MANILA (Reuters) - As inflation soars in the Philippines and gasoline prices climb relentlessly, more and more commuters in the capital are squeezing into suburban trains and public buses, putting an enormous strain on the services.
On the positive side, Manila's legendary traffic jams are diminishing, but that's only good news for those who can afford to travel by car in the city of 15 million people.
Unlike consumers in many other Asian countries which subsidize fuel prices, Filipinos are forced to pay the free-market rate for gas. So far this year, they have been hit with 18 price hikes for a total increase of over 35 percent as global oil prices climb to stratospheric levels.
With unleaded gas now costing over 61 pesos ($1.34) a liter, tens of thousands of car owners are joining the queues for Manila's already overcrowded above-ground suburban train system.
"It's a terrible journey," says Nestor Del Rosario, an executive at a call centre who was traveling to the capital's Makati business district one recent morning by suburban train.
"The line to get on starts from the back of the train. I have never got a seat."
Around him people were wedged like sardines into the car and women cooled themselves with hand-held fans despite the air-conditioning. During the morning peak hour, queues to enter train stations trail down staircases into streets.
Trains are cheap, a key factor in a nation where one-third of the population live on less than $1 a day. With inflation reaching an annual 11.4 percent in June, the highest in 14 years, the pressure on the poor is worse than before.
Manila is by far the richest city in the country, but its substantial middle class is susceptible to the fuel and food price increases that have led the inflationary surge.
For those looking to cut travel costs, the minimum train fare is a subsidized 12 pesos. But because there are only three suburban lines across the city, commuters then have to take a bus or a passenger van to their destination at a cost of a few more pesos.
Since fuel prices started increasing in earnest in the second quarter of this year, the number of passengers on the suburban system has soared.
"The LRT used to be seen as transport for the masses but now you can see more and more people wearing ties and barongs," said Mel Robles, administrator for the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Authority, referring to the formal business shirt worn in offices.
"It's no longer a matter of choice but of necessity."
Two companies run the suburban network in Manila, the LRT and the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Authority. Together they carried about one million people per day in May, up from about 984,000 at the start of the year.
Despite being squeezed into overcrowded trains, commuters are confident they are saving time and money.
"It's crowded but that is compensated by the short travel time and the cost," says Nancy Eleria, a professor of engineering at University of Santa Tomas, traveling to Makati by train.
"With the MRT it will take me 20 minutes but by car it could take two hours."
The Philippines has ambitious plans to extend suburban train services in Manila, eventually covering much of the city, but that will take years and cost billions of dollars. Meanwhile, the surge in demand for trains is worrying transport officials.
"The problem is that we can only take so much," said Roberto Lastimoso, a senior MRT official. "We have told the economic managers that our situation is becoming critical. It is an issue of national concern.
"At peak times it's so uncomfortable, passengers are jostling one another, passengers overflow at street level. You have to deal with jostling by other passengers and the smell of people."
Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Megan Goldin