Monday, January 2, 2012

My Brompton and I Took the Train to Bicol!

The Philippines is not known for its railway system. We used to have one that was at par with the Orient Express, running from La Union in North Luzon to Albay in the South, but the service discontinued.

So it really got me excited when the Philippine National Railways announced last August that it was reviving the Bicol Express, and with sleeper cabins at that! Since then I had wanted to ride the train but never got to because I was busy.

Until the Christmas Break!

I was free the week of Dec 26 to 30 and I jumped on the chance to travel south via the Bicol Express Train!
The Family Sleeper Cabin costs PhP 665.00 for each passenger. The Cabin can accommodate 4 passengers. We were 4 in the group (Papa Rocky, Dian, Chikee and I) so the Family Sleeper Cabin was perfect. We had it to ourselves. There is an Executive Sleeper (PhP 998.00), which I think is much better, but it was unavailable at the time. For more information, you can call up the PNR at 3190044 (or for reservations at the Espana Station call 3943998, look for Arly).
Unfortunately, the PNR's payment system is not up-to-date as you cannot pay at the bank or mall. You have to go to the station a day before your trip to pay the ticketing agent. And be patient with him. They handwrite each and every ticket. On the day I went to pay I waited for almost an hour. 
Papa Rocky, Diane, Chikee and I met at the PNR Espana Station at 5:30pm. You can board at the main station in Tutuban if you want. There is a closer station in Pasay Rd. but I wasn't sure if you can board the sleeper cars there.
We boarded our train at 6:30pm. Our sleeper car was a refurbished one bought by the PNR from Japan. I was curious if the PNR was able to maintain the cleanliness of the car after going on operation for 4 months.
I must say, the PNR is doing a good job. The cabin was clean. The curtains showed some age, but, hey, what do you expect, it's refurbished! There is a window at the end but we closed the shade since there was nothing to see outside. That vertical steel bar in the middle converts to a ladder for those sleeping on the top bunk. The cabin is not closed. There are no doors. So if you want to protect your expensive belongings, better keep them with you in the bed.
This was my bunk bed. PNR does not provide a bed sheet, blanket or pillow, so please bring your own. It gets cold! There is pipe in music (Radyo Inquirer) but the lower the volume at around 8:30 pm.
Diane and Papa Rocky placed their folding bikes in between the bunk beds.
There is a shelf at the other end of the cabin. That's where I put my folding bike. Chikee was scared to put hers there because it might fall on her. This is a legitimate concern since the ride to Bicol gets bumpy. PNR should at least put a strap in the middle to keep bags from falling.
This is what the lower bunk beds look like. There are no canteens or food stalls in the train so better bring food and water with you-at least enough for your dinner.
There are toilets for male and female at the back of the car. They are not so clean (especially for the girls) so better empty your bladder before you board the train.
There's a communal wash area outside the toilets. According to Diane the faucet works!
This is what my bed looks like with the curtains drawn (it greatly lessened the cold). The bed is long and wide enough for an average sized Asian like me (5'6). It's not a king size bed, but its comfortable. There is a reading light, but not all units work, including mine.
I went to bed at 8:30 pm. I slept til 3 in the morning. Like I said, it gets bumpy. It's like sleeping through a 10 hour earthquake. The cabin shook a lot. I guess the tracks aren't straight. Then some rocks would be thrown at the train. And then there was the occassional tree scraping. If you're a heavy sleeper, then this won't bother you. If you're a light sleeper like me, better take sleeping pills.
We arrived in Naga City (approximately 450 kms from Manila) at 5:00 am. It took us 10 hours and 30 minutes on the train. The experience was fun, but I'd probably not do it again.
Here are my conclusions:
If you're travelling with family or a group, then the PNR sleeper train from Manila to Naga is the deal for you. At only PhP 665 per person, that only comes to a total of PhP 2,660 for the 4 of you.

However, if you're travelling alone, I think it's better to take the bus (PhP 1,000 for a sleeper bus) or plane (PhP 1,300 via Cebu Pacific) because for only a few hundred pesos more, you get to your destination faster (8 hours for the bus and just 1 hour by plane).

But if you're really tight on the budget, you can opt to ride the train's reclining seat for only PhP 550.

Anyway, what's important is you get to your destination. : ) My hat's off to PNR for reviving and providing this service! I hope you read this blog and take note of my comments and suggestions.