written by: Mike Baylon
In the Philippines, intermodal trucks are defined as those trucks that are rolled onboard ROPAXes to make deliveries to other islands. The trucks can be trailers (articulated trucks) with container vans or aluminum bodies, trucks (unarticulated) with container vans, aluminum bodies or wing van trucks plus all other kinds of trucks including refrigerated trucks and mini-trucks or panels like those used by LBC and other air parcel services. Technically, this would also include the big cargo jeeps which in reality are mini-trucks with jeep bodies and fascias like the Mindoro-type cargo jeeps. Most of these intermodal trucks will be wing van trucks and ordinary trucks with aluminum bodies as canvass-covered trucks are now in disfavor because of pilferage and the extortion on police and military checkpoints. Container vans aboard trailers are also not favored because of the heavy weight of the container but if it’s a container van from abroad then there is no choice but to haul it intermodally if there is no container ship service in a particular island like Samar or Mindoro.
Among the kinds of intermodal trucks mentioned it is the wing van truck which is the most popular now. They are powerful and fast (they can cruise at 100kph), it is secure (not prone to pilferage) and can make direct deliveries without going first to the bodega or warehouse (and it might not even need a bodega at all). Moreover, it has a wide openings compared to trucks with aluminum bodies and palletized operation with forklift is possible. Wing van trucks saved traders a lot in warehousing cost especially since pilferage and rat damage are rampant in bodegas. A wing van truck is actually a safer place to store goods than a bodega (unless it is hijacked, a not-uncommon incident in the Philippines).
In Japan, there is a belief that intermodal trucks are only good for a range only of 150 kilometers or possibly 250 kilometers at the very maximum. It is a wonder to me why a Japan invention like the wing van truck with its very good engine is even less understood there including its capabilities. As to range, even before the advent of the powerful wing van trucks and the short-distance ferries, the ex-Japan surplus trucks would already run from Manila to Legazpi, Baguio or Cauayan, Isabela on an overnight run. Legazpi was 550 kilometers via Daet then, Baguio was 250 kilometers and Cauayan was about 350 kilometers from Manila.
When the Matnog-Allen short-distance ferry route was opened in 1979, the first intermodal trucks came into being along with the intermodal bus. From Manila, trucks (and buses) started to roll to Samar and Leyte islands. It did not even stop there since Cardinal Shipping also served the Liloan-Lipata short-distance ferry route starting in 1980 and trucks can roll up to Mindanao if they wish. The only problems then were, one, the range of the trucks of the 1970’s in terms of engine endurance was not as good as today. And second, the roads were not that good yet in the South and so was the security situation (the threat of banditry). The problem was not really the range of the intermodal trucks. JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) was already actively aiding Philippine transport since the 1970’s and it is a wonder to me they failed to notice the Philippine intermodal truck system and report it back to Japan.
After Eastern Visayas, the intermodal truck rolled next to Mindoro from Batangas in 1980. But that western route remained short then and only confined to Mindoro Island (the longest distance Magsaysay town is only 320 kilometers from Manila) because there was no intermodal connection yet to Panay island (this link was finally made in 2003). Even before this link was made, the intermodal connection between Panay Island and Negros Island was already existing initially between Iloilo and Bacolod in the 1980’s. Before the end of the last millennium, there was also a parallel route established between Dumangas, Iloilo and Bacolod which was shorter.
At around the same time, the links between Negros and Cebu Islands were already existing both in the north and in the south. This intermodal connection and the intermodal connection between Panay and Negros was the next expansion of the intermodal after the Batangas-Mindoro connection. After this the intermodal connection between Cebu and Leyte islands happened in different parallel routes.
The major intermodal links happening early this millennium were the links between Mindoro and Panay Islands and between Negros and Mindanao Islands. After this more and more islands were interconnected intermodally but they were no longer in the scale of importance compared to the links I have mentioned early in this article. Now there are already about 50 links between the islands and practically all islands with a population of 100,000 is connected intermodally and some islands with a total population of just 50,000 also have ROROs if there is strong economic activity present. Among the islands with regular intermodal connections are Luzon, Alabat, Marinduque, Catanduanes, Masbate, Samar, Leyte, Biliran, Panaon, Siargao, Mindanao, Samal, Olutanga, Basilan, Jolo, Bongao, Simunul, Sitangkai, Siasi, Palawan, Cuyo, Busuanga, Mindoro, Lubang, Tablas, Romblon, Sibuyan, Panay, Guimaras, Negros, Siquijor, Bantayan, Cebu, Pacijan, Poro, Bohol and Camiguin.
Where there is an intermodal connection then intermodal trucks will cross (the buses not always). The smaller the island the smaller are the intermodal vehicles crossing and it might just be a cargo jeep or a mini-truck or even smaller (like an AUV or multicab). Actually, the smallest intermodal vehicle loaded with goods that I have seen being loaded aboard a short-distance RORO was a tricycle!
Even before trucks went intermodal, they already traversed long distances in one go especially if it reach Bulan port which was about 680 kilometers from Manila via the old Camarines Norte road (it is 80 kilometers less through Quirino Highway). Crossing through Matnog to Samar and beyond the distances are much greater. So I cannot really understand the Japan belief that intermodal trucks are only good up to 150-250 kilometers. Even if only heavy container vans are considered the intermodal truck range is still much long than the Japan reckoning as container vans pass through Matnog daily now especially since there are no more container ships going to Samar Island.
The longest intermodal route existing is the one served by a few trucking companies between Manila and Zamboanga. Their long route actually goes Manila-Samar-Leyte-Surigao-Davao-General Santos City-Bukidnon-Cagayan de Oro-Ozamis-Zamboanga. Aside from delivering loose cargo along the way in what they call “door-to-door service”, they also pick up cargo along the way and are guided through the route by cellphone where to pick up the cargo. Actually, the drivers dislike the route as it takes them nearly two weeks to reach Zamboanga and they get overly tired (I know one who fell asleep behind the wheel while negotiating curves in Bukidnon). The Zamboanga route is also not that safe in terms of banditry and kidnapping. This long route via General Santos City totals some 2,600 kilometers.
Intermodal trucks running between Manila or CALABARZON to Cebu are fairly common and they use three routes: via Batangas/Mindoro/Panay/Negros, via Masbate and via Eastern Visayas. It is actually a major route. There are also a lot of trucks running between Manila/CALABARZON to Iloilo and Tacloban. As a result of those, aside from Samar Island, inter-island container shipping has been pushed back a lot in Panay island and Leyte island. All three routes mentioned are over 500 kilometers in length with the Manila-Cebu route via Eastern Visayas reaching 1,000 kilometers.
There are also intermediate routes like someone I know who distributes San Miguel Group products in Davao who takes the products (poultry, eggs and animal feeds) from Bicol. The distance their trucks and trailers travel is 1,000 kilometers. Actually, they also run refrigerated trucks from Davao to Bicol to deliver ice cream varieties that are made in Mindanao (those using ube, langka and mango). Intermodal refrigerated trucks are actually multiplying and they bring not only ice cream but also fresh meat, processed meat, frozen fish, fresh produce, fruits and bakery products. Actually, the known Dizon Farms in Davao runs refrigerated trucks with fresh fruits and produce from Davao to Manila and will supply Jollibee outlets along the way with lettuce and garden tomatoes and supply SM malls up to Manila with fresh fruits.
The biggest trucking company of Mindanao also runs wing van trucks from General Santos City to various points in the Visayas. Trucks serving San Miguel Corporation also run from CALABARZON up to Mindanao. Trucks serving URC in Lapu-lapu City also regularly bring products to their Pasig warehouses. Cebu trucks also regularly run to western Mindanao through Dapitan. The biggest forwarding company in the whole Philippines, the Fast Logistics (formerly FastCargo) of the Chiongbians (former owner of William Lines also) bring Nestle and other products nationwide using intermodal trucks.
I just really wonder about the Japanese idea of a 150-kilometer maximum range for intermodal trucks. The truth is unless the truck is loaded from Cebu to Leyte and just runs up to Tacloban or maybe Bacolod to Iloilo or maybe Cebu/Mandaue to Bohol, it is very hard to find an intermodal truck route in the Philippines under 150 kilometers in distance. It is more the exception than the rule.
What makes intermodal trucks popular? Aside from ease of delivery, intermodal trucks have other advantages compared to container shipping, the reason why container shipping is slowly losing ground to the intermodal and has actually lost islands to the intermodal trucks like Mindoro, most of Panay, Romblon, Catanduanes, Masbate, Samar, most of Leyte and Bohol. Intermodal trucks are cheaper than container shipping on parallel routes and they are faster. With the road congestion of Manila, a containerized cargo from CALABARZON by the time it is loaded in a ship, the same cargo could already be in Tacloban or even further if loaded by intermodal truck. Aside from port delays and hassles especially in Manila the intermodal truck is simply much faster than any container ship. It can also go direct to the customer and do delivery by packages along the way which are simply impossible with container shipping (loose cargo delivery is easy with a wing van truck with sides that lift up). For loose cargo, intermodal trucks are safer because a lot is lost or damaged if loaded loose cargo in a container ship. In North Harbor I have seen “balut” from Bulacan being wrapped in chicken wire because the “balut” will be poached. Even products in corrugated cartons are not safe and getting a “sample” from that is locally called as “buriki”.
Container rates are also high because in the 1990’s container rates were set to about 35% which means at 35% load, a container ship will already earn a small profit. For me that rate is too low and promotes inefficiency which the shippers and customers bear. Hauling charges to port is also too high and especially in Manila there is extortion on the road, in the port and by the arrastre which further raises the rates. Actually, even the port guards and the PPA window employees are also part of the mulcting activities. There is less of that on the open road and in the provincial and short-distance ferry ports. The high rates of the container shipping companies is also what makes them lose slowly to the Cargo RORO LCTs which are bare-to-the-bones operation and uses fuel very efficiently through their small engines (of course they are slow and can’t sail on heavy seas).
In many short-distance ferry crossings the intermodal trucks are also beneficiaries of laissez-faire competition and support from the short-distance ferry companies and the private port operators like BALWHARTECO in Allen, Northern Samar. Shipping companies give discounts (it is particularly hefty for buses) and “rebates” (in reality, it is more of a “kickback” but that is considered legal by everybody) to drivers for their regulars. There are also “company accounts” where trucks can be loaded aboard RORO even without payment and the shipping company can even loan money if the trucks don’t have enough fuel up to Manila especially on an empty return trip. In “company accounts” bills are settled between the companies. In lesser arrangements the trucking company may have a credit line with the shipping company to be settled monthly or depending on the arrangement. These special accounts enjoy priority or reserved boarding and the RORO will even wait for them if they are late. These are arrangements not understood by the ordinary traveler during peak seasons and they insist on “first come, first served treatment” and they even complain to the media (as if advanced bookings are not done in airlines, liners, buses, hotels, restaurants or even convention centers).
Drivers of regular accounts especially the bus drivers are treated well. They sometimes enjoy free meals aboard ships (not all of them) and other services and even including “special services”. All of these including the earlier-mentioned arrangements of support are part of the laissez faire competition which is common especially in the eastern seaboard where there are deregulated regions (Bicol and Eastern Visayas). This is part of the stiff competition the intermodal transport is giving container and liner shipping, part of the reason why the intermodal trucks have “long legs”. And of course, our drivers are a hardworking lot with plenty of resilience (and that is the reason why many of them have heart problems by their 50’s).
Whatever, intermodal trucking is here to stay and it will only get bigger and maybe to the detriment of the less-flexible, more expensive and slower container shipping. With the growth of the short-distance cargo RORO LCTs, more and more places might be denied to the traditional container shipping. Cebu might be a future hub in a spoke-and-hub system in the future with cargo RORO LCTs and overnight ferries being the spokes. And with the congestion of Manila Port, maybe Batangas will become more of a longer-distance jumping-off port to Visayas and Mindanao in a system reminiscent of a hub and spoke too. All these without prejudice to the intermodal routes connected by the short-distance ROROs like between Matnog and Allen, between Panaon and Lipata, between Mindoro and Caticlan and many, many others.