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PH pushes for heavy industries

The Automated Guideway Transit (AGT).

The Automated Guideway Transit (AGT).

The Hybrid Electric Road Train.

The Hybrid Electric Road Train.








Many have written off Philippine manufacturing as either dead or dying, on the back of decades of faulty policies that have made it easier to import goods rather than produce them. Today, we import everything from high-tech gadgets like industrial equipment, mobile phones and computers, to innocuous goods like paper clips, lights bulbs and ballpens.

Secretary Mario Montejo of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has maverick views on Philippine industry. He believes that if we adapt science and technology as a national thrust, we can still become a force in the manufacturing sector, albeit late in the game. He is an advocate of Philippine industrialization, a cause we both share.

Amidst DOST’s more famous endeavors like Project NOAH and Project Dream, the Secretary recently launched a program to develop locally fabricated machines to enable our manufacturers to mechanize without expending their limited capital. Simple machineries like food dehydrators, kiln dryers, dough mixers, smoking machines, and the like, were developed at a fraction of the cost of imported alternatives. They will soon be made available in all 81 provinces through a common-use facility at no cost to our manufacturers.

This, by itself, is a substantive contribution to our manufacturing sector. It is the shot-in-the-arm they have long needed. Done right, it could very well become the foundation of our industrialization.

Recently, however, my sources inside the DOST told me that the secretary is pushing the bounds of our technical capabilities yet again. This time, he has set the bold goal of developing three types of train systems, in varying sizes, to answer our mass transport needs. It’s hard to believe, I know. After all, trains and locomotives are a far cry from simple dough mixers, and a gigantic step forward in industrial manufacturing. If it were true, it would mark an important milestone in Philippine manufacturing. I needed to see it with my own eyes. So last week, I invited myself to the DOST for a personal inspection.


It Exists

I was met by Asec. Bob Dizon, who briefed me on the project. Indeed, the three train systems exist and are in varying stages of assembly. Media has been given a preview of the first train system, which is presently being tested on two test tracks at the U.P. Campus in Diliman and the DOST grounds in Bicutan. It is called the Automated Guideway Transit (AGT) and it is the smallest of the three. It is a fully automated driverless train that has a capacity of 120 passengers per coach and a top speed of 60 km/hour. The AGT runs on elevated tracks, making it ideal for busy, secondary roads such as the Tramo to Airport Road in Pasay, and Ortigas Avenue in San Juan. It is also ideal as a shuttle between minor and major transport depots. In fact, there is already a proposal to utilize the AGT to link the south central bus station along Coastal Road to the MRT station along EDSA. It costs half as much to build, as compared to its imported alternative which, consequently, will translate to more affordable fares for the public.

The AGT runs on electric power so it is both environmentally friendly and as quiet as a Toyota Prius. If anything, it provides a more civilized means of transport given its use of proper boarding and disembarking stations. With the AGT, our people need not wait along streets inhaling toxic fumes to ride the next passing jeepney.

Local governments and private enterprises are the likely adaptors of the AGT technology. As I write this, three lines are already being planned for full commercial operation in 2016. They are the loop between Philcoa in U.P. and Katipunan Avenue, the loop between upper and lower Bicutan—both of which shall utilize an expanded version of the existing test tracks—and the loop between Commonwealth Avenue to Montalban, via Litex Road. The latter will serve as a feeder line for the future MRT 7.

Tests are now in full swing for the “procedural” aspects of the AGT system. This includes ticketing controls, station operations, etc. With a working system in place, the DOST will be ready to roll out the technology either as a government-owned project or one subject to public-private partnership.

The Hybrid Electric Road Train is the second type of train system under development. With a maximum capacity of 70 people per coach and four coaches per unit, the Road Train is a cost effective alternative to the MRT or LRT for major thoroughfares like EDSA or C5 in Manila, or Osmeña Boulevard and Colon Avenue in Cebu. It runs on ground level and not on elevated tracks so it can readily be commissioned in just a matter of months. And just like the AGT, it also runs on electric power, which makes it both easy on the ears as it is on the environment.

The Hybrid Electric Road Train operates with the same principle as a Rapid Bus Transit (BRT) in that it requires one dedicated lane for it to operate. However, they differ in so much as the Road Train can accommodate 280 passengers per unit while the BRT can only accommodate 150 passengers. In terms of appearance, the Road Train looks everything like a regular passenger train, except that it runs on rubber wheels. The beauty of operating the Road Train is that it negates the use of regular buses by more than 50 percent. So notwithstanding its required dedicated lane, the net effect is still a massive decongestion of our highways.

Asec. Dizon says the Road Train prototype will be ready for testing by the third quarter of next year. He admits the most challenging hurdle was synchronization of all five electric motors, something they already perfected as early as the second quarter of this year. So from this point forward, the team is focused on the easier task of getting the body paneling and interiors up to specification.

The third people mover under development is a full-scale passenger Railway Train to replace the decrepit units now plying the PNR line. The new trains will have all the amenities of a modern luxury train and will be capable of running at top speeds of 90 km/hour. Apart from plying the Manila-Bicol route, this train can serve as backup for the all-important Manila-Clark route should the DOTC fail to get a high-speed train up and running within the decade. The DOST-developed trains can operate using the existing PNR line traversing MacArthur Highway through Bulacan. So given the absence of right-of-way issues, mobilization can be immediate. The prototype will also be ready by mid-2014.

When completed, these working prototypes all provide the proof of concept validating its cost to build, efficiency, durability and sustainability. Sec. Montejo hopes that this will be enough to convince investors to adapt these technologies. Should everything go according to plan, we should have Philippine-made trains plying our highways and by-ways by 2018.


Mostly Philippine-Made

Despite these trains being labeled as completely Philippine-made, Asec. Dizon admits that some parts of it are imported. The electric motors are sourced from Germany, while the suspension system comes from Japan. These components are still beyond our technological capabilities to manufacture.

However, the rest of the components are proudly Philippine-made, Asec. Dizon declares. The chassis and coach, for instance, were developed by the Metal Industry Research and Development Center and manufactured locally by members of the Fabricated Metal Industry Association of the Philippines. The interior paneling and seats are manufactured by Fil-Asia Automotive Industries Corp., while the electricals, elevated concrete beams and tracks are made by a consortium of local fabricators. All things considered, the trains have a local content of more than 60 percent.

Dr. Manuel Hernandez, a Filipino scientist who built his career in America, is advising our engineers. He is now sharing his know-how with our homegrown engineers through DOST’s “Balik Scientist” program. This just proves that the Filipino, here and abroad, possess the collective know-how to match any industrialized country.


An Industrialized Philippines

In just three short years, the vision of a lone maverick proved that the Filipino is indeed capable of manufacturing a full spectrum of products, from simple machineries to highly sophisticated heavy equipment. No one would have thought this possible if not for the ambitious work of the DOST. One can only imagine what the nation can become if both government and the private sector worked together to realize our full manufacturing potential.

I know for a fact that Korea has made their transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial power in just one generation (40 years). With the technical know-how we have at our disposal today, it is not far-fetched to think that our own industrial revolution can happen before the year 2050.

I think that as a nation, we should all think bigger and aspire for more than just being low-cost service providers to the world. Sec. Montejo is right. Science and technology is the answer. And it is not too late for us to board the train to industrialization.


Andrew is an economist, political analyst and businessman. He is a 20-year veteran in the hospitality and tourism industry. For comments and reactions, e-mail Follow Andrew on Twitter @aj_masigan.