"The Other Side of the Tracks"

Life on the Philippine National Railways (PNR) is living on the edge.  Foot-propelled trolleys carrying exhausted laborers and raw fish zoom back and forth, narrowly missing children at play, while mothers cook rice and fathers toy with game cocks on top of the country’s only set of train tracks. Every two hours, scores of voices shout "Train, Train!" 

Within seconds, hundreds of bodies jump from one side to the other–but not without making sure all kids, trolleys and roosters are out of harm’s way.  The squeaky iron snake rumbles by, and the bustle of survival resumes as quickly as it stopped.

Living on the train tracks, however, does have a few benefits.  Housing and water are sometimes free, and trolleys ferry food up and down the lines like markets on wheels.  Traffic jams are not as frustrating since they don’t involve screeching horns and exhaust fumes, and stores stocked with every item imaginable are a 30-second ride away. 

Dodging trains has its down side though–especially when it can be a matter of life and death.  Almost 66,000 people live neck-to-neck in closet-sized homes that are scrunched up against the tracks, and every year, at least seven of them get crushed by passing railcars.  Staff from the government-owned PNR have requested local residents to construct their houses at least 5 meters behind the rail.  Any closer is considered encroachment on public land.  But given the enormous volume of individuals and severe shortage of space, most men build whatever kind of residence they can afford a few inches from the metal cross bars. 

Yet a few accidents and a lot of noise do not deter them from staying on.  Despite the risks of death or injury, having a small house is better than not having a house at all.  "This place is dangerous," says Elizabeth Jara, a school teacher who moved here 20 years ago from the southern Philippine city of Digos.  "If I had money, I would live in a safe place.  But I don’t have money," she adds.

Like tens of thousands of under-employed workers who move to Manila in search of better futures, Jara will soon discover that the luxury of choice is further from her grasp than ever.

The government, however, has finally decided to rehabilitate the 117-year-old line and issued eviction notices to every household from Calaoocan to Laguna in 2004.  While the foreign-funded initiative may improve the transport of goods from farms to markets, it will also mean that Manila’s public housing nightmare just got worse.

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