MANILA,  November 14, 2004
By Marichu Villanueva - President Arroyo ordered yesterday the prosecution of those responsible for the derailment of the Manila-bound Philippine National Railways (PNR) train in Padre Burgos, Quezon province which left 10 people dead and 160 others injured early Friday.

Receiving the initial investigation report from the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Mrs. Arroyo became particularly concerned with reports that looters scavenging for rail ties and metal pieces for scrap may have weakened the tracks, causing the derailment.

"Our relief agencies shall ensure that financial and other forms of assistance shall be extended to the victims’ families. But more than this, I want those accountable to be sanctioned, and prosecuted if need be, to the fullest extent of the law," Mrs. Arroyo said.

Military rescue teams called off yesterday further search for missing train passengers at the scene.

Philippine Air Force (PAF) spokesman Lt. Col. Restituto Padilla said the search operations have been terminated since all the victims had been accounted for in the absence of anyone looking for missing relatives.

Padilla said the search team at the site reported that as of 4 p.m. yesterday, workers utilizing a crane had lifted the last coach of the derailed train in search of any possible survivors or missing passengers.

The train was carrying some 400 passengers from Legazpi City in Albay when four of its coaches derailed and plummeted down a 40-foot ravine early Friday while negotiating the curve in Barangay Duhat in Padre Burgos town.

More than a hundred people were injured and six were instantly killed after getting pinned under the overturned train coaches.

The National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) said that only 10 passengers had died from the accident with the four yet to be identified.

Mrs. Arroyo ordered Transportation Secretary Leandro Mendoza to get into the root cause of the train accident as initial reports circulated that the tragedy was caused by the theft of rail materials.

The President also ordered the DOTC to continue enforcing the temporary suspension of train operations until the whole railway system up to the Bicol Region is inspected and certified safe for travel.

"Train services in hazardous areas shall be suspended until a physical inspection is made and safety certifications are issued. We can no longer allow our people to be exposed to these threats to their lives and safety," she said.

Mendoza, for his part, told Mrs. Arroyo that DOTC investigators would conduct a thorough inspection of the railroad tracks and a review of the PNR Calamba-Bicol line along which the accident occurred.

Flying to the scene of the accident immediately after learning of the crash, Mendoza brought with him a team of experts from the Office of Transportation Security (OTS) to conduct preliminary investigation.

PNR general manager Jose Maria Sarasola II said he fully supports Mrs. Arroyo’s call "because if it is found that there is negligence on the part of anybody... definitely we will be the first to prosecute them."

Sarasola said two machinists on the train have been restricted to their quarters pending an investigation.

Sarasola said the DOTC had already given PNR probers a 10-day deadline to come out with results.

Padre Burgos Mayor Dominador Villena, quoting the crew and other survivors, said the accident might have been caused by overspeeding on the part of the train engineer.

Villena said the train was going more than three times the area’s speed limit.

Sarasola said he was aware of witness accounts of speeding and reports of theft of rail materials. "All angles are being studied, including the possibility of pilferage," he said.

Elma Aldea, a civil defence administrator, said the train should have slowed to 20 kph due to missing bolts and wooden planks in the area.

Problem Areas

Bacolod City Rep. Monico Puentebella, the chairman of the committee on transportation at the House of Representatives, claimed the curved track in Barangay Duhat where the Friday accident happened was the site of a derailment two months ago.

He claimed the track had been weakened by looters scavenging for scrap metal.

"The act of stealing rails is dangerous as shown by the Quezon train accident. Based on investigations, the Manila-bound PNR train derailed on a bad section of track and tumbled down a ravine in Quezon," Puentevella said.

He said he will support moves to prosecute those who might have contributed to the tragedy.

"These looters must realize the adverse impact of what they are doing to traveling trains and passengers. They must be punished for endangering people’s lives," he said.

Puentevella said he will personally initiate a congressional investigation into last Friday’s train tragedy.

It was learned that the portion where the train accident occurred was among those recently rehabilitated by two Australian railway firms for P1 billion.

PNR sources told The STAR that the rehabilitation works had been fraught with problems and irregularities.

PNR assistant manager for operations Ed Ramonte confirmed the South Line had been rehabilitated. But he clarified that the second phase of the project costing P636 million has yet to be completed.

Remonte said that in 1992, the PNR’s south line was rehabilitated by another Australian firm, John Holland, for P292 million.

The coaches involved in the accident, on the other hand, were among 30 second-hand cars donated by the Japanese government in 2000 to help PNR modernize its stock.

Sources disclosed the said firm abandoned the project in 1998 because of some "problems" but Remonte explained 80 percent of the rails have been concretized.

For his part, Remonte said last Friday’s train accident was sheer bad luck.

Remonte pointed out that the portion of the railway in Barangay Duhat where the accident occurred in the remaining 20 percent yet to be rehabilitated. "Minalas din talaga," he said.

Remonte admitted areas such as Barangay Duhat are prone to derailments since they are river curves by nature. He pointed out that derailments around the world usually occur in river curves, described by railway experts as "problem areas."

But some PNR officials pointed out that rehabilitation of the railways should prioritize such problem areas.

"It should be investigated why the rehabilitation did not prioritize Barangay Duhat. In the first place, was that part rehabilitated?" a PNR official asked.

For his part, Deputy Speaker for Mindanao Gerry Salapuddin said the latest train accident justifies the need to push on with the government’s railway modernization projects.

But Salapuddin said the terms of the loan packages for these projects must be mutually favorable for the government and the financing agencies or countries in light of criticisms of the loan costs.

"We need to put up a new, modern, safer and more convenient train service but we must ensure it is a wise investment."

Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye said the rehabilitation of the PNR railways is part of the President’s project under her Medium Term Development Plan of the transport infrastructure program.

"I think this incident should speed up the plans to modernize our rail system," he said.

Bunye said the government is already trying to source the funding of the South Rail project after President Arroyo had secured the commitment of the Chinese government to support the project. - With Sandy Araneta, Rainier Allan Ronda, Delon Porcalla, Jaime Laude

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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