All Aboard The Bicol Express


Looking at the metal grill covering the window of my cabin, I imagine that I am convict being transported by the evening train to some godforsaken prison. I peer through the glass and see trees and rice paddies drained of all color: infernal landscapes of black and gray. Perhaps my destination is not prison but the netherworld. Then the radio blares Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ for every passenger to hear. Truly I am one of the damned.

Why did I get on board this train?


For this whim of mine to ride a railroad car cross-province, I hold responsible – of all people – my 5-year old nephew. Once, while playing with his Thomas the Train train set, he asked me, “Tito, are there trains in the Philippines?”

“Of course there are trains in the Philippines. You rode the LRT with your Papa. The LRT is a train.”

The little boy was probably dissatisfied with my reply because asked another question. “Tito, are there trains with smoke in the Philippines?”

Since he was playing with Thomas the Train, I inferred that he was talking about steam locomotives. “Julio, there are no steam trains in the Philippines. Those trains are from long ago. Besides, the smoke coming from the train is bad for the environment.” As if environmental degradation had any relevance to his question.

I never heard my nephew ask another question about steam locomotives. But the conversation led me to reflect on my own experience with trains. What do I know about traveling by railroad car, besides the tantalizing bits shown in Hollywood movies? I recalled a scene from the film Days of Heaven wherein the child narrator dreamily recounts: ‘The three of us been going places. Looking for things. Searching for things. Going on adventures.’ And the scene accompanying this monologue is a shot of a steam locomotive going over a bridge.  I also chanced upon a Facebook link to an article on the revival of the Bicol Express (the train ride to Bicol, not the dish). I started wondering what it would be like riding the Bicol Express, and what would it be like spending time in Bicol for a couple of days.

I realized I haven’t had an adventure for the longest time.

An idea was born: I will go places, look for things, search for things, go on adventures… riding the Bicol Express.


I called up PNR to inquire about the train ride to Bicol. I discovered that 1) there are daily trips from Tutuban to Naga, 2) the last stop of the train in Bicol is Naga City, though they plan to extend the service to Legaspi City, 3) the train has reclining seats and sleeping coaches, 4)  passengers need to reserve seats in advance and have to pay ticket fare at the PNR station in Tutuban two days before the scheduled trip, 5) it is extremely cold inside the train, and 6) PNR does not provide food, pillows, and blankets. I made a reservation for a trip –  sleeper coach – to Naga City on December 12.

On December 10 I went to the PNR Tutuban station (near the Tutuban Mall) to pay for the ticket. There, the ticketing lady reminded me of the 6:30 pm departure time. She also advised me to be at the PNR waiting area 30 minutes before the departure time.


December 12. I arrived too early and spent an hour observing the waiting passengers and typing text messages. At 6:30 pm, passengers of the Bicol Express were allowed to board the train.

I entered the coach and took note of the layout.  On one side of the train are the cabins, while on the other side is the passageway. Inside the cabin are four bunk beds, two on each side of the cabin.  I was impressed how spic-and-span the cabins and the passageway were, though I was annoyed by the tacky pop songs coming out of the radio. I also observed that each window is protected by a metal grill.

While I was observing the interior of my cabin, a lady wearing a white PNR shirt came in. She looked at me, said “Good evening sir,” and dumped her backpack on her bed. I was disappointed because I thought I had the cabin to myself. I gazed at her for a few seconds, and was again disappointed: not flirt-worthy, I said to myself.

Later, I saw that she stretched her legs and was resting her toes on the edge of my bed.  She was typing a message on her cellphone so she couldn’t see that I was livid with her invasion of my bunk space. Then she spoke to me. “Do you speak Tagalog?”

“Oo naman. Taga-Cavite ako.”

“Ay akala ko kasi na Amerikano kayo. Baka inglisero kayo at ma-nosebleed ako kung may tanong kayo.”

My cabin mate is an employee of PNR Tutuban, though she lives in Bicol. She took this trip because she wanted to take advantage of a travel order that enabled PNR employees to buy the train ticket at half the price.

I asked her why  food was not offered or sold on the Bicol Express. She replied, “Aircon kasi kaya pinagbawal yung mga benta-benta.” I also asked her why PNR scheduled trips at night, when there would be nothing to see outside the window since  landscapes would be veiled in darkness. She was remarked that previously there were day trips but these were cancelled for unknown reasons. She glanced at the EZ Map that lay on my bed and remarked, “May mapa pa kayo sir. Di talaga kayo mawawala.”

Later she declared, “Sir matutulog muna ako. Three o’clock pa po ako gising. Mamaya na lang ulit.” She then closed the curtains of her bed. That was the last time I saw her. She would disembark during one of the initial train stops in Bicol

* * *

The ride was so long that I inevitably had to use the comfort room. I didn’t realize that walking to the loo can be a struggle, especially when the train was vibrating violently. Inside the rest room, I lost my balance and slammed against the wall. I decided to urinate while leaning against the wall behind me. I congratulated myself for my brilliant idea until I realized that it would have been easier just to sit on the toilet bowl.

If visiting the loo was a struggle, how was it like sleeping inside a train? It was just like sleeping on an ordinary bed, that is, if the ordinary bed happens to be on top of an active tectonic plate. All manner of earthquakes seem to occur beneath my mattress – from mild tremors to furious ground shaking (twice the train shook so violently I thought it got derailed). To distract myself, I put on my headphone and played some krautrock and Norwegian jazz. I did not get any shuteye.

* * *

There were moments during the trip when I smelled something burning. The odor was so strong that a passenger could break wind, and his bunk mates would not notice he passed gas. Thus I dub the acrid smell the Fart-Masker.

* * *

The darkness outside the coach was slowly dissipating, and train was stopping more frequently. I went to the passageway, and saw a middle-aged lady emerge from a cabin.

She asked me, “Nasa Naga na ba?”

“Hindi ko rin po alam.”

A grey-haired man with an erect bearing came out from another cabin and answered her question. “Pamplona pa lang.”

“Mga 30 minutes pa papuntang Naga?”

“Di naman.”

The man looked at me and asked, “Sa Naga din ang punta mo?”

“Oho. Taga-Naga po kayo?”

“Ay hindi. Sa Camaligan ako.”

Thirty minutes later, the train was still running. Then it stopped, and a man in black uniform strode the passageway and announced that we were already in Naga City.  I went down the train and saw the sign ‘Naga’ hanging from the waiting shed. I chuckled, and thought: the trip has ended, now my adventure begins.

Before I left the PNR station in Naga, I repeated to myself the lines from Days of Heaven, perhaps as an invocation or a mantra: ‘The three of us been going places. Looking for things. Searching for things. Going on adventures.’