Is There Enough Cargo To Move Around?

In the last few years there has been an upsurge in the ships that move cargo. First, that became noticeable with the LCTs that became ore carriers of the black sand mining in a few provinces and particularly in Surigao where opening of mines close to the sea boomed. That happened because of the sudden great demand then of metals in China.

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An aggregates carrier LCT off Taganito, Surigao

Just after the peak of that demand, a fleet of brand-new LCTs built in China appeared in north Mactan Channel. That happened when the demand for metallic ores in China was beginning to wane. And so initially those LCTs especially those owned by Broadway One Shipping and Cebu Sea Charterers were just anchored in the channel. Those LCTs were only known by their numbers but in size those were bigger than the average Philippine LCT. Generally, their powers and speeds were also higher and better.

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Row of newly-arrived LCTs in north Mactan Channel

With nowhere to go these LCTs including those owned by others but also built in China (like the Poseidon LCTs, the Meiling LCTs, those owned by Premium Megastructures Inc., Adnama Resources, etc.) became aggregates carriers and Cargo RORO LCTs and in the latter it challenged in the business then dominated by Goldenbridge Shipping which had a route from Labogon, Mandaue to Hindang, Leyte. Sand is gold in Cebu because of its construction needs and it is not readily available in the island in quantity because of its upraised sea floor origins which meant just a lot of limestone. And so sand is transported from Leyte whose land is volcanic in origin and thus there is plenty of sand and hard rock. Aggregates carrier LCTs go as far as Samar and some also go to Bohol.

The value of Cargo RORO LCTs was highlighted when the super-typhoon “Yolanda” struck and lots of trucks have to move to Leyte and long queues of truck formed in Matnog and Lipata ports and there was also a lot of needed bottoms for trucks crossing from Cebu to Leyte. The LCTs filled this need and suddenly the Cargo RORO LCT segment was here to stay. It challenged not only old LCT operators like Mandaue Transport and Simpoi Shipping but also the overnight ferry companies operating ROROs that Roble Shipping even felt the need to charter LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC), owner of many LCTs for charter. Now Cargo RORO LCTs connects many islands and it is also a viable transporter now of container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao, a mode pioneered by Ocean Transport that also started by chartering LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before acquiring their own China-built LCTs.

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On the left is an LCT of Asian Shipping Corporation chartered by Roble Shipping

I can understand the need and value of LCTs which have proven their uses and versatility recently and that is why it is still continuing to increase in number. But in the same period I also noticed the rise in the numbers of our container ships and general-purpose cargo ships which are mainly freighters on tramper duty. In general that is a surprise for me as I know our local inter-island trade is flat and intermodal trucks have already stolen a significant portion of their cargo and that can be shown in the queue of trucks in many short-distance crossings like in the routes to Panay, the routes to Eastern Visayas and Surigao and Cargo RORO LCTs are used by these intermodal trucks along with short-distance ferry-ROROs. Cargo RORO LCTs are also used by tractor-trailers hauling container vans to serve islands where local container ships are now gone or where the service is weak or the rate expensive. Examples of these are Samar, Leyte and Bohol islands.

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A Cargo-RORO LCT

I have been contacted by a writer doing the history of Delgado Brothers or Delbros which once dominated the Manila ports and which was also involved in shipping then (it was also the first employer of my late father). Delbros happened to by one of the two dominant leasers of container vans locally together with Waterfront and they cannot resolve the problem of flat leasing for several years already and they cannot fathom the reason why. I told her the reason is simple – the intermodal trucks are stealing their business.

But in recent years I have seen our container shipping companies add and add container ships. Most remarkable is Oceanic Container Lines (OCLI) which has the most number of container ships now. Notable too is Philippine Span Asia Container Corporation (PSACC), the new name of the controversial Sulpicio Lines. Lorenzo Shipping and Solid Shipping have also added a few. There are new players which are Moreta Shipping Lines which was formerly in overnight ferries, Meridian Shipping and Seaborne Shipping and these new players are also expanding their route networks. To this might be added Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI) which now has a container ship to Manila.

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A deck loading ship

Another notable addition is Fiesta Cargo and Logistics (this is not the exact name of the company) which operates true deck loading ships. These ships have flat decks like those in LCTs and booms for cargo handling. Aside from this and container ships, the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also added a few RORO Cargo ships, their forte and choice of transport.

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A RORO Cargo ship

For NMC Container Lines and 2GO there was no noticeable addition although the latter have chartered container ships from Caprotec and they also charter ships from Ocean Transport (or is it Key West?). Hard to say because of the rumored split between the two. Escano/Loadstar meanwhile seems to be exhibiting a decline in their fleet.

In general-cargo ships a few companies showed newly-acquired ones and probably topping the list is Avega Brothers which from chartering ships from Asian Shipping Corporation went on a spree of acquiring trampers that though Manila in origin they regularly anchor ships now in north Mactan Channel. Medallion Transport and Roble Shipping also both acquired a significant number of freighters. Aside from the three mentioned many other shipping companies also added freighters to their fleet.

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Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs in their Mandaue port

Asian Shipping Corporation which specializes in chartering ships and operating barges aside from LCTs needs special mention because of the rate they are adding ships annually. As of last year their fleet total is nearly 200 ships already including the lowly tugs but MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) has noted that they already have the biggest fleet in the country in terms of Gross Tonnage (GT), the traditional method of comparing ship and fleet size and that they have already displaced 2GO from its old Number 1 perch. 2GO temporarily regained the top ranking with their acquisition of the liner St. Therese of Child Jesus but I wonder if they did not slide to Number 2 again with the sale of the liner St. Joan of Arc. For an operator of supposedly “lowly” ships the achievement of Asian Shipping Corporation certainly has to be lauded.

But all of these leads me to the question, “Is there enough cargo to move around?” I know many of the trampers are just carriers of cement and other construction/hardware/electrical materials that they are practically “cement carriers”. Some are “copra carriers”. And these trampers are also carrier of bagged flour of various kinds and also other bagged products like fertilizers and feeds. But our freighters seldom carry rice and corn now unlike in the past. Ditto for cassava – the volume now is small.

Is there really a significant rise in the volume of these products? Maybe in cement and related materials because of the construction boom. But I wonder about the others. Are there other products being carried now? What I know is a lot of grocery items is now carried by the intermodal trucks.

Coal might be big now because of the rise in number of our coal plants. But freighters do not carry that. Other types of fuel are carried by the tankers.

There are incentives now from the government on the acquisition of new ships and it even opened a loan window with the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). Are shipping companies taking advantage of that just to hoard ships?

What I know is shipping rates in the country are high if compared to other countries. That can cover low cargo volume. The most visible show of that are our container ships. Seldom will one see them full or even near that. Well, operating ships is expensive especially since MARINA exactions adds to the cost.

Whatever, newer ships are always good. I just want to see where this would lead. Lower rates? Probably not. Better service? That is hard to measure on cargo ships. More availability of ships? Maybe one can count on that.

Anyway, this article is just meant as an update on one aspect of our cargo shipping.

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Time Will Come The LCTs Will Take Away The Business Of The Container Ships

It was a friend of mine who worked as trusted man of someone high up in shipping who told me that MARINA has set it just to 30 or 35% load for a container ship to be profitable. I was aghast by that because that will mean terrible inefficiency and high rates for the shippers. That was twenty years ago and in that same time span our local shipping industry has been under attack for very high rates and it has been pointed out that from Davao it is much cheaper to send a container van to Hongkong or Singapore which are much farther than Manila. But even after two decades there has been no change in the situation of the industry. If there was, it is the rates went up geometrically higher. And of course that was unacceptable but our bureaucrazy only acts to change things if there is already an imminent revolt.

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Intermodal trucks for loading in BALWHARTECO Port in Allen, Samar

As they say water seeks its own path and one cannot hold or bottle it forever. One big response by shippers that I saw was in the widespread deployment of intermodal trucks that use our highways and then boards short-distance ROROs at the end of the road and then continue on to the next island. The intermodal truck might then still board another short-distance RORO to another island. I found out there are even trucks whose origin is Mactan island which are bound to Manila and will traverse Cebu island, Negros island, Panay island and Mindoro island before landing in Batangas port. And of course intermodal trucks from Manila or CALABARZON find its way to Davao regularly and there are some that reach as far as Zamboanga.

Consolidation” of the local cargo shipping industry especially the container sector has long been proposed by experts both local and foreign. But it has fallen into deaf ears and the national government will not wield the proverbial stick to make this come true and so it lays until now where it started, that is as proposals. “Consolidation” would have led to greater efficiency and thus lower rates. But locally, businesses and not only shipping wants to see efficiency not to lower rates (of course, they will pay lip service to that) but to higher profits. And so greed rules and trumps everything and the higher national interest and greater good do not matter in the end.

Our different shipping companies are republics of their own and historically they have never been into cooperation, consolidation or merger (except the “Great Merger” which produced WG&A and which had been a disaster to local shipping) even though some are related by blood. If there has been a CISO (Conference of Inter-island Ship Owners) in the past, it is only because they want to present a common front vis-a-vis the government and also to make sure that the agreed rates are being observed by all (however, in other countries that will ruled as “cartelization” and subject to penalties or even jail terms; but not here as that term is practically unknown and even Economics teachers here do not know that). Oh, well, actually the cartel master locally is MARINA which sets the rates. Historically, they set the maximum rates but like what happened to LTFRB they treat the maximum rate as also the minimum and MARINA in the end serves just the needs of the shipping companies and not the general public. But before it be misconstrued that they are servile to shipping companies, the truth is shipping companies fear MARINA as their livelihood and fortune is dependent on the decisions of MARINA. If the rates are drastically brought down then they might all go down.

That is the reason why the shipping companies will fight toe and nail for the retention of the Anti-Cabotage Law which bars foreign shipping companies from sailing local or inter-island routes. If the Congress (which has the power to repeal the Anti-Cabotage Law) allows the entry of the much more efficient and capable foreign ships then local cargo rates will drastically go down but our local shipping companies will drown. Regarding the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC), that entity will not amount to anything in shipping because that only checks mergers and mergers are a near-impossibility in shipping.

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LCT Raenell of Asian Shipping Corporation in Mandaue

And so shippers and other related interests will find new ways to bring down rates some other way. One of these is the employment of the cheap and cheap-to-operate LCTs which has only 1,000 horsepower on the average which is just about a third of the power of the container ships. True, they will probably only run at about 7 to 8 knots compared to the 11 to 12 knots of the container ships. So they will take three days to Cebu where a container van will only take two days. But, hey, the bulk of cargo is not express anyway and a difference of one day will not really matter, in the main. Nowadays if one really wants it fast one takes to the plane and use air cargo which is P20/kilo at the lowest now.

It is through the use of chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation that Ocean Transport had their start. Using big LCTs (by local standards), 94 TEUs can be fitted with the container vans stacked like Lego and handled by big forklifts. The LCTs cost P70,000 a day, fuel and crew included and so the transport cost one way is just over P200,000 not including cargo handling in Manila and possible cargo handling in Cebu. Plus of course other labor, office, yard and anciliary costs and maybe insurance. Under the table money, I have only the vaguest of ideas. But in this calculation one can see the movement of a TEU to Cebu via chartered LCTs is just P4,000, starting. That will not be the actual rate but one can see how low it is via LCT when the normal commercial rate for a TEU to Cebu is probably 5 times of that. The LCT might have just a capacity of 94 TEUs and the container van has 300 TEU but if they are only a third full on the average then the actual load of the two is just about equal and the LCT has probably only has a third of the horsepower of the container ship. The LCT usually has about 100% load. So it is very easy to see which is more efficient and why an LCT can give much, much cheaper rates.

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Roble Shipping was the next to follow the shipping model of Ocean Transport and like the first they were also very quiet about it. Maybe the two fear that if it becomes known widespread that the LCT mode is successful some shipping companies will lobby MARINA and MARINA will institute a crackdown and maybe cite “safety” again which is the usual bogey of MARINA. It has been a long time that the LCTs, being flat-bottomed and not that resilient against capsizing has been tagged with safety issues. It does not help either that being open-decked and having a low freeboard some issues were also attached by some to those. [Note: Ocean Transport and Roble Shipping now operates their own LCTs regularly carrying container vans from Manila to Cebu.]

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LCT Akira of Ocean Transport by John Carlos Cabanillas

The longest route I have seen LCTs bring container vans regularly is from Manila to Cagayan de Oro. And so locally it is proven now that LCTs can be container carriers for 500 nautical miles. I do not know if they are capable of Southern Mindanao routes which is up to 800 nautical miles but I think they can do it if needed. Of course, LCTs are normally earlier to seek shelter than container ships when there are storms. But if MARINA and the Coast Guard suspends voyages at 45kph wind speed then the container ships might not have an advantage anymore.

The LCTs are looked down upon by many but they should know that China which is already the biggest shipbuilding country in the world and is already a shipping power widely uses LCTs to move their cargo internally and on shorter distances. Actually most of our new LCTs now are from China and many came here brand-new. In terms of age, our LCTs might be younger than our container ships now. And LCTs are the backbone of our Cargo RORO LCT fleet which not only move trucks but also trucks and trailers bearing container vans especially to islands that are not served well by container ships like Bohol, Leyte and Samar.

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LCT PMI-3 from Leyte

If MARINA won’t crack down, I see intermodal trucks and LCTs further taking away the business of the container ships which is still growing in number but I know their cargo volume is not increasing. Consolidation would have been easy for them if they will just open their eyes and be open-minded and it does not mean that they would have to merge, an anathema to many executives as that might mean losing their positions and careers that they have built over the years. Actually the simplest consolidation is the swapping of container vans. There is no container company that has daily departures even from Manila and the simplest is they should load their containers to their partner shipping companies which has the nearest departure. That will mean ships being fuller and at the end of the month they can reconcile their figures and charges would have to be paid for the difference but of course it should be on friendship or partner rates.

With that, less ships might have to be employed, there would be less sailings and that would have to mean savings that should be passed on to consumers if they have any integrity. With consolidation too there might be enough containers vans to ports and islands that they have already abandoned or bypassed and so the container ships can come back there and sailing level might be maintained (now isn’t that neat?). Internationally, this system I mentioned is already being used and not only in shipping. I don’t see any valid reason why the local shipping companies can’t do it. It will only be impossible if their distrust of each other is too much and their owners and executives are too obtuse. The national government should also wield the stick after incentives are laid out. They can even set the rules and the system. It is high time already as for the past two decades after constant criticisms I have not seen our local container companies try to bring down container rates to acceptable world standards. They are just being kept afloat by the blood of the shippers. And that is why forwarder companies are making great strides and container shipping is just where they were two decades before. That is also the true reason they won’t venture out to foreign waters because they simply cannot compete. Regarding their charge that our ports are too shallow that is baloney because much bigger foreign ships use the same major ports that they do.

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LCT Poseidon 15 in Verde Island Passage

I wish the LCTs well for maybe it is them that will be able to bring down container rates even though they might not look modern or beautiful. If they drown the container ships then it is the fault of the container shipping companies themselves.

Allen is the King of Samar Shipping

Allen, a small town in the northwest tip of Samar island is the king of Samar shipping if measured by the number of ports existing and by the number of vessel arrivals and departures and even in the passenger throughput. This has not always been so because in the past Calbayog and Catbalogan have been the kings of Samar shipping. That was the time of cruiser liners and when the intermodal system did not yet exist.

Allen has been the connection of Samar to Sorsogon even before World War II when motor boat (lanchas) was the king of connections between near major islands. That was simply because Allen is the nearest town of Samar to the Sorsogon landmass. Additionally, Allen was also the connection then of the northwestern part of Samar to Calbayog when there was still no road connecting those two parts of Samar.

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Credit to Gorio Belen and Times Journal

The BALWHARTECO (Balicuatro Wharfage and Terminal Corporation) port was THE port of Allen even then. This port is a private port and founded by the father of the current owning Suan family. From a port handlings lanchas, BALWHARTECO port evolved into a RORO port with the coming of the ROROS. When it did, the Matnog-Allen lanchas gave way to the ROROs until they became extinct. With that, gone too was the cumbersome mano-mano cargo handling system done by the porters.

In the past, liners from Manila docked in Calbayog and Catbalogan mainly and also in Laoang, Caraingan, Allen and Victoria. But with the finishing of the Maharlika Highway, the buses and also the trucks came to Bicol and suddenly there was a need for a RORO to cross them across San Bernardino Strait to Samar which Cardinal Shipping through Cardinal Ferry 1 provided in 1979. This was followed by other companies with ROROs like Newport Shipping whose owner is from Laoang town. Other companies followed such as the Philippine Government through Maharlika Uno in 1982 and by the Bicolandia Shipping of Eugenia Tabinas.

When the intermodal buses and trucks came, the bottom suddenly fell out of Northern Samar ports and ships and in a few years they were gone. Calbayog and Catbalogan proved more resilient but the BALWHARTECO private port in Allen grew by leaps and bounds as the years showed consistent annual increase of trucks, buses and passengers crossing the San Bernardino Strait. From a wooden wharf BALWHARTECO port was converted in a concrete causeway-type wharf. Moreover, additional buildings were added to BALWHARTECO port and it housed pasalubong shops, eateries and various offices plus a lodge and a disco above.

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BALWHARTECO in earlier days. Photo by Lindsay Bridge.

When BALWHARTECO and the San Bernardino connection grew, others were tempted to also have their own like the Dapdap and Jubasan ports. Dapdap is owned by Philharbor Ferries and the new Jubasan port is owned by Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation. So now Allen has three ports and very rare is a town that has three private ports catering to ROROs.

Meanwhile, the old dominant ports of Calbayog and Catbalogan no longer have liners from Manila nor overnight ferries from Cebu with the exception of the new Manguino-o port in Calbayog which hosts Cokaliong Shipping Lines. In the main they have already lost to the intermodal trucks from Cebu which use ports in the western seaboard of Leyte as entry like Palompon, Isabel, Ormoc including GGC, Albuera and Baybay.

These changes only showed the complete triumph of the new paradigm, the intermodal system where vehicles (buses, trucks, cars, etc.) are now just rolled into ROROs including LCTs and the traditional way of shipping cargo has already been superseded.

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BALWHARTECO port

In a day, Allen has nearly 20 ROROs dockings and an equivalent number of departures for a total of about 200 vehicles of at least four wheels either way so not counted here are the likes of motorcycles. Near ports of cities like Tacloban, Masbate, Legazpi and Tabaco do not even have such volume. It actually exceeds even the port of Ormoc, the greatest port in the western shores of Leyte. So that is how big is the traffic of Allen and probably many do not realize that. Additional some 2,000 passengers a day pass each way in Allen for a total of about 4,000 passengers. North Harbor of Manila doesn’t even have such passenger volume.

However and sadly, such growth, such traffic are not transferred in the locality. Where before a port confers prosperity because the big bodegas and trading houses will be there, this is not in the case of the intermodal system because the cargo, which is rolling cargo at that, just passes through. There are no bodegas or trading houses in Allen. And that is the case of all the short-distance ports in the eastern seaboard from Matnog to Allen to Liloan to San Ricardo and Lipata.

Maybe it is not right to expect to have bodegas in Allen. That is impossible as the cargo trucks will simply roll on. But there must be a way to grab some business from all those passing vehicles. Like fuel sales if the pump price is right. Or restaurants like Jollibee. There are passengers like me who desire such kind of restaurant which serve a standardized quality of food in an air-conditioned accommodation.

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BALWHARTECO offices and eateries. The lodge and disco are located above.

Well, maybe even hotels or lodging houses. But the price should be right otherwise the travelers will just continue on (Allen is known to travelers as having high lodging rates). BALWHARTECO port has a lodge and that shows this is possible. The best type will be a SOGO-type of hotel that offers 12-hour accommodation for half the price.

Pasalubongs and novelty items like T-shirts are also possible. Like in lodgings the price should be right. Novelties must have the reputation of being cheaply-priced. Tourism? Maybe not. The transients did not come to Allen for that.

Allen is king of Samar shipping but it is poor. As of today it is just a fourth-class municipality which means an income of just P25-35 million yearly. Its population is still small. So it means people are not moving in for maybe there is really no growth and progress.

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Jubasan port of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp.

What Allen is famous for is its illegal exactions (illegal because the Supreme Court has twice declared it is so and that is the final authority on legalities) on the vehicles and passengers. They will charge the vehicles when arriving and when departing. At P75 per truck (their rate) and and about 300 trucks and buses passing daily both ways that would have been an easy P20,000 per day net or P7 million a year. Add to that the P5 per departing passenger. That would be about another P10,000 per day or P3.5 million a year. It seems these collections are not reflected properly in Allen’s income. At P10 million a year times for 30 years there should already been an infra that Allen can be proud of but it seems there’s none as Allen still has the look of a small town.

Allen has ports that is doing good business except Dapdap. Truth is its ports are the best infra in the town. Its incomes should have been a good addition too.

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Dapdap port of Philharbor

But Allen is still poor. Like Matnog, Liloan and San Ricardo although all have illegal exactions. Me and Rey B. called that the curse of the illegal exactions.

Sometimes they say the king is poor. Maybe that is Allen.

The Pio Duran Port

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The smallness of Pio Duran town

Pio Duran is a small town and a port in the southern coast of Albay. However, some people spell this as “Pioduran” which is incorrect since the town was named after the Congressman who sponsored the bill creating the town. The town was eventually created after Congressman Pio Duran died.

In the past this place was called “Malacbalac” and it was known for mainly one thing, its abundant fish which was supplied to the rest of Albay towns and even as far as Iriga in Camarines Sur. Before that the place was generally referred to as “Panganiran” and thus the bay where Malacbalac is situated is called Panganiran Bay. There is still a barrio named Panganiran in Pio Duran town.

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Pio Duran port

For decades after the creation of the town, Pio Duran was not an enchanting place to visit because of the really bad state of the road then (it was unpaved and muddy) which was sometimes cut at the peak of the rainy season or when there is a typhoon. In 1984 a new port was built in the town supplanting the old wooden municipal port. This was one of the 12 Bicol ports wangled by then Minister Luis Villafuerte from President Ferdinand Marcos when there was already an arrangement that Villafuerte’s ministry will be absorbed by Roberto Ongpin’s ministry.

The funds for the ports were sourced from JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and these were called “fishports”. But except for Camaligan port, it cannot be compared to the known fishports today like Navotas, Daliao and Sangali because it is just a port and there are no blast-freezing facilities, cold storage and fish processing.

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Pio Duran town and port

After more than 20 years, the old municipal port and “fishport” of Pio Duran were practically gone, weathered by the elements and assaulted by the storm waves generated by the typhoons that pass Bicol and the sometime fierce habagat waves. That is why when President Gloria Arroyo thought of Pio Duran as a RORO port a new, very simple finger port with no back-up area has to be built.

Pio Duran “fishport” is one damning evidence against politicians and bureaucrats who say that when a port is built the ships will come. Usually when the ships try to come many years later the old port is no more. Ports are unlike highways or roads than when built then people and vehicles come. I really don’t know why we have to listen to politicians and bureaucrats who have no knowledge of maritime matters like the former Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr.

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The old “fishport” of Pio Duran

Even when the new port was built it did not have ships coming immediately. What turned the table in favor of Pio Duran was the bad situation in the nearby port of Pilar in Sorsogon which connects Masbate to the Luzon mainland through ROROs and other kinds of crafts. New players wanted to come in but there were two obstacles. One, the old port of Pilar was only serviceable because the pioneer RORO operator Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. made improvements.

There were no improvements before because President Arroyo hated the guts of the Congressman then of the place which was Francis Escudero who among other congressmen tried to file an impeachment complaint against her. Now, one can’t do that to a Capampangan without reaping the whirlwind. Pilar port at the start did not even have a RORO ramp and besides the docking area is crowded because it is actually small and there are a lot of passenger-cargo motor bancas and some motor boats.

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Pilar port

The second obstacle was being in a river estuary Pilar port is very shallow and only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and LCTs can dock there. In an oncoming low tide, the RORO has to leave early otherwise it might not be able to get out. One competitor of the Montenegro Lines does not even have basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs so Pilar port was automatically out for them.

It was the expanding Medallion Transport which first applied for a Pio Duran-Masbate route. Next followed the dominant shipping line of Bicol, the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp./Penafrancia Shipping Corp. combine which then ditched their unprofitable Bulan-Masbate route (before that they even tried a Pasacao-Masbate route which they abandoned very fast).

The RORO business between the Bicol mainland and Masbate bloomed and many buses and intermodal trucks now cross daily and some are even destined for Cebu through Bogo port. Cebu trader trucks now also cross to the Bicol mainland through Masbate. There are also vehicles destined for CALABARZON and Metro Manila.

There is now an even split between Pio Duran and Pilar in terms of RORO traffic. The Sta. Clara Shipping Corp./Penafrancia Shipping Corp. combine and Medallion Transport operate ferries to Pio Duran while Montenegro Lines operates ROROs and fastcrafts to Pilar and Denica Lines also operates ROROs and motor bancas to Pilar.

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Denica Lines RORO

Recently, I noticed Montenegro Lines got a franchise to Pio Duran. Well, with the construction of a back-up area and a new RORO ramp more vessels can now be accommodated in Pio Duran. Pilar is also improved now and I wonder if the Sta. Clara Shipping Corp./Penafrancia Shipping Corp. combine will “invade” that. Maybe not if the port is not dredged (there had been long calls for this but the government practically have no more dredgers running).

For intermodal buses and trucks coming from Manila and CALABARZON and even Naga, Pio Duran has an advantage in that about 40 kilometers and more than an hour of travel time is shaved. Besides, Pio Duran has no depth problems and so docking and undocking can be done at any time unlike in Pilar.

Pilar meanwhile will always host the motor bancas and the motor boats because those connect local passengers and cargo to Masbate. A passenger or a shipment from Daraga, Legazpi or Tabaco will not use Pio Duran because it will then be a longer route and besides there are no motor bancas or motor boats running from Pio Duran to Masbate. This situation is also true for the fastcrafts where the passengers are mainly local. Meanwhile, Pio Duran will continue to host the few motor boats going to the Claveria town in the eastern half of Burias island.

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Pio Duran main road

Whatever, it can be said that Pio Duran town and port has already triumphed. From a sleepy, remote town with no ROROs and not many buses and trucks, it is now beginning to bustle with activity because it became a connecting port to Masbate and part of the intermodal system of transport and an alternative to Pilar.

Pio Duran port is no longer a port to nowhere. Unlike one near port to the west of them, the Pantao port which is the white elephant of Governor/Congressman Joey Salceda and it is still a port to nowhere until now. If only the funds spent for Pantao port to be a “regional port” were given to Pio Duran and Pilar ports.

Well, that is how politics and development intertwine in the Philippines.

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A Sta. Clara Shipping RORO in Pio Duran port

The Dumaguete-Dapitan RORO Connection – A Connection That Took Too Long in Coming

Dumaguete and Dapitan have been blessed with relatively good ports (by Philippine standards) since decades ago because they have Manila connections. True liners and Manila passenger-cargo ships like the former “FS” ships called on them regularly in the past. But what puzzled me is the short-distance RORO connection between them took too long to materialize. Looking at the map, this is the obvious connection point between Mindanao and Negros (and Cebu by extension through the Negros-Cebu connections) because of the relatively short distance (the second shortest after Leyte-Surigao but that is too far away). Compared to the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the Dumaguete-Dapitan short-distance RORO connection came many, many years too late.

If there was ever a RORO connection before between the two ports, it was the ROROs of the overnight ferries serving the Cebu-Dumaguete-Dapitan route. However, the peculiarity of the Cebu overnight ferry companies is that they stress break-bulk cargo (like those in sacks and cartons) and loose cargo (those not in containers like pieces of GI sheets or rolls of wire) and not rolling cargo (which means vehicles) or containerized cargo. So these Cebu overnight ferry companies like Trans-Asia Shipping Lines, Cokaliong Shipping Lines or George & Peter Lines, to name a few that called on Dumaguete and Dapitan ports didn’t see the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs loading trucks. Maybe that was the reason they did not acquire that type of ferry. But actually it is that type that was really fit for the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and just shuttling between the two ports like what is the practice now.

The Cebu overnight ferry companies which were established later than the three were the ones which saw the need for short-distance ferry-ROROs. The prime example of that is Lite Ferries which had a passenger-cargo LCT at the start and later acquired ROROs in the 40-meter and 50-meter class for dual short-distance and overnight ferry operations. And maybe that is the reason why Lite Ferries is flying high now because they were able to tap a business and a paradigm overlooked by their overnight ferry competitors. Probably this is the reason too for the fast success of a late entrant, the Medallion Transport which started with basic short-distance ferry-ROROs and doing a lone short-distance route. Later they branched into overnight routes using small ROROs. Now they already have true overnight ferry-ROROs.

In comparison, in the Sorsogon-Samar, Leyte-Surigao and Batangas-Mindoro short-distance ferry connections, the shipping companies there started as short-distance ferry companies. They were then able to specialize in this kind of service and type of market which means they carry vehicles almost exclusively including the intermodal buses. Their passengers are mostly passengers of the buses loaded on them. The intermodal trucks they load especially the wing van trucks are long-distance carriers and those eventually developed into the competitors of container shipping with the support of this short-distance ferry-ROROs which became the “bridges” between the islands.

If these short-distance ferry companies have a near-contemporary that tried in that Dumaguete-Dapitan route it was the obscure shipping company Jones Carrier Inc. But that company did not last long as it had too many diverse routes, its ships were too small and old and maybe they were undercapitalized and not strong enough for the long run needed to establish and hold and a new shipping connection. And most likely the presence of the three overnight ferry companies from Cebu also impacted them. On the other hand, I also wonder why the “locals” Maayo Shipping, DIMC Shipping or Tanjuan Shipping which all have routes to or near Dumaguete did not try that route. Or maybe even the nearby Millennium Shipping which just sold its LCTs to Maayo Shipping rather than compete. At the start of a company or route in those earlier times an LCT is enough like what Lite Shipping did in the Argao-Loon route connecting south Cebu and mid-Bohol. But maybe except for the Millennium Shipping of the Floirendos, maybe it is capitalization and lack of vision that was the problem of these Dumaguete ferry companies.

Looking back, maybe it was overnight shipping company Palacio Lines which could have taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the short-distance RORO shipping in this route. They were not unfamiliar with Dumaguete as they had a ship then going to Dumaguete from Tagbilaran and Cebu but it was a cruiser ferry. They were then using their first ROROs on overnight routes much like what the Cebu overnight ferry companies as in concentrating on breakbulk and loose cargo. Maybe if they only looked north and south of them, they might have gotten the idea that short-distance ferry-RORO service is the wave of the future. After all they were a shipping company from Calbayog City in Samar and a little north of that was the Sorsogon-Samar short-distance ferries and down south to them were the Leyte-Surigao short-distance ferries that were both making good. But then they seemed to have been also be too protective of their route to Oroquieta which is not far from Dapitan.

Actually, if one analyzes, it might not only be the overnight ferry companies which might be at fault in the late RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan. For after all, as a general principle, if there is a demand then a supplier responds. But then maybe the shippers were also not aware that there is a better mode than the one they were used to. Actually, the goods from Mindanao sent over that connection eventually find their way to Cebu, the biggest market after Manila. But for too long I noticed the shippers tend to rely on Zamboanga and Ozamis ports. Of course, the bad roads then in the Zamboanga provinces was a hindrance along with the presence of some banditry. So before, Dapitan might have looked too far and unsafe for those from Zamboanga City. And those from Baganian Peninsula, Pagadian and Panguil Bay were too used, too dependent on Ozamis port, their old port of departure (well, with Ozamis, they have a Manila and Dumaguete connection, too).

It took a push from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo for the Dumaguete-Dapitan connection to come true and hold. Half of the push needed was actually the cementing of the roads of Zamboanga Peninsula. The roads should have been completed much earlier since AusAid (Australian Agency for International Development) is funding the road construction but that stalled for many years because AusAid only wanted to employ Korean construction companies, for quality reasons. However, the local politicians wanted local contractors (for “percentage” reasons, of course). A compromise was worked out and the roads were finally completed (though the Filipino-built sections were obviously substandard). Moreover, the military took control of the mountain pass near Vitali and security was improved after that. After those, travel at night was already possible and that was key to using Dapitan port especially from Zamboanga City. Soon, Dapitan port no longer look too distant. Passengers, instead of waiting for the ship that was not daily even then were soon taking the bus to Dipolog to connect to Dapitan. The trucks followed suit soon, too.

The shipping companies which pioneered the RORO connection between Dumaguete and Dapitan were actually “foreigners”, which mean they were not natives of the area. The first two in the route were the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC), a Cebu shipping company and Aleson Shipping Lines, a Zamboanga City shipping company. Later, Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) also came and they are a shipping company from Batangas. The common characteristic of the three is they have a good understanding of short-distance ferry shipping, an understanding which was clearly lacking in the earlier Cebu overnight ferry companies. And all three have the type of ROROs needed here, the basic, short-distance ferry RORO which the old Cebu overnight ferry companies simply didn’t have.

Today, all these three shipping companies are still in the Dumaguete-Dapitan route and thriving, adding ships and frequencies. Now, Montenegro Lines and Aleson Shipping have even invaded the Siquijor route using ROROs from Dumaguete and so maximizing their ships and personnel stationed there. Meanwhile, DIMC Shipping, Maayo Shipping and Tanjuan Shipping all seem to have steam and two of them are obviously floundering while another, the Maayo Shipping company was selling off excess ships (the coming of a competitor in their route is the primary reason for that). Palacio Shipping is even gone now as in they are already defunct and their ships have been sold already. Well, talk of a wrong bet, lack of vision and maybe even too much conservatism.

Why would the Dapitan-Dumaguete route hold? Actually, there is plenty of cargo emanating from that portion of Mindanao and going to Central Visayas. After all Cebu is the second biggest market after Manila and it has sea connections to many islands for further distribution of goods. One of the biggest and most valuable produce being sent from way back by Zamboanga Peninsula to Cebu is fish, the frozen and the canned varieties. Most of the frozen fish emanate from the many “pulo”. This is what they call there Basilan, the Pangutaran group, Jolo, the Tawi-tawi group and the many other islands off Zamboanga. The Sangali Fishport, the regional fishport is also located in Zamboanga City and it is there where many basnigs, trawlers and purse seiners fishing in the Moro Gulf unload their catch. Zamboanga City meanwhile is host to seven canneries. Dapitan is now the ports of choice in bringing the frozen fish through fish carrier trucks. However, a ship is still preferred for canned fish as it is heavy. Meanwhile, Spanish sardines in bottles also became a hit produce in the Dipolog area and they use Dapitan port in bringing their goods to the Visayas.

There is also plenty of freshwater and brackish fish from the fishponds of Zamboanga Sibugay especially those located in the marshes of Sibuguey Bay. Meanwhile, fishing vessels catching off Zamboanga del Sur, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao unload in Pagadian and Tukuran ports and fish carriers pick them up these catches. Practically all of them now use Dapitan port to bring the fish destined for Negros island and Cebu province instead of Ozamis port. This portion of Mindanao has finally discovered the superiority of the intermodal truck (including the intermodal fish carriers) which can deliver goods along the way and not be dependent on distributors or wholesalers. That flexibility and ubiquity was also discovered by the company and distributor trucks from Cebu. Instead of just relying on distributors based in Ozamis City like before, their trucks now normally roll to up to Ipil, the capital and trade center of Zamboanga Sibugay and along the way they deliver their products to the markets, stores and groceries. Now, there are even intermodal buses with routes from the Visayas to Zamboanga City. First to roll was the Bacolod-Zamboanga Ceres Lines bus and recently they also have a Cebu-Zamboanga bus service too.

In recent years, it is obvious that the Dapitan-Dumaguete route has impacted the Cebu-Zamboanga and Cebu-Sindangan routes heavily. There is now just one regional passenger ship left sailing the Zamboanga-Cebu route, the Zamboanga Ferry of George & Peter Lines where before Trans Shipping Lines Inc. (TASLI) and George & Peter Lines put emphasis in that route. There is also one liner of 2GO from Dumaguete and Manila, a liner route that was previously abandoned. Meanwhile, Cokaliong Shipping Lines has already abandoned the Cebu-Sindangan route.

Intermodal trucks rolling long distances to other parts of Mindanao and Negros island also use this connection and some even go as far as Panay island. This is especially true after the liner service to Southern Mindanao was halted by Aboitiz Transport System (ATS). With that halt, the shippers of Southern Mindanao also began rolling their trucks. Private vehicles running to or from Cebu to Mindanao also use this connection since the rolling rate from Cebu to Ozamis, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro is very high (rolling sea rates by kilometer is far, far higher than rolling a vehicle in the highway). And again, rolling cargo is not the specialization or priority of the overnight ferries. For many, this western route is preferred over the eastern route that passes through Leyte and Surigao unless the destination or origin is eastern Mindanao or southern Mindanao.

Unless threatened by the direct Samboan-Dapitan route (or a possible Samboan-Dipolog route), the Dumaguete-Dapitan route will continue to grow.

That we will have to see in the future.