The Intermodal in the Philippines

Retrieved from the Old PSSS Website
written by: Mike Baylon

Intermodal is the use of more than one form of transport in a trip or journey. In the Philippines, that usually means island-hopping using a vehicle (public like a bus or private) and a RORO. Intermodal could be for business like shipping, a container van or cargo truck. It could also be for personal pleasure like bringing one’s own vehicle for touring or visiting relatives in the provinces.

Batangas Port ©Edison Sy

35 years ago, the intermodal as we know it today barely existed. There were only a few LCTs that connected some nearby islands especially in the Visayas. The connections between Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were not yet in existence. In fact the highways we take for granted today were still being built. The completion of that, the construction of connecting ports and the emergence of the RORO ships were the set conditions for the intermodal system to fully arise.

The idea to connect Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were first crystallized in the Pan-Philippine Highway project dream during Diosdado Macapagal’s term. This did not get off the ground for lack of funds and basically only feasibility studies were made. The idea was then taken over by Ferdinand Marcos. War reparations equipments and soft loans from Japan were used. Hence, the project was renamed the Philippines-Japan Friendship Highway.

The Proposed Pan-Philippine Highway ©Gorio Belen

It was already Martial Law when the road constructions went into full swing. More foreign loans were contracted and applied to the project. At Marcos’ behest, the project was renamed the Maharlika Highway. Most Filipinos later identified this project with Marcos (and this probably resulted in the everlasting irritation of Diosdado Macapagal’s diminutive daughter).

At the middle portion of the road construction period the connecting ports of Matnog (in Sorsogon), San Isidro (in Northern Samar), Liloan (in Southern Leyte)and Lipata (in Surigao City) were built. Those were entirely new ports and specifically designed as RORO ports to connect Sorsogon to Samar and Leyte to Surigao. Two ROROs were also purposely-built, the “Maharlika I”, launched in 1982 and fielded in the Matnog-San Isidro route and the “Maharlika II” launched in 1984 and fielded in the Liloan-Lipata route.

Matnog Port ©Joe Andre Yo

Two key connecting bridges were also constructed. To connect Samar and Leyte, the beautiful San Juanico Bridge was built over the narrow strait separating the two islands. And to connect Leyte to Panaon Island, the Liloan bridge was built over the narrow, river-like, shallow channel separating the two islands.

San Juanico Bridge ©George Tappan

The Marcos government made a lot of hoopla about the Luzviminda (Luzon-Visayas-Mindanao) connection. Officially, when the Maharlika ferries sailed the administration then claimed it was the first time that Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao were connected in our history by the intermodal. But in reality the private sector was ahead by a few years and used their own ROROs and LCTs to connect Luzviminda using existing and makeshift ports and wharves, some of which were privately-built. The Bicolandia Shipping of Eugenia Tabinas of Tabaco, Albay and the Millennium Shipping of the Floirendos of Davao were among the key pioneers here that lasted.

Soon other RORO connections also came into existence bridging the other islands. In the Southern Tagalog routes, it was the Manila International Shipping and Viva Lines which were the pioneers. They mainly used Batangas and Lucena as base ports and they connected the two provinces of Mindoro, Romblon and Marinduque. In the intra-Visayas routes Gothong Shipping, Aznar Shipping and Maayo Shipping were among the early pioneers that lasted along with Millennium Shipping. Except for Gothong, all were short-distance ferry companies and basically carried vehicles crossing the islands.

Dalahican Port, Lucena City ©Raymond Lapus

It must be pointed out that even in the 80’s, liner companies (like Negros Navigation, Sulpicio Lines and most especially Gothong Shipping) and some overnight ferry companies (notably Trans-Asia Shipping) already have ROROs that serve the overnight and some short-distance routes. Though basically carrying LCL and palletized cargo their ships can carry vehicles if needed. However, unlike the short-distance ferry companies that was not their thrust. But their RORO liners are sometimes the only way to bring vehicles from Manila to an island not connected by the short-distance ferry companies. Hence, car manufacturers and dealers were among their clients. This presence impacted a lot the long-distance LCT/barge+tug companies like Lusteveco (Luzon Stevedoring Co.), a niche carrier established by the Americans.

Asia Korea of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines ©Gorio Belen

In the 80’s, containerization of local shipping went full blast. It began with 10-foot and 20-foot container vans moved by forklifts. But in the 90’s, the 20-footers dominated with a significant number of 40-foot vans that are mainly transshipments for foreign ports. To speed up loading and unloading the container vans were mounted in trailers pulled by tractor heads or prime movers. This mode is also considered intermodal.

While that intermodal form was gaining supremacy in the long-distance routes, the combination long-distance bus/truck plus short-distance RORO was also gaining ground in the 90’s. In the first decade of the new millennium that intermodal type was already beginning to surpass the long-distance shipping-based intermodal. This new combination has changed and is still changing the Philippine shipping seascape. The long-distance buses (along with the budget airlines) took the passengers of the liners. And the long-distance, intermodal trucking began to take the container business of long-distance shipping companies.

Calapan Port ©Raymond Lapus

In the last decade, long-distance liner shipping companies whose base is Manila has been driven out of some important islands and their frequencies were reduced in others. While Manila as an inter-island gateway port is being reduced in significance, Batangas has become a very important gateway port. Because of this long-distance shipping from Manila to Panay has been reduced to just the port of Iloilo. But even in this route the frequencies are much reduced now while the frequencies of the buses and trucks are in full upswing. Occidental Mindoro ferries from Batangas also lost out and Mindoro passenger shipping from Manila is now almost over (this does not include Lubang island).

The intermodal bus/truck plus short-distance RORO combination has also invaded Cebu, traditionally our second most important port. There are now long-distance trucks from Manila coming to Cebu and some of these are even Cebu-based. These trucks have already short-circuited the traditional Cebu shipping bailiwick Eastern Visayas. To compete Cebu manufacturers and distributors are already using their own delivery trucks to the nearby islands esp Negros, Bohol, Leyte and Masbate. Trucks from those islands also reach Metro Cebu.

Polambato Port, Bogo City, Cebu in the North ©James Gabriel Verallo

Bato Port, Santander, Cebu in the South ©Jonathan Bordon

Toledo Port, Toledo City, Cebu in the West ©James Gabriel Verallo

Cebu Port in the East and Central ©Mark Ocul

In general, even in the face of these inroads the overnight ferries of Cebu using break bulk or palletized loading have held forth and are still expanding. In the main their northern Mindanao, bailiwick is still intact save for Pulauan port in Dapitan City in Zamboanga peninsula.

In Mindanao, there are only three ports with significant rolling cargo – the Pulauan port in Dapitan, the Lipata port in Surigao City and the Balingoan port in Misamis Oriental. In Pulauan ships generally connect to Dumaguete but many connect further to Cebu. In Lipata port, the traffic there is generally going north to Tacloban and further up to Luzon and not to the direction of Cebu. The RORO route to Camiguin from Balingoan, Misamis Oriental has long been developed and was initially buoyed by tourism. Recently, that route has already been extended to Jagna, Bohol.

Pulauan Port, Dapitan City ©Mike Baylon

Lipata Port, Surigao City ©Aristotle Refugio

Balingoan Port, Balingoan, Misamis Oriental ©Michael Denne

In the Visayas, the important intermodal connections going east of Cebu passes through the following: the Bogo-Palompon route, the Danao-Isabel route, the Mandaue-Ormoc route and the Mandaue-Hindang route. The ROROs in these routes mainly carry rolling cargo, usually trucks.

In Bohol, the main intermodal ports of entry from Metro Cebu is Tubigon, Jetafe and Clarin. However there is an important connection between Argao, Cebu and Loon, Bohol. There are also important connections between Negros and Cebu islands. From southern Cebu there are a lot of connections to ports near Dumaguete. In the north, the Toledo-San Carlos and Tabuelan-Escalante routes are important connections. There are also ROROs connecting Cebu island to Bantayan island, Masbate island and Camotes islands.

Tubigon Port ©Mike Baylon

Negros island is mainly connected to Panay island through the Bacolod-Dumangas route. And Panay is connected to Mindoro and Batangas through the Dangay port in Roxas, Oriental Mindoro.

From the Bicol peninsula, ROROs connect to Catanduanes (from Tabaco City) and Masbate island (from Pio Duran, Albay, Pilar and Bulan in Sorsogon). However, the main connection of Bicol now to Samar is through the town of Allen, Northern Samar via two ports of entry – Balicuatro and Dapdap. There is also an alternative route now from Benit port, San Ricardo, Southern Leyte to Lipata, Surigao City. And Leyte connects to Ubay, Bohol via Bato, Leyte and Maasin, Southern Leyte.

There are still a lot of minor RORO connections I have not mentioned. These are mainly connections to smaller islands like Lubang, Alabat, within Romblon province, to Ticao, Dinagat, Siargao, Samal, Balut, Olutanga, Siquijor, Guimaras and Semirara islands. If necessary, the ROROs in Zamboanga City can take in rolling cargos to Basilan and Jolo islands and ports in Tawi-tawi province. There is also an important RORO connection between Mukas and Ozamis City which obviates the need to go round the whole Panguil Bay.

Zamboanga Port ©britz777

The short-distance RORO sector is still growing and more routes are still being created. In its wake should come the buses, trucks, jeeps and private vehicles normally. However, in the last few years, the Arroyo government has oversold the intermodal system and in its wake is creating a lot of “ports to nowhere” and RORO routes that do not make sense. “Ports to nowhere” are ports where practically no ships call.

Strong Republic Nautical Highway(Visayas) ©Raymond Lapus

But as the cliché goes, that is a different story altogether.

More Photos of Intermodal Ports, Click here

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