The plan for a locomotive driven railroad system began on 25 June 1875, but the work on the Manila-Dagupan “Main Line North” leg began only in 1877. The concession to build was won by Edmundo Sykes, but this was later transferred to Mr. Jorge Higgins Wellfith of Manila Railway Company (MRC) Ltd., a British company.
The cornerstone of the Manila Central Station was laid on 31 July 1887 in Tutuban, Tondo and the ceremony was attended by well-heeled personalities from the government, the military and the Church, who came dressed in English finery. The Manila-Dagupan railroad was to be built in 3 sections: Manila to Bagbag, Bulacan (43 km.), Bagbag to Mabalacat (43 km.) and Mabalacat to Dagupan (106 km.), for a total of 195.39 km. The total project cost was roughly P8 million, or around P40,000 per kilometer.
Filipino laborers, favored over the Chinese imports, were employed in the construction. The Bagbag-Mabalacat stretch was finished in 2 February 1892, coinciding with the town fiesta. The Manila-Dagupan line became operational on 24 November 1892, immediately impacting the lives of thousands of Kapampangans even if it bypassed large Pampanga towns like Lubao, Guagua, Arayat and Bacolor. MRC operations were disrupted in 1898 due to the Revolution. In November of that year, the Angeles and Mabalacat stations were captured by Americans. The rehabilitation of the damaged rails became the responsibility of our new colonizers and before long, the Pampanga stations were once more in service.
The San Fernando Station was of such significance, as it was mainly used to haul agricultural freight. With the founding of the sugar central PASUDECO in 1921 and the establishments of large sugar camarines (storehouses) , the nearby station became even more important , becoming the railroad distribution point of Bacolor and the terminus for 2 branch lines. Passenger traffic stood at 26,658 people in 1920, second to Manila. Similarly, San Fernando ranked 2nd in terms of revenues (P28,549.70) after Manila, followed by Tarlac. Angeles (P12,214.57) and Mabalacat (P7,574.27) ranked 6th and 7th respectively .
With the establishment of an MRC station in Angeles, the town, with a population of just 10,000 at the turn of the 20th century, outpaced the population growth of Lubao, Pampanga’s largest town. Its location encouraged wholesale and retail trade with Bacolor and San Fernando, making transportation more efficient. The Stotsenburg branch from Dau (7 km.) was built almost at the same time as the Camp and was completed in May 1903. It was primarily a military railroad as it did not extend beyond the camp. Interestingly, the location of entertainment halls catering to U.S. servicemen in Angeles was influenced by the railroad system. In 1920, an American Mr. Hart, requested MRC to place a station at Barrio Margot within Camp Stotsenburg. Mr. Hart owned a bar there, frequented by 9th Cavalry troops to “satisfy their whims”. His request was understandably turned down.
The Mabalacat Station in San Francisco generated a lot of traffic and induced dramatic population change—from 9,101 in 1887 to 20,560 in 1939. More branches were extended as the sugar industry in Pampanga burgeoned: 9 km. Magalang branch from Dau (completed Dec. 1907), 20-km. Floridablanca branch from San Fernando to serve Guagua and Carmen, and Arayat branch also from San Fernando (completed in July 1914).
In the 1950s, MRC’s corporate name was changed to Philippine National Railways and its financial conditions remained unstable from 1957 to 1963. Typhoons damaged PNR lines severely in 1973, so that the operational lines were down to just 811 route kms. (from 1,059) the next year. The rise of the Expressways and the closure of the Tarlac-Dagupan route in 1 January 1988 signalled the end of the famous Manila-Dagupan railroad.
Today, Pampanga’s train stations are but a shadow of their glorious past. The Mabalacat Station for instance, is home to 3 squatter families, typical of the “home along the riles” neighborhood. The bricks have all fallen out, the window grills rusty, but the weatherbeaten “Mabalacat” sign hangs there still, a silent reminder that once, the noisy din of train engines, mighty symbols of industrial progress, roared our way.
(9 November 2002)