Philippines First Railway

Philippines First Railway was built by the British

Many articles on Philippines First Railway say it was built by the Spanish, while it is true that the Philippines First Railway Line was built under Spanish rule and it was a royal decree issued by King Alfonso XII of Spain on the 25th June 1875 that required the Inspector of Public Works of the Philippine Islands to submit a railway system plan for Luzon, it was not the Spanish that built the the Philippines First Railway.

We look at the lead up to the building of the first railway in the Philippines and why it was the British that built it.

Commercial Agriculture

In the 19th century the Philippines was switching to commercial agriculture and it became clear the country needed a transport system to get its products to Manila so they could be shipped abroad.

Philippines agriculture had already been penetrated by British companies operating from British colonies in Asia, mainly in sugar manufacturing. The reason for this was the lackadaisical
economic system which had been established by the Spanish.

British Railway Imperialism

The British were having great success with railway imperialism in other parts of Asia and it was thought the Spanish could not hold out much longer in the Philippines and it would leave the door open for the British.

A railway in the Philippines would was vital to the British companies to move products to the British markets around the world and it would build a foundation to spread its empire into the Philippines.

Philippines Transport in the 19th Century

The main form of transport was by foot or riding on a carabao, the more well to do used horse drawn carriages. Goods were mainly carried on carts drawn by carabao or carried by men.

Most of the roads were dirt tracks and even the roads in Manila were poorly paved, in the heat of summer the dust was blinding and in the rainy season roads turned to mud. Getting goods to the docks in Manila could take days or even weeks.

Travel was Difficult and Dangerous

British diplomat John Bowring visited the Philippines in the 1850’s he wrote “seeing abandoned carriages along the county roads and travelling in mud that reached up to one’s thighs. Cutting through forest growths in order to fray a path was not unusual.”

Delay in Planning Philippines First Railway

The Spanish colonial government of the Philippines did not think about a railway to alleviate the transport problems until 1875, almost three quarters of a century after railways were being used in Britain.

Even in Spain they were slow on the uptake of the new technology of rail transport, it was not until 1848 they built their first line. By this time railways in England had already got a strong hold.

British Traders ask for Philippines First Railway

In 1864 Nicholas Loney whom represented British traders in the Philippines urged the colonial
government to provide better roads and for railways, they had to wait 11 years before a royal decree was issued to look into building a railway.

A year later a prospectus entitled Formularios para la reduccion de los anteproyectos de ferrocarriles set the conditions to be observed by prospective railway constructors, which included the width of the track and many other construction standards.


By 1885 there was railway tracks in the streets of Manila but they were not what you would regard as a railway as such, they were used by the famous horse drawn tranvia.

The population of Manila in 1885 was estimated at 180,000 and in the rainy season it was becoming very difficult to move around as the streets ever flooded or turner to mud.

The Tranvia running on rails meant that people could still move around the city even when the streets turned to mud, it also meant horses could pull more weight so they could carry more people.

There was 5 lines named Lineas de Intramuros, de Malate, de Sampaloc, de Malacafiang,
and de Tondo.

The fare to ride a Tranvia was 8 centavos first class and 4 centavos second class.

Philippines First Railway Planning

It was not until 1885 that the government solicited tenders for the Manila-Dagupan line, ten years after the Royal decree of 1875.

It was conceded that a railway that ran from Manila to Dagupan was the best option to transport products from Pangasinan and Tarlac provinces to Manila.

The railway line was to be 120 miles long and the government offered a subsidy of $7,650 per mile.

After 3 biddings an Englishman Edward Ketts took the offered concession, a Royal decree in 1887 consigned the offer to a London firm, the Manila Railroad Company Ltd

Manila Railroad Company Ltd a British company was responsible not only for the construction of the Philippines first railway, but also for running it.

The company was given 4 years to complete the railway and it was also down to the company to import the construction materials.

Many of the construction materials and rolling stock were imported from England.

The government demanded that Manila Railroad Company Ltd follow the plans set out by Spanish engineers.

Ninety Nine Year Rule

They also wrote into the contract a 99 year rule where all the company assets would be handed over to Spain after ninety nine years at no cost to the Spanish.

Even though the 99 year rule was not favourable to the British they could still see the benefits. Railways in other parts of the world were making huge amounts of profit and with many British companies already operating in Luzon which needed a railway to deliver goods to Manila they decided to take the contract.

The British were expecting to have 33% of Philippines foreign trade by 1890.

At about the same time the British also laid the first undersea telecommunications cable from Manila to Hong Kong so linking Manila with the world.

By 1892 the British were duplicating what they had achieved in other parts of Asia in the Philippines and had brought the Age of the Railway to the Philippines.

Problems with the Construction

The biggest problem was bureaucracy and local government officials expecting backhanders.

Englishman John Foreman alleged that at one point the company, having already somewhat lost its corporate patience, expressed itself strongly against further greasing an official’s palms.

Employees of Manila Railroad Company claimed they were constantly harassed by the authorities.

Another Brit Neil Mcleod said he thought the construction was a mistake. The Spanish plans that had to be followed did not match the terrain meaning the tracks were being laid and they would get to a point where they could go no further. He also thought the the tracks were being laid to low.

Neil Mcleod also claimed if it had been surveyed properly it would have brought down construction costs by avoiding these problems.

They also had problems with labour gangs, land owners, and customs.

Horace Higgins, who was engineer-director of Manila Railway pointed out unnecessary constructions expenses such as station shed and indiscriminate building of all kinds were they were not needed, the use of concrete instead of lime.

Finest Country for Railways

Despite all the above and the difficulties of importing materials and rolling stock from England there was good points such as the flat terrain which the track passed through.

Neil Mcleod said it was the finest country for railroads.

Labour was easy to find locally and they were cheap to hire, Manila Railroad Company hired 5,000 labourers to build each section of the railway.

The daily average wage of the labourers was 9 centavos.

On one occasion the entire crew from Pangasinan failed to turn up for work, they were quickly replaced with a Tagalog crew.

They also used Chinese labour, but according to Higgins the Chinese did not like working in waterlogged conditions where the Filipinos did not mind working in such conditions.

Prosperity Generated by the Prospect of a Railway

The prospect of having a railway created much enthusiasm, agricultural production was stimulated by British capital. The arable land in the provinces of Bulacan, Pangasinan, Pampanga and Tarlac were being cultivated to grow sugar and rice.

Small industries such as hat making were opening up at the prospect of a railway so they could sell their goods to the world.

Opening of the First section of the Line

In December 1890 Don Carlos Bertodano wrote on behalf of Manila Railway Company requesting that the section of track from Manila to Bagbag be opened to the public. He wrote “This would bring real benefit to the public and to our concession,”

On the 25th March 1891 the first section of the line was opened and the Philippines had its first railway which was 48km in length.

The Second Section of the Railway

Construction of the second section went well with very few obstacles and was competed in another 11 months, this extended the track to Mabalacat, Pampanga. The opening took place on the 19th February 1892.

Four months later the line had reached Tarlac and was 119.3km in length.

Philippines First Railway Opened

By November the track had reached Dagupan, Pangasinan a total distance of 195.392km.

The Grand Opening of the track took place on the 24th November 1892, whole towns along the route turned out to celebrate, bands played, the streets were decorated with streamers and fireworks were set off as the train approached.

One passenger on the train described the route “enchanting, varied, and picturesque for the portion of the journey from Manila to Bulacan and farther on, through Pampanga and part of Tarlac, noted that to be seen were sun-soaked fields and emerald green of the sugar cane plantations. Towards the northern end of Tarlac was a shadowy forest and beyond were extensive fields of rice, like those of the great plains of Pangasinan. The monotony of the level rice fields was interrupted only by files of coconut trees.”

At Dagupan Station it was estimated that 5,000 people turned out to welcome the train.
As Don Alfonso III, followed by the Felipe II, with Governor General Conde de Caspe, the Archibishop of Manila, and an entourage of bureaucrats on board the crowd went crazy waving hats and kerchiefs in the air and shouting of “Viva Filipinas” could be heard over the 4 brass bands that played.

A Mass was held followed by a banquet in which a toast was made to the glory and prestige of Church and State. 

Philippines First Railway was officially opened.

The Opening and Celebrations were a Farce

While the celebrations to celebrate the first trains from Manila to Dagupan went ahead, it was really a farce as trains were still not able to travel from Manila to Dagupan.

There were two bridges along the route that had not been completed. The Calumpit River bridge and a bridge over the Rio Grande were still unfinished.

The passengers did travel from Manila to Dagupan by unloading them from one train ferrying them across the rivers and loading them onto a train waiting the other side of the river.

It was not until 1894 that the bridges were completed and finally trains could run from Manila to Dagupan.

The Outbreak of War

The age of the railway had finally arrived in the Philippines but it was short lived. 5 years after the first train travelled from Manila to Dagupan, the Philippine American war broke out and it signalled an end to British entrepreneurship in the Philippines.

We can only guess what would have happened if America had not got involved in the Philippines. What we do know for sure is British entrepreneurship had driven a wedge that made things difficult for Spanish in the Philippines. The British had taken control of a third of Philippines exports in a very short time.

Did the British have ideas of taking the Philippines and making it part of its empire or was it happy just expanding its trade in the Philippines? It is something we need to research and report on at a later date.

What we we can be pretty sure about is the British were great railway builders and would have probably gone on to build a network of railways throughout the Philippines or at least in areas that would have been of benefit to them. So today there would be many more railways in the Philippines.

The Benefits of Philippines First Railway

Because of the railway things were changing fast in lower and middle northern Luzon. In the first 9 months of the first section opening 3,003 tons of goods had been transported by rail, the bulk of which was 2,120 tons of rice. Remember at this time only 43.8 kilometres of track were in operation.

When the railway was extended to Bagbag and Mabalacat a total of 119.3 kilometres of track. 31,929 tons of goods were transported by rail, 12,702 tons of which were rice and 7,179 tons of sugar.

Manila Railway Company Ltd had estimated it would be 70,000 tons however they were not disappointed and realised it would not grab all the trade from the waterways that were in use.

Steam powered rice mills start to appear along the track by 1893 as the industry started to realise the benefits of moving rice by rail rather than water.

The sugar industry also saw the benefit as it avoided the risk of exposing the sugar to excessive moisture and started to build factories along the route.

Towns like San Fernando and Angeles started to flourish as they became crucial stops.

The time it took by water from Dagupan to Manila was 27 hours the railway reduced that to just 8 hours.

Passengers on Philippines First Railway

In 1891 trains carried 324,957 passengers most of who travelled third class. In 1892 the number of passengers was over half a million.

Between 1892 and 1896 the railway saw an average yearly earning of $192,500 from passengers and $40,000 from moving freight.

Note: In the article Philippines First Railway the reason we talk about railway and not railroad is because the English term is railway, Manila Railway Company Ltd did not change its name to Manila Railroad Company until later when the Americans took control.  

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