Begun in 1878 near the end of Spanish colonial rule over the Philippines, Manila's once mighty Tranvias, or Streetcar in English, was once the envy of Asia. The modern steam- then electric-powered streetcar and interurban rail service that once lined the streets of the Philippine capital consisted of nearly 100 kilometres of track and carried more than 35 million passengers during its peak in the 1920s. This edition of Once Upon a Tram will explore the fascinating history of the Manila Tranvias, the precursor to today's Metro Manila LRT, which witnessed a succession of foreign powers and the devastation of war. 

"Escolta, Manila," colour postcard, c. 1900, public domain archival image

In 1878, Spain's Department of Public Works for the Philippines initiated the process of securing a builder and operator for what would become the colony's electrified rail system, eventually approving a proposal by Spanish-German businessman Jacobo Zóbel de Zangroniz, Spanish engineer Luciano M. Bremon, and Spanish banker Adolfo Bayo, who together founded the Compañia de los Tranvias de Filipinas in 1882. Construction of the first line began in 1885, linking Manila and Malabon, which opened to the public in 1888 served by a fleet of four German-made steam locomotives and eight coaches. 

Steam-powered Manila to Malabon Tranvia, 1888, public domain archival image

Complementing the steam-powered locomotives, a fleet of horse-drawn Tranvias were put into service in the years before the Spanish-American War (1898) and subsequent US victory during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). The network expanded relatively slowly during this time in light of the unfolding political unrest that swept the nation towards the end of the 19th century. Following the American takeover, in which the United States ended 333 years of Spanish colonial rule, the Compañia de los Tranvias de Filipinas was dissolved and reformed as the American-owned-and-operated Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company, known more commonly as Meralco, which in turn set upon a renewed period of modernization and expansion. 

Horse-drawn Tranvia travelling along the Escolta, c. 1890s, public domain archival image

During the first decades of the 20th century, the newly formed Meralco began to expand and modernize the streetcar network, eventually adding a total of 12 fully electrified tram lines to central Manila, for a total of 63 kilometres of electrified street rail by 1905. In 1920, a major — and as it turned out, final — reconstruction plan was implemented across the network, a process that brought the total number of modern streetcars in service up to a peak fleet size of 170. The city centre and suburbs were well served by a network that at its zenith boasted at least 100 kilometres of track for a city of just 220,000. 

Manila Electric Co. System Map, 1932, public domain archival image

By the 1920s and into the '30s, the Manila Tramway became one of the most extensive tram networks in Asia, rivalling those in far more populated cities like Hong Kong (600,000 by 1930) and Tokyo (4,000,000 by 1930). Its 100-kilometre urban and interurban service carried a recorded 35 million passengers during its peak year in 1925. The tramway was a central part of the rapidly modernizing city, as the former colonial port town was growing up fast. The American influence and capital that had flowed into the Philippines following the US takeover brought with it a host of impressive Beaux-Arts and later Art Deco edifices, as a series of new office towers, government buildings, and train stations began to transform the Philippine capital. 

Tranvia Hub, c. 1920s, in central Manila, public domain archival image

During the last months of WWII, the Battle of Manila wrought havoc and near total destruction upon the once beautiful city of Manila. The Pearl of the Pacific was reduced to smouldering ruins as a result of a devastating American-led bombing campaign that decimated the city centre, along with the majority of Manila's rail infrastructure, which had been one of the prime targets of the bombings. While successful in routing the Japanese, the hard-fought Battle of Manila necessitated a near total rebuild of the capital, and the majority of the remaining historic Spanish colonial and prewar American buildings were reduced to rubble. 

The Ruins of Manila, aerial view, 1945, public domain archival image

Damaged beyond repair, the Manila Tranvias network and fleet were abandoned immediately after the war. The rails were pulled up from city streets, and the surviving trains were hauled away and scrapped. An inglorious end to what had previously been one of the best street-rail networks in Asia, the rebuilt capital entered into a prolonged period of reinvention and modernization. Public transit in the decades following the war advanced with the use of buses, while the slow spread of the automobile during this time worked to make Manila the most congested city in the world. 

"Tranvia Graveyard," Manila, c. 1945, public domain archival image

For nearly 40 years, Manila's public transportation developed on a bus-only model. In the early 1980s, President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda Marcos jointly oversaw the creation of the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA), setting in motion a decades-long process that would see the eventual creation of two elevated light rail lines, LRT-1 and LRT-2, built between 1981-1984 and 1996-2003 respectively. 

First-generation train on the LRT-1 Line in Manila, image by flickr user Tim Riley via Creative Commons

With a combined track length of 31 kilometres, Manila's current LRT network operates almost exclusively along elevated tracks, with the exception of one underground station on the newer LRT-2 Line. Augmented in 2000 by the opening of a third privatized LRT line, known as MRT-3, Manila's modern light rail network has restored much of the medium- to long-haul functionality of the former Tranvias interurban network, while leaving commuters attempting to travel within the city centre without a permanent solution for navigating Manila's notoriously clogged city streets. While there are currently plans in the works to expand the network further afield, and to add direct service to the airport, the city centre has been without reliable public transportation since 1945. 

Flood of Postwar-Era Jeepneys crowding the streets, image by Flickr user Victor Villanueva via Creative Commons

Deprived of its once enviable Tranvias network, Manila's city centre has become plagued with congestion, and its traffic today is among the worst in the world. A typical street scene, the above image captures a flood of Postwar-Era Jeepneys (introduced after the demise of the Tranvias network in 1945), crowding the city streets below the shadow of the elevated LRT Line in central Manila. However, as more and more kilometres of elevated rail continue to be built, and more and more people choose to take the train, the problem of congestion will eventually subside. 

SkyriseCities will return soon with a new edition of Once Upon a Tram, which will take an in-depth look at the transit legacy of a city near you. In the meantime, feel free to join the conversation in the comments section below. Got an idea for this series? Let us know!