infamous “Filipino time” — a tongue-in-cheek term that describes Filipinos’ renowned inability to be punctual. That such an ethic is consistently exhibited at practically every level of the social hierarchy of Philippine society indicates a general lack of appreciation for the impact of routinely wasted time. This ethic is rooted on the two key pillars of the Philippines’ national philosophy — bahala na (come what may) and pwede na yan (that’ll do for now).
Given this dysfunctional cultural foundation upon which Filipinos aspire to build a modern society, it is hardly surprising that the results have so far disappointed. To get their trains (or, for that matter, anything) to work, Filipinos need to address their deep character issues. For that you need intellectual honesty. But before that too can be achieved, you need first to abandon the perverse emotionalism that blankets the national “debate” and uplift the discourse to one where ideas that are well thought through rule.
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