My Manila-Davao Intermodal Travel

written by: Gorio Belen

Ever since I’ve read of the daring feat of Ronnie Pasola in traveling around the country, from Aparri to Zamboanga, driving an Austin Moke, I’ve always dreamt of doing the same. There have been several other driving challenges through the years along the Pan-Philippine Highway, including a car rally race from Manila to Davao and Marlboro Tour bicycle races. Driving from Luzon to Mindanao have been made possible through the RoRo ferry crossing services in Matnog and Liloan plus the majestic bridge span linking Samar and Leyte Islands.

The plan to construct a trans-Philippine highway started as early as in the 1960s. In 1967, a team of Japanese and Filipino engineers started to survey the proposed route of this 3,500 kms highway and the actual construction started in 1970. The road was initially called the Philippine-Japanese Friendship highway since the road construction was mainly funded from a $30 million Japanese loan (P168,846,000 in the 1970 peso-dollar exchange rate of P5.6282 to $1) and a local counterpart fund of P2 billion. But it was said that many Filipinos frowned on the name and so it was changed to the Pan-Philippine Highway. In 1979, it was changed to Maharlika Highway by Pres. Marcos.

1965 0829 Pan Philippine Highway
Pan Philippine Highway ©Gorio Belen

Then in Aug. 21, 1986, Philtranco initiated a historic bus run from Manila to Davao and Cagayan de Oro via the Maharlika Highway. Now, a once divided island, where travelling from Manila to Mindanao meant spending several days on an interisland ship was possible by a single bus ride. The advent of RoRo ferries also connected other parts of the country. The Strong Republic Nautical Highway was availed by other bus companies to connect Manila to other parts of the Visayas.

1986 0805 Philtranco 'Unity Run' to link Luzon, M'danao
Philtranco ‘Unity Run’ to link Luzon, M’danao ©Gorio Belen

Seeing those buses with signboards saying Davao somehow challenged me to try a sightseeing trip. I have made initial inquiries on the bus fares, schedules and the time travel when Philtranco still had a terminal at former U/Tex factory in Marikina but somehow I never made the trip. My first interisland bus travel was way back in 1994 when I took an air-conditioned bus from Tacloban to Manila, a 24 hour travel. But what I wanted to do was a bus ride from Manila to Davao….and this was the journey that I would wish to do for years. In my first attempt, I was already at the Cubao Ali Mall terminal but a storm was hovering in the Bicol area and all the dispatchers were not sure if any trip to Tacloban was possible. And I wouldn’t want to travel on a stormy condition with a possibility of being stranded at the Matnog port. Thus I went home disappointed that my first attempt on an interisland trip failed.

Then on my second attempt I was luckier, the weather was fine, I was able to get time off work, at least for a week. And so off I went to the bus terminal in Ali Mall.

Ali Mall, Manila
Ali Mall, Manila ©Ealonian56

At the center of the busy commercial area of Araneta Center in Cubao, the Ali Mall Integrated Bus Terminal comes to life early in the morning as buses from the south arrive and unloads its passengers. If cities in the Visayas and Mindanao have integrated bus terminals, this is its counterpart sort of in Metro Manila. Buses mainly bound for the southern provinces depart here. At mid-morning, the terminal turn almost chaotic as activities center on the departing buses bound for the south; air-con and ordinary buses bound for Bicol, Samar, Leyte and even Iloilo. This would go on until the evening. This is where different cultures of the country mix. This was where my adventure began. (Today, the Ali Mall bus terminal has been demolished to give way to the construction of a Megaworld condominium and the bus terminal have moved to the former Rustan’s building a few meters away.)

Tuesday-May 23, 2006
I boarded the brand new Chinese-made Higer bus of Silverstar Shuttle and Tours bound for Tacloban on the morning of May 23 for the 10 o’clock departure.

Despite some delays, we left Manila and encountered a relatively moderate traffic along EDSA. But a 20 minute stopover at Silverstar’s main terminal in San Pedro, Laguna was irritating to some of the passengers (including me). It was already 11:20 when we left the San Pedro terminal and finally went into cruise speed along the South Luzon Expressway. The Silverstar’s brand new suspension made the trip very comfortable. I was seated in the rear portion of the bus (being the last passenger to check in) and beside a lady bound for Tacloban. Despite my inability to understand or speak ‘Waray’, a warm smile exchanged meant that we will be friendly seatmates for the next 24 hours. Most of the passengers were going home after a vacation in Manila. My excitement on this trip was peaking up. I only hoped for a good weather along the way and a safe trip to my destination.

Way to go Maasin
A Silverstar Shuttle and Tours Bus ©markstopover 3

As rice fields dominate the landscape of the Northern Philippines, tall and slender coconut trees line up the roadside from Batangas up to Quezon Province in the South. We arrived at Lucena at 2 p.m. and stopped at a roadside restaurant for a late lunch. Afternoon showers fell along the way as we passed by the shoreline of Gumaca. I always liked this portion of the Maharlika Highway, where the Pacific Ocean is located on your left while the mountainside is on your right.

At 5 pm, we stopped at the junction at Calauag, Quezon to refuel, indicating that this is the half way point of the bus’ journey.

By this time, the rigors of travel already started to take effect on me as I slept along the way to Bicol despite the rough and zigzagging roads. It was already 9 pm when we stopped for dinner somewhere in Bicol.

Wednesday – May 24, 2006
As we resumed our travel, I again continued my sleep until we reached the Matnog ferry terminal, the exit point from Luzon, at 1 am.

Alighting from the bus to get our ferry tickets, it was a bit inconvenient for passengers to be roused from their sleep and get down from the buses. Despite the hospitality of the local vendors who generously offered the passengers cheap but hot coffee and other snacks, being awaken at 1 am and made to fall in line to get tickets and then board the ferry is very uncomforting. But despite this, I was entertained by the sight of a long line of buses about to board the RoRo ferries. I watched with amazement as the ship’s crew direct the traffic of vehicles boarding the ferry and then securing them tight before we sail off. It was order in chaos.

In the middle of the night we boarded the MV King Frederick of the Sta. Clara Shipping Line. As soon as the passengers boarded the RoRo ferry, everyone searched the ferry for every available chair or space to grab a quick nap. The San Bernardino Strait was perfectly calm and ideal for that ferry crossing. Early morning crossings at San Bernardino Strait afforded one with a spectacular view of the sunrise. Always a pleasant way to start the day. But unfortunately that time we docked at Allen, Samar was still in darkness at 4 am.

02 Matnog
MV King Frederick at Matnog Port ©Gorio Belen

The portion of the Maharlika Highway in Samar runs along the western coast. Roads along Samar are rough and in a sorry state of disrepair, mainly due to years of neglect. (This was in 2006 and I have read they have started to repair the roads. I do not know the present condition). We reached Calbayog City at 6 am for a breakfast stopover.

Calbayog City as well as Catbalogan features old-style pedal-powered tricycles. Unlike their noisy counterparts in Luzon, the dominant tricycles quietly lorded it over the city streets of Calbayog and Catbalogan. Always an interesting sight.

05 Calbayog
Calbayog’s Pedicab ©Gorio Belen

By this time half of the bus’ passengers have alighted, and most of them are now in casual conversation. I know that we were leaving Samar island once the road condition improved. Upon reaching the majestic San Juanico Bridge, I am now ending my first phase of my adventure.

We arrived in Tacloban at 12 noon. I am now in the Visayas region after 24 hours of travel. Tacloban is the capital of Leyte and is the center of trade in Eastern Visayas. This was a familiar territory for me since I had a project here years before and I have been here a couple of times in the past. I immediately went to the Philtranco terminal to inquire about the trip to Davao and I was informed that the bus from Manila was expected to arrive at 9 pm but I can not be assured of a space in the bus as it was reported to be full. (That time, there was still no integrated terminal yet)

I decided to recharge my energies in the city for the rest of the afternoon, checked into a pension house, took a bath, grabbed a meal, took a quick nap and made a short city tour to some familiar places. In the evening, after a quick dinner, I went back to the bus terminal and waited for the Philtranco bus to Davao. I was asked if I would like to ride in the non-aircon Bachelor Express that leaves earlier than 9 p.m. but I decided to stick it out with the air-con Philtranco bus (a decision I would later regret).

07 Tacloban
Tacloban Scenery ©Gorio Belen

The Philtranco Bus arrived way past 9 pm and was full of passengers. I begged the conductor to take me in and he asked if I was willing to stand up as there was no more space even in the alley. I took the challenge and we left at 9:45 pm with me standing in the middle of the alley with people all around me. The bus was so full, there were even passengers in the cargo bay at the back and more standing at the door. I was told that there was a Boy Scout Jamboree in Davao that time so many passengers were bound for that city. (I could have taken this bus in Manila and could have assured me of a seat throughout the travel to Davao, but I chose to follow my own schedule rather than the bus’ timetable).

The drive to Liloan, the southernmost tip of Leyte was uneventful in the middle of the night despite the cramps I suffered from standing for 4 hours and not being able to sleep. That was the real adventure part of my trip. How I wished I should have taken the Bachelor bus instead.

Thursday – May 25, 2006
We reached Liloan at 2 am and was informed that the ferry will arrive at 4am. Immediately I scrambled to find a bench to sleep and rest my aching legs. Then at dawn we boarded mv Maharlika Dos for the ferry crossing to Mindanao. Again I was entertained by the sight of the buses and trucks boarding the ferry and being parked side by side with inches to spare. The RoRo ferry left Liloan at 6 am and it took four hours to cross the Surigao Strait again at a very slow pace. This ferry had served the commuters of Mindanao and Leyte for such a long time, more than twenty years. Again, calm waters afforded us an uneventful ferry crossing and I was able to get a good nap before reaching Lipata.

Lipata Ferry Terminal is the cleanest port I’ve been to in the country and arriving here early in the morning was very refreshing. At last, I was now in Mindanao and almost near my destination.

Lipata Port
Lipata Port ©Aristotle Refugio

Disembarking the ferry and boarding the bus was quite efficient and quick. My fellow bus passengers were now anxious as they were now near their various destinations and they have been on the road for 2 days already. I finally managed to get a seat in the bus and I started to enjoy again the local sceneries along the highway. The road from Surigao to Butuan was relatively in good condition. We stopped for lunch at R.T. Romualdez town.

We arrived at Butuan City at 2pm and when we left it, the bus was half empty. The road to Davao in my earlier travels was very rough with the highway full of huge craters. But the roads have improved since then and now travelling on this part of the Maharlika Highway was very pleasant. By this time, the Philtranco bus seemed to stop at every town before Davao to drop off each passenger.

At Monkayo, Compostela Valley, we had an early dinner at 6pm. As we reached Tagum City, Davao del Norte, we were just about five passengers remaining in the bus. The Philtranco bus finally reached Davao at 9 pm, almost a 24 hour trip for me coming from Tacloban and a two day trip for those who boarded from Manila. For most of the remaining passengers, they were still find connecting bus rides to other provinces in Mindanao but for me, it’s time to find a nice hotel.

Tagum City bus terminal
Tagum City Bus Terminal ©Gorio Belen

I settled in at the Bagobo House Hotel along Duterte st. in downtown Davao, a hotel that I used to check in before. Unfortunately, a boy scout jamboree was happening during that week so all of the regular rooms were occupied and so I was offered the suite. At P1000 a night, it was still a bargain. Their regular single room rate is P620/night could have saved me some bucks but I was too tired to go around the city to look for a cheaper room.

Davao’s nightlife is a clone of Manila’s. It offers a variety of entertainment. There are karaoke bars as well as live band music venues for music lovers. Numerous restaurants catered to satisfy different tastes. Malls also abound. But that night I was just too tired to go out and this was my first chance to rest on a comfortable bed and have a decent rest. So at 11 pm I was already asleep.

Friday – May 26, 2006
On the fourth day of my trip, instead of returning to Manila, I decided to take a bus to Cagayan de Oro via the BuDa (Bukidnon-Davao) road which I have heard so much from my Mindanaoan friends before. I boarded a brand new Rural Transit bus bound for Cagayan de Oro and we left at 9:30 am. The ride was pleasant all throughout as the BuDa road was well paved.

Upon reaching the provincial boundary of Bukidnon we were all asked to board down and pass through a foot bath while the bus underside was sprayed with disinfectant. The province of Bukidnon has been strictly enforcing this measure to prevent the entry of foot and mouth disease that may ruin their cattle and animal industry.

The zigzagging roads of BuDa highway offered a breathtaking view of Davao City mountain ranges. This reminded me of my father’s stories of how they evacuated from Davao to Cagayan de Oro on foot at the onset of WWII. He said that they walked the mountain jungles for days, surviving on what they can eat along the forests of Davao del Norte (which I imagined to be very lush then). How I wish that he was still alive today so that I could have taken him along on this trip and retrace their evacuation route.

11 Rural Transit in Bukidnon
Rural Transit in Bukidnon ©Gorio Belen

We arrived at exactly noon in Quezon, Bukidnon and had our lunch there. And for the following towns thereafter, we would be stopping for every 30 minutes to pick up and unload passengers. At 1 pm we were at Maramag, Bukidnon. I have been to Maramag once before so I was amazed at the remarkable improvement.

We arrived at Malaybalay at 2:30pm. About 10 years ago, when I went to this place, the highway was still mainly gravel road. Malaybalay is home of the famous Benedictine Monastery of Transfiguration which has a very good boy’s choir. The monks there also plant coffee which they sell to guests and the abbey also has the last work of National Artist Architect Leandro Locsin, the monastery’s chapel.

We finally arrived in Cagayan de Oro, under a slight drizzle, at 4:30 pm. and immediately I checked in at Pearlmont Inn in nearby Limketkai Mall. The rooms are clean and the rate was relatively cheap. I did some “malling” in nearby Limketkai forgetting that SM already had a mall near Lumbia. I was eating mall food again just like what I usually do in Manila. Cagayan de Oro was another familiar territory as I have been to this place numerous times before and had a number of projects here before. I also had a couple of friends here so it was nice to catch up with them.

cagayan de oro terminal
Bulua Bus Terminal, Cagayan de Oro City ©Gorio Belen

By this time, I have reached the halfway point of my trip and it was now time to get head back to Manila.

Saturday – May 27, 2006
I decided to take the route via Butuan on my return trip. Initially I tried to get a ride at a local air-con van but departure was only when it was already full of passengers. But since filling up the van took a long time, I decided to board a Butuan bound Bachelor bus instead. The bus departed the terminal at 10 a.m.

The highway eastward from Cagayan de Oro runs along the coastline so the view is refreshing. We arrived in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental at 10:45am and had a short stopover at its common bus terminal. At 11:15am, we made the next stopover in Balingasag. Lunchtime was in Balingoan at exactly noon. At 1 pm we stopped at Gingoog City and 58 minutes later we were at Nasipit.

Gingoog City Bus Terminal
Gingoog City Bus Terminal ©Gorio Belen

We arrived in Butuan City at 2:30pm. I changed bus here and took a Bachelor bound for Surigao City. I wondered why there was no direct bus trip from Cagayan de Oro to Surigao but nevertheless I took the chance to do a quick tour of the city during my stopover. We departed at 3 pm. From Butuan the highway from Cagayan de Oro to Surigao City is well paved so travel was comfortable. Upon arriving at the Surigao integrated terminal after a two hour trip, I boarded a multicab bound for Lipata ferry terminal. I arrived at the Lipata terminal at dusk and had plenty of time to rest from my day-long travel since the ferry was scheduled to depart at 10 pm yet. How I wished I had the information at the Surigao terminal so that I could have toured the city proper that evening. It seemed that not everyone knew of the ferries’ schedule or that the ferries had not regular schedule.

Anyway, the Lipata terminal building, despite its age, is still clean and well-maintained. Waiting for the RoRo ferry’s arrival, I had time to reflect on my travel. This leg of my travel has debunked the myth of most Luzon residents that travelling around Mindanao is quite dangerous due to rebels of various orientations. On the contrary, I found the Northeastern part of Mindanao peaceful.

We boarded a Maharlika RoRo ferry and departed Lipata at 10:30 pm. As soon as we boarded the ferry, we looked for a good seat to sleep. The passengers were quite few so there was plenty of space to look around. The slow speed of the RoRo ship and calm waters made the ferry crossing comfortable and again uneventful. This time, I was able to get a good sleep, despite lying flat in the chairs.

Sunday – May 28, 2006
We arrived at Liloan at 2:30 am. I was back in island of Leyte. I took a van for Tacloban outside the ferry terminal and we departed at 3 am. Since there was nothing to see in the dark, I slept most of the way to Tacloban. I was only awakened when we made a stopover in Bato at 4:30 am.

I arrived in Tacloban at 7 am at took a quick breakfast. Then I took a van for Calbayog City. I planned to make a stopover in Calbayog to see a former officemate. Again I experienced the indescribable rugged roads of Samar. I was in Calbayog at noon and quickly contacted my friend and decided to spend the night in Calbayog. My former officemate and I had a grand time catching up with each other.

Monday – May 29, 2006
Instead of boarding a bus bound for Manila, I departed from Calbayog at 9 am aboard a local jeep bound for Allen. I planned to make many stopovers along the way.

At 11:30am I was in Allen pier and after the usual process of falling in line to buy tickets, we boarded the RoRo ferry, the mv King Frederick again (the same ferry I rode from Matnog to Allen earlier). We departed at 1pm. This time I was able to enjoy the view from the ferry’s side. I also watched my co-passengers do their regular “ferry crossing things.” A female pedicurist was going around the ship and must have a good earning as she had many costumers. A lady beside me fed her son with home cooked adobo which I know for sure is very delicious. Some passengers enjoyed viewing a female volleyball game on the ship’s TV. While some took the chance to get a nice afternoon nap, others enjoyed the cool sea breeze by the ferry’s railings.

We docked at Matnog at 2:30 pm. Happily, I was in back in Luzon soil as soon as I saw the arch at the Matnog port entrance that welcome the travelers. Outside the port, I boarded a jeep bound for Sorsogon. I did enjoy this leg of my travel since at last I saw the scenic countryside of Sorsogon in daytime (most of my passing through in this area was at night). Passing by Irosin, I was reminded of my high school teacher who hailed from this town and who always told us of stories about his place. I was planning to spend the night in Sorsogon but since it was still early I decided to board a van for Daraga. At Daraga, I boarded another van bound for Naga and we left the terminal at 6 pm. Arriving at the new Naga central terminal at 8:30 pm, instead of spending the night in that city as I initially planned, I was talked into boarding Gold Line bus that was about to depart at 9 pm by its dispatcher. Maybe because I was already too tired of my travelling and I was really aching to go home. After a quick dinner at the terminal’s restaurant, I took my seat in the bus and settled in for the long trip. Surprisingly, I did have a good sleep on the bus.

Tuesday – May 30, 2006
When I woke up, we were already speeding along the South expressway. EDSA traffic was still light and we arrived at the Ali Mall terminal at 6 am. One final ride to my home on that cool morning and finally I was in the comfort of my bed at 7 am.

After sleeping half of the day, I reflected on my travel for the past week. I have finally achieved my dream of inter-island travel. The Pan Philippine highway or Maharlika highway is a major link through the regions (except probably for the Samar portion) The RoRo ferries also had a great hand in connecting the various islands and making travel by car (or bus) from Manila to Davao (or even Zamaboanga) possible.

I was also glad I have seen the beauty of our countryside. There are indeed many beautiful places to see and go to in the Philippines. I have also felt the warmth and hospitality of my countrymen, despite the language barrier. I have learned that there are areas in Mindanao and the Visayas that is safe to travel on, contrary to the opinion of some (mostly from Luzon). I was asked by a friend if I would ever do it again. I said, “definitely” as there are more places to go and see in our country.

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 © 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
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.

The True Range of the Intermodal Trucks in the Philippines

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.

Mindoro-type Jeep ©Mike Baylon

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).

Wing Van Trucks ©Mike Baylon

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.

Cardinal Shipping ©Gorio Belen

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.

Maynilad II ©Gorio Belen

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.

Balicuatro Port ©Jun Marquez

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.

ARA ©Mike Baylon

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.

Wing Van Truck chartered to Fast Logistics (former Fast Cargo) ©Mike Baylon

Trucks aboard Super Shuttle RORO 3 ©Mike Baylon

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”.

Wing Van Truck ©Mike Baylon

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).

Cargo RORO LCT ©Mike Baylon

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).

Trucks at Balicuatro Port ©Gorio Belen

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.

Labogon Port ©Mike Baylon

Happy Trucking!

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


Once upon a time it was liners that connected Eastern Visayas to the national capital. Liners from Manila took several routes. There was a route that after touching parts of the present Northern Samar the passenger-cargo ship will swing north to Bicol ports. There was also a route that will just go to ports on the north coast of Samar up to Laoang, which was the jumping-off point for towns on the northeast coast of Samar that were without roads. There was also a route that after docking in Calbayog and/or Catbalogan the ship will swing south to Tacloban or to Cebu. There was also a route that after calling in Tacloban the ship will swing south and pass the eastern seaboard of Leyte on the way to Surigao, Butuan or even Cagayan. And there was a route where the ship will head to several ports on the western seaboard of Leyte island and some will even proceed to Surigao. There was also a route where ships will dock on ports in the present Southern Leyte and the ship will proceed to Surigao and Butuan. There was even a route that will go first to Surigao and the ship will swing north to Cabalian in the present Southern Leyte.

Among the many ports where liners from Manila called then in Eastern Visayas were Borongan, Laoang, Carangian, Allen, Calbayog, Catbalogan, Tacloban, Calubian, Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc, Baybay, Maasin, Sogod and Cabalian. Shipping companies from the majors to the minor lines were represented in the eastern Visayas routes and ports. Among them were Compania Maritima, Go Thong and the successors Gothong Shipping, Sulpicio Lines and Lorenzo Shipping, General Shipping, William Lines, Sweet Lines, Philippine President Lines and the latter Philippines Pioneer Lines, Galaxy Lines, Escano Lines and Aboitiz Shipping. Among the minor shipping companies North Camarines (and NCL and NORCAMCO), N&S Lines, Rodriguez Shipping, Newport Shipping, Eastern Shipping, Bisayan Land Transport and the latter BISTRANCO, Corominas Richards Navigation, Veloso Shipping, Royal Lines and Samar-Leyte Shipping had routes to Eastern Visayas. Amazingly, all those shipping companies are gone now if not the routes in the region and there are no more liners left sailing to Eastern Visayas.

©Gorio Belen

Shipping of goods and transport of people do not and will never go away. The liners are gone now from Eastern Visayas and what replaced them were the intermodal trucks and buses. Liner shipping simply lost decisively and completely to the intermodal transport and one result of this is the emergence of the so-called “ports to nowhere” or ports that have no ships or meaningful ship calls.

The start of this process of decline and loss started one day in 1979 when “Cardinal Ferry 1”, a RORO arrived to connect the ports of Matnog and Allen. Right after her arrival buses from Manila and Samar began rolling. First to be dominated by the intermodal trucks and buses were the ports in the new province of Northern Samar. In five years all the liners were gone there and it looked as if the foundering of the “Venus” of N&S Lines in Tayabas Bay on October 28, 1984 while trying to outrun a typhoon marked the beginning of the closing of the curtains. Soon Calbayog was also lost too to the intermodal.


For a time the route touching on Catbalogan and Tacloban survived and the last hold-outs were Sulpicio Lines and William Lines, the two strongest shipping companies in the 1980’s. By this time all the minors were gone along with most of the major shipping companies. Many of them floundered in the great financial crisis of the 1980’s and never recovered. It was not just that crisis that torpedoed them. Shipping of copra, the prime cargo from the 1950s dramatically declined in the 1980’s soon after the near-death of the abaca trade in the 1970’s. Abaca was the primary cargo of shipping from the 1880’s up to the 1950’s and copra was the crop that succeeded it. No crop or produce replaced abaca and copra and as for Cavendish bananas and “Manila Super” mangoes those no longer passed through Manila and were brought by reefers and containers direct to Japan and East Asia. Corn trade also suffered a decline because of importation.

Meanwhile, fresh fish from Eastern Visayas no longer passed to the ships as it was transferred to the refrigerated trucks. With overfishing that that happened in the 1980’s even the dried fish industry of Eastern Visayas was almost killed. Coconut oil mills also sprouted in the region and for copra destined for the major oil mills of Southern Tagalog it was already the LCTs that were transporting copra aside from the intermodal trucks. Even charcoal passed on to the trucks and cargo jeeps.

The process of the decline of liner shipping in Eastern Visayas accelerated with the Ramos decree allowing the entry of surplus trucks in Subic. Soon the versatile and powerful wing van trucks were rolling down the highways and crossing thru the Matnog-Allen route and San Juanico bridge. There was no more imperative for CALABARZON factories to ship their products through the dangerous, graft-, extortion- and traffic-ridden North Harbor. They can simply call forwarders with wing van trucks and the trucks will roll immediately unlike in North Harbor where they have to wait for the ship schedule and be on the mercy of the arrastre and port thieves. By the time the cargo is loaded in North Harbor, usually the wing van truck was already finished delivering its load in Eastern Visayas. And the wing van truck was not only faster; it was also cheaper with less handling needed since it can bypass the bodega and go straight to the stores and supermarkets and there is no need for haulers and arrastre service in the destination pier.

Balicurato Port ©Jun Marquez

Liners also lost to the intermodal buses since passengers can just hail or stop the Manila bus right by their gates and in Manila there was no longer a need to fight through the crime-ridden North Harbor and battle the horrendous traffic. The bus was also faster and at the same time cheaper especially since Eastern Visayas was a deregulated area hence there are a lot of buses and fares are discounted almost year-round. And buses leave everyday at many hour slots while liners only sail on certain days. Especially for people of Northern Samar they won’t foolishly go to Calbayog because for the same money and time they will already be in Matnog and Matnog is only 12 hours away from Manila, half of the travel time of the Calbayog liner.

Around the year 2000 I realized that if Sulpicio and WG&A will not cooperate and form a consortium of fast, medium-sized liners then I knew in a short time that they will lose even Leyte island to the intermodal. The threat loomed large since there was a Ramos decree making it easier for bus operators to acquire new units. Entry for new players was also easy because of the deregulated nature of the region. I noticed also that wing van trucks were multiplying fast and that can be easily seen in Matnog port then. Motorcycle carriers were also a constant presence in the roads already along with refrigerated trucks whose cargo are not fish but processed meat and other perishable groceries.

Ormoc Port circa 1996 ©Jorg Behman

Instead, starting in 2000, WG&A were selling liners fast, and to the breakers and without replacement. Of course there was already the pressure on the company because of the declared intention of the Gothong and Chiongbian families to divest (and they must be paid somehow). With this move I knew the game was over. There will be no succor for liner shipping here because by this time Escano Lines and Madrigal Shipping had already quit Eastern Visayas passenger shipping and even MBRS Lines who bravely tried Samar again has already retreated.

The odds were tough because the intermodal bus was simply superior in many ways. In southwestern and southern Leyte island even at dawn a passenger just have to leave his baggage by his gate, wait inside his house and the Manila bus will honk and stop. No need to wait long in a port and haggle with porters. And even from that part of Eastern Visayas the total travel time by bus was less and the fare cheaper. Arriving in Manila it is easier to get a connecting ride in Cubao or Pasay and the taxi fare will come out cheaper compared to North Harbor and of course there is the MRT too. Going home to the province there were a lot of attractive buses in Cubao and in Pasay or even in Manila that do not have the hassle of going to the North Harbor.

Then liner shipping in Eastern Visayas came crashing down fast when the “Princess of the Stars” went down in 2008 and passenger operations of Sulpicio Lines was suspended. With the fleet laid up Sulpicio Lines sold the “Tacloban Princess” and the “Palawan Princess” to the breakers and that marked the end of liner shipping for Sulpicio Lines in the region. Not long after that Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also quit Leyte too. Actually, the loss of Masbate to the intermodal transport practically doomed the ATS route because somehow the intermediate port of Masbate  contributed passengers and cargo to the route.

Laid-up Princesses. ©Mike Baylon

For a time there were no more liners in the regions and even container ships are very few. Recently, 2GO tried to revive a route that passes through Romblon, Masbate and Ormoc on the way to Cebu. Many doubt if that route and service will last because it is really very hard now for liners to beat the intermodal if the route distance is almost the same. There is simply a swarm of buses and trucks forming a formidable opposition to the liners and even to the container ships.

This is one region where the triumph of the intermodal was swift and complete. But this is not known in Japan which advises us (for what?) and which still thinks intermodal trucks are only good for 250 kilometers maximum and cannot imagine wing van truck can beat container shipping. Well, sometimes shipping Ph.Ds are funny.