Why Ship’s can’t compete with trucks and buses on Parallel Routes.

written by: Mike Baylon

In recent years, there have been attempts to match ships against trucks and/or buses on parallel route using HSCs (High Speed Crafts) and MSCs (Medium Speed Crafts). All of them failed because for one, they failed to reckon with history and second, they were blind to the economics. Among these were the off-and-on attempts to establish an HSC ferry link from Manila to Bataan. From the 1970s to the recent attempt by SuperCat all failed along with various attempts in the past two decades by the likes of Mt. Samat Ferry Express and El Greco Jet Ferries. These attempts all tried to offer an alternative to the Manila buses to Bataan.

Port of Lamao, Bataan
Lamao Port, Bataan ©Edison Sy
SuperCat 25 at Manila
SuperCat 25 at Manila ©Nowell Alcancia

In the same area a few years ago Metro Ferry tried the Mall of Asia to Cavite City route and folded in a short time with the shipping company now trying to sell its ferries. It was simply competing against the Cavite bus and that bus goes further up to Lawton. With HSCs the fight is more of a ferry versus bus encounter.

In Davao Gulf, Dans Penta 1 tried a route from Davao to the Lupon town of Davao Oriental. It ceased operations in a few months and the fastcraft laid idle until it was sold. They did not notice that the SuperCat and Oceanjet started service from Cebu to Dumaguete from the 1990s but they were recently driven away by the Ceres Liner bus crossing the sea by Maayo Shipping LCTs.

Dans Penta 1
Dans Penta 1 ©Aristotle Refugio

For a very long time, Illana Bay in southern Mindanao was ruled by the wooden motor boats when there was still no road connecting Pagadian and Cotabato City. There were motor boats from Cotabato to Pagadian, Malabang and Balabagan as there was a motor boat from Tukuran to Caromatan. When the Narciso Ramos Highway connecting Cotabato City and Pagadian was opened suddenly all the motor boats of Illana Bay were gone. Also gone were the Zamboanga-Cotabato ferries.

This was also true for the ferries connecting Ipil, Margosatubig and Pagadian from Zamboanga. There were a lot of steel ferries there before but when the Zamboanga-Pagadian road was cemented slowly the ferries gave way and now they were gone from those routes. That was also what happened to the “3S” area of Zamboanga del Norte, the towns of Sibuco, Sirawai and Siocon. When the roads were built, the ships were gone. Now only motor boats go to Sibuco.

Nikel Princely [Aleson Shipping]
Nikel Princely at Pagadian Port ©pagadian.com thru Mike Baylon

There was also a Guiuan, Eastern Samar to Tacloban connection before using steel-hulled ferries and big motor boats. But when the new road was built connecting Guiuan to Basey through the southern coast of Samar was built the ships there had to transfer to new routes. Mati City once had a sea link to General Santos City but with the Davao-Gensan road built and the Mati road now cemented and safe this route is now gone.

Actually, the lesson that ships can’t beat land transport can first be gleaned in Luzon. In the late 1940s there were still ships from Manila to Salomague, Currimao, Claveria and Aparri. But when the roads were slowly built the passenger-cargo ships were gone before the end of the 1950s. In Bicol passenger-cargo ships from Manila were calling on Sorsogon, Bulan, Legazpi, Tabaco, Nato, Tandoc, Mercedes and Larap ports until the end of the 1970s. With the completion of the Maharlika Highway the ships left as they can no longer compete with the trucks and buses.

BFAR fastcraft in Mati port
Mati Port ©Mike Baylon

In the big, underdeveloped islands of before like Mindanao, Samar, Mindoro and Palawan when there were still no roads connecting the towns it was wooden motor boats that served as the link (in Mindanao the link included steel ships). That is also true in peninsulas without roads then like the southern tip of Bondoc peninsula and Zamboanga peninsula.

There were seaboards that were once beyond a mountain range and isolated that were dependent on sea links. That was the case of the eastern seaboard of Mindanao which was rich in forest products then. It was ships that linked the towns there, the reason there so many ports then there and some even have connections to Manila or Japan like Mati, Lambajon, Bislig and Tandag. It’s the same case too in the southern shores of the old Cotabato province beyond the mountains. Lebak and Kalamansig towns linked to Cotabato City through the motor boat.

Port of Bislig
Bislig Port ©Janjan Salas

The intermodal transport system where islands and regions are linked by the short-distance RORO is an extension of the defeat in Luzon of the ships. When Samar was connected by RORO to Matnog, the intermodal trucks and buses drove out the liners in Samar and now freighters from Manila only arrive in Samar intermittently. Even in the next island of Leyte the liner from Manila is practically gone and container shipping there is on the retreat. That process is also at work now in Masbate and Bohol.

Mindoro was once linked by ship from Manila. Now that is all gone and even the next island of Panay is severely impacted by the intermodal transport system. Only Negros, Cebu and Mindanao islands among the major islands are left with just a small dent from the intermodal.

What is it with land and intermodal transport that beats ferries and cargo ships? Land transport is cheaper and it is also faster. With a small unit like a truck or a bus the threshold where one can leave with a trip that will earn profit is much lower. The acquisition cost is much smaller too and land transport can stop anywhere, go different routes and offer more options. In ubiquity and flexibility, sea transport can’t beat land and intermodal transport.

port of lilo-an leyte
Lilo-an Port, Leyte ©Jaz Prado

Shipping is also weighed down but much stringent requirements. An old ship has to be drydocked every two years and each drydocking costs many millions. There is no equivalent in land and intermodal transport of a regular, mandatory overhaul of every two years. I do not know if authorities are overacting. A ship where the engines conk out still has the flotation and stability of a barge. All it needs to safely reach port is a tug if it can’t restart its engine/s. With a new rule which says no ships can sail at 30kph winds, almost all danger is removed as such winds will not even produce a half-meter of swell. A steel-hulled ship is not a banca but to government authorities it seems they look like the same.

The two types of transport also has different crewing requirements. A bus will only have a crew of two and a truck three. Deck officers of a ship are already half a dozen and engine crew the same. Plus there is ancillary crew like the purser, the cooks and other service crew including security. A ferry will need stewards, galley and restaurant crew and many others. All of those have to be paid money and crewing less than required or if not qualified will result in penalties or even suspension of the ship.

M/V Nathan Matthew
Nathan Matthew ©.BITSI_DoMiNiC_

Since water resistance is much greater than rolling resistance and ships have great weights the fuel consumption of ships is also greater by comparative unit. Where fuel requirement of trucks and buses is measured in liters, those of ships are measured in tons of fuel. Ships also have a lot of equipment like bridge and auxiliary equipments that needs maintenance while a truck will run with only the oil pressure gauge and ammeter working and replacement of those is dirt cheap.

Simply put it is much more expensive to acquire, crew and maintain a ship than land and intermodal transport. While ships and shipping companies have to live with the hassles and mulcting in ports and by the authorities, the “forced donations” of trucks in checkpoint is loose change compared to what ships and shipping companies have to cough up with and buses are even exempted. Insurance is much higher too in shipping.

Raymond 3788 in Pasacao port
Raymond 3788 in Pasacao Port ©Mike Baylon
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Danica Joy and an Oil Tanker ©Barry

So it is no wonder that there are a lot of businessmen that are eager to invest in buses and trucks while in shipping few get attracted now and the ships just get older and older. Maritime and port authorities having been drawn not from the ranks of mariners and shipping professionals have consistently shown a lack of understanding of shipping and cannot even support and lead properly the sector they are supposed to be administering.

It will be no wonder for me if in the future only the short-distance ferry sector will grow as that is needed by the intermodal transport system. The cargo RORO LCT sector will also grow but the long-distance shipping sector will wilt while the overnight ferry sector will just remain steady although threats are emerging against them from the intermodal transport sector. In efficiencies, in speed, in lack of hassles including port problems and Metro Manila road congestion, in price comparison, the ship really cannot compete. This is lost completely on so-called “shipping experts” who always assume that the traditional shipping they know “is always superior” because that was what they were taught in school and by habit they no longer check the empirical situation. If they do they will find out that trucking goods is faster and cheaper than moving it by ship.

It will be reality that will teach them this lesson.

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