To remember the glory days of Manila would be to remember the electric trams that once plied its streets and contributed to the city’s reputation as the “Pearl of the Orient.”
For today’s generation of Filipinos whose patience and sanity are tested daily by chaotic and snail-paced traffic, it is difficult to imagine that Manila actually once had a public transportation system — like it was a fable.
By the eve of the Philippine Revolution in 1896, the tranvias had ferried 9.7 million people. To put that in perspective, today’s MRT Line 3, which spans the length of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, carries over 600,000 passengers — per day.
Compared to electric tramways in Berlin, New York, Prague and other major world cities, however, the tranvias were, as one visitor to Manila put it, “very casual in operation”. The service depended on the professionalism of the driver and the health of the horse. Passengers even had to get off and help push the vehicle over inclines.
“But for Manila of the 1890s, the tranvias were still a cut above the chaotic jumble that had preceded them on the city’s unpaved streets,” according to writer Raul Rodrigo in his book Meralco: A Century of Service 1903-2003, referring to calesas or horse-drawn buggies — which still ply Manila’s streets mostly for tourists.
If the trams were to be modernized, they needed to be electric.
In 1903, shortly after the United States took over from Spain as the Philippines’ colonial ruler following the Spanish-American War, the government began taking bids to build Manila’s first electric tramway. The franchise went to the lone bidder, Manila Electric Railroad and Light Company, better known by its acronym Meralco, which then bought Tranvias de Filipinas.