The Tacloban Princess

The Tacloban Princess of Sulpicio Lines, although on a more minor liner route is one ferry that impressed me a lot because she is the only ferry in the Philippines that is under 100 meters in length and yet she has a passenger capacity of over 2,000 persons (2,009 actually) which means dense yet clever packing. With only 8,000 horsepower from two main engines, her passenger capacity to horsepower ratio is tops in the land for liners which means a very high efficiency for me in carrying people. Maybe during the time she was fielded in her Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route the sailing was still good and since this route had never had good container van load, probably Sulpicio Lines just decided to pack it in in passengers. Maybe, too, the bite of the intermodal buses (and trucks) in Eastern Visayas were not yet that big and painful when she was fielded and Sulpicio Lines still had high hopes for the route because in the past the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route was a great route with many liner shipping companies competing including the biggest shipping companies in our seas then like Compania Maritima, William Lines, Aboitiz Shipping and many others which bowed out earlier. Probably, also, Sulpicio Lines which is in a one-upmanship game with its main rival William Lines do not want to suffer in comparison and heckling because some three years before William Lines fielded the first RORO liner in the route, the Masbate I (but not continuously at first) and this ship’s arrival was backgrounded by the infamous loss of their Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban liner which was the ill-fated Dona Paz and they do not want a ship inferior to the Masbate I. The Tacloban Princess was Sulpicio Lines’ direct replacement for that lost ship (because the company stopped sailing liners to Tacloban after the disaster and only used the container ship Sulpicio Container VII to carry cargo but not passenger; maybe the feared a backlash). Maybe Sulpicio Lines felt they needed an impressive ship for their comeback and so they fielded the Tacloban Princess, and it be named after Tacloban City for acceptance of the public. So when she was fielded she was the biggest and the best in the route and obviously Sulpicio Lines wanted to salvage lost pride and prestige. Such was the historical background of the coming of the Tacloban Princess.

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The Tacloban Princess by Daryl Yting

In design and lines, I see a large similarity between the Tacloban Princess and the Manila Princess, another ship of Sulpicio Lines although the latter ship is bigger and was not built by the same shipyard and came two years later than the Tacloban Princess. In Manila Princess, Sulpicio Lines did not try anymore to “fill up” that “vacant area” after the poop deck and so there was no scantling above the stern portion of Manila Princess and container vans and other cargo can be stowed directly in that portion using the stern boom of the ship. In the Tacloban Princess, that “vacant area” or “free area” was fully built-up as a big Economy section and that boosted the passenger capacity of the ship (aside from also constructing passenger accommodations from the bridge of the ship up to the funnels). It seems Sulpicio Lines took care to make that stern section as it was beautifully done and her stern looked more modern than the stern of Masbate I. Looking at the quarter-front of the two competing ships, one can see a lot of similarity they being of almost the same size and built at about the same period and that reflects in the design of the ship. But it seems Sulpicio Lines stress more in the aesthetics of the lines and the superstructure and so the Tacloban Princess looked more modern and better pleasing to the eye. Of course, she would never have the lines and aesthetics of later ships as the bridge and forecastle section of the ship is something that is hard to refit or remodel.

The Tacloban Princess started life as the Shinko Maru of the shipping company Nihon Kaiun KK. She was built by the Fukuoka Shipbuilding Company Limited (Fukuoka Zosen) in Fukuoka, Japan and completed in September of 1970 with the IMO Number 7106243. The ship’s length overall (LOA) was 98.3 meters and her breadth or beam was 19.2 meters and her original gross register tonnage (GRT) was 2,664 tons. Her original load capacity in deadweight tons (DWT) as Shinko Maru was 1,266 tons. In Japan the ferry only had two passenger decks and she had no scantlings beyond the funnels.

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The Shinko Maru from Wakanatsu

The ship was fitted with two small engines much like in the mold of the sister ships Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Lourdes of Carlos A. Gothong Lines Incorporated . Her twin engines developed only 8,000 horsepower (it seems these ROPAX ships of about 100 meters in length only has about 8,000 horsepower) but her original sustained top speed was decent at 18.5 knots which was the same as the Gothong sister ships. Here with the added metal and additional age the most that can be coaxed out of her two Niigata engines was only 17 knots but that was already good enough for her size, her route and the general expectation of her shipping era. Actually when she was fielded in the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route she became the fastest liner there and equal to the fastest that sailed there before, the Tacloban City of William Lines.

The Shinko Maru came to the Philippines for Sulpicio Lines in 1990 and she was refitted in Cebu. Another deck was added at the bridge level and after the funnels two and a half passenger decks were added. Since the funnels were near midship, in totality in area of the passenger accommodations of the ferry more than doubled. That system of refitting and the increase in passenger accommodations were the norm of the era much to dramatically increase the passenger accommodations but to the consternation of the Japanese builders and designers but as a general rule they don’t sink or capsize (contrary to what old ship haters with vested interests say now). But the depth and the draft has to increase to maintain stability. Speed however suffers because of the additional steel and the greater draft.

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The Tacloban Princess (edited) by Chief Ray Smith

The maiden voyage of Tacloban Princess was on August 5, 1990 (and with her forthcoming fielding William Lines withdrew their aging and slower already cruiser ship Tacloban City and replaced her permanently with the RORO liner Masbate I. She leaves on Wednesdays at 12 noon for Catbalogan and arrives there 22 hours later and she will depart for Tacloban at Thursdays 1pm and will arrive there at 5pm (which is a little late already for those still needing connecting trips). Departure back to Manila will be Fridays at 12nn and arriving in Catbalogan 4 hours later. The ship will then depart at 6pm and arrives in Manila on Saturdays at 5pm (well, it seems she is fond of late arrivals). The second round-trip voyage of Tacloban Princess within the same week will be a direct one to Tacloban leaving on Sundays at 10am and arriving in Tacloban on Mondays at 1pm. She will then depart Tacloban Monday 4pm (it seems there is really not much cargo if she can leave after only 3 hours in port) and arrive in Manila Tuesdays at 4pm. The Tacloban Princess like her competitor Masbate I was a popular commute to Manila in the early 1990’s when the buses and short-distance ferries were not yet many. Her appeal lies in the free meals and the bunks where one can rest fully. Besides her travel time to Manila is equal that to the bus (if from Tacloban) while being more comfortable and with more amenities than the bus. However, she only had two trips in a week (but then Masbate I also has two trips a week). But then the Cebu Princess, also of Sulpicio Lines still had a Manila-Masbate-Calbayog-Catbalogan-Ormoc-Cebu route then and the Sweet Sail of Sweet Lines also had a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route then. Beside Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. also tried a Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route (yes, that was how strong this route was then before it was eaten alive by the intermodal system). And so practically nearly everyday there was a ship to Manila and so the appeal of the daily departures of the bus was not that great yet then (I wonder if these competitors realized it then that they were actually “frenemies” but that term did not yet exist then).

In due time, however, the buses and the trucks increased in numbers, they became more ubiquitous with more routes (it was not up to Tacloban mainly anymore but to almost all points of Leyte and Samar islands) and more powerful units (both buses and trucks and the latter segment already had wing van trucks which were built for ease loading and direct delivery). And one strength of the many colorum buses is they know how to search for passengers (they don’t just wait for them to pop up in the terminals). They had the advantage of multiple daily departures and the capacity to pick up or drop by the gates of the houses of the passengers. Plus for those just going to CALABARZON the advantage of taking the bus over the ship is much greater (as in they need not backtrack from Manila anymore). Besides going to or coming out of North Harbor increasingly became more difficult for the passengers compared to the Pasay or Cubao terminals and the Alabang and Turbina pick-up of the buses. I remember then that the buses coming from Eastern Visayas would stop by the eateries before the ascent to Tatlong Eme. There for two pesos one can take a bath from a very strong spring water piped in straight from the mountain and it is so strong one will feel as if he is drowning (but then rinsing takes a very short time only and so the bus need not wait long). Passengers then will arrive in Manila still feeling fresh. Like the ships the Eastern Visayas buses will take in any volume of passenger cargo and will even allot the seats for it for a fee. Passengers will willingly pay for it because getting it to the pier or out will cost money from porters who demands high porterage fees (or from taxi drivers that will demand “special rates”).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Before the end of the millennium, however, shipping in Eastern Visayas has already showed signs of distress. The buses and the trucks got more experienced and more organized and additional ferries arrived in the San Bernardino Strait crossing and so more schedules were available. Meanwhile, Sweet Lines and Carlos A. Gothong Lines quit the route and so there were less ships going to Manila. Even before this happened in the Catbalogan/Tacloban route the liners from Manila has already been driven away from Northern Samar and next the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines has to drop the Calbayog call on the way to Ormoc from Masbate and to think Sulpicio Lines has the reputation of being very gritty in terms of abandoning ports of call. The intermodal buses and trucks were already eating the business of the liners even before the last millennium ended.

At the start of the new millennium the Tacloban Princess was forced to drop the Catbalogan port of call and just make two direct Tacloban voyages in a week. She would leave Manila on Wednesdays at 9am and arrive in Tacloban Fridays at 3pm (which means she slowed down already). She would leave Tacloban on Fridays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Saturdays at 6pm. Her second voyage to Tacloban would leave on Saturdays at 12 midnight and arrive in Tacloban on Mondays at 6am. She will then forthwith leave Mondays at 12nn and arrive in Manila on Tuesday at 6pm (I never liked these arrivals in Manila; these played right into the hands of the unscrupulous drivers and the holduppers). The Tacloban Princess was then only running at 13 knots and the buses were already faster than her (which normally don’t take more than 24 hours from Tacloban). That was a killer and the end of the line was already showing and only cargo was sustaining her now (plus the diehard ship passengers). But I was already wondering then if the revenues was still enough to sustain her operations but I heard the oldies of Sulpicio Lines are sentimental that they will never really give up on routes (or even of ships).

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The Tacloban Princess by Chief Ray Smith

During that time I was wondering if it is better for Sulpicio Lines to just transfer the Tacloban Princess on another route (and just leave the Cebu Princess and the Palawan Princess on the eastern seaboard routes). I thought Sulpicio Lines was a little wasteful on ships in that part of the country when the handwriting on the wall was already very obvious – that the end I nearing. I thought they could have replicated what Gothong Lines and William Lines did then and combined the Ozamis and Iligan routes (that meant the Cebu Princess will take the Masbate and Tacloban plus the Ormoc routes). Of course if she is transferred she will be up against superior ships of WG&A which with the disposal of their 16-knot ships has none sailing at less than 17.5 knots (but then the Dipolog Princess serving Iligan was also inferior during that time already). But then I know that move could send the Dipolog Princess to the breakers (but by then the comparative Iloilo Princess was lost by fire and she could have taken in its Puerto Princesa route). But then why not swap her with the bigger and faster Princess of the Ocean which was just being used in the overnight Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route? I thought her lack of speed could be hidden there like the Our Lady of Good Voyage. She will be competing with that ship and she is near-parity in size, speed and accommodations. But then Sulpicio Lines was just using the probably more than equal Princess of the Earth in the Cebu-Nasipit route where the big but unreliable Nasipit Princess stayed for long. Sometimes I can’t get the logic of the fielding of ships of Sulpicio Lines. They could have swapped Tacloban Princess for Princess of the Earth and the latter could have been sent to the Palawan routes and she would have been more competitive there to the Aboitiz Transport System (the successor company of WG&A) ferries.

I also thought she could have been swapped with the faster Princess of Carribbean since the Tacloban route does not have much cargo (and the cargo capacity of the Princess of the Caribbean is limited being a cruiser ship). She could then make a three times a week voyage to Tacloban and a modus vivendi could be sought with Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) to also field a fast cruiser (like if they did not sell the Our Lady of Naju) so a six times a week sailing to Leyte could be made (the point of departure could also be Ormoc and the route will be shorter and shuttles could be employed to bring the passengers to and from Tacloban and Maasin; and container vans will be hauled too). But I knew even then such idea is too farfetched as ATS was simply too proud and blind and will rather give up an area as big as a region rather then fight the intermodal buses and trucks (and it is just easier to blame everything to the budget airlies but that palusot will not fly in Eastern Visayas as everybody knows the passengers went to buses and not to the airlines).

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The Tacloban Princess by John Carlos Cabanillas

Later on, the Tacloban Princess had bouts of unreliability, I heard, and sometimes she can’t be seen and the Cebu Princess will make a Manila-Masbate-Tacloban route with a diversion to Cebu. Sometimes it will be the Tacloban Princess making that route and Cebu Princess will be out (it seemed then it was only the ancient Palawan Princess which was always ready to sail the eastern seaboard routes). That time Sulpicio Lines doesn’t advertise much in the papers like before and so monitoring was more difficult. Whatever it can be seen that Sulpicio Lines was making great effort to retain the Eastern Visayas ports of call (and Masbate too) against the relentless onslaught of the intermodal buses and trucks (and almost alone). I heard also then that after a long furlough Tacloban Princess’ engines were being rehabilated. Sulpicio Lines does not easily give up on ships. Well, if they can retain the Palawan Princess and the Dipolog Princess that came in the 1970’s and were obsolete cruisers then why not the better Tacloban Princess? Their antiquated Palawan Princess, to think, was still doing a Leyte route when that ship was built in the 1950’s and was the only liner left without airconditioning.

But one incident and factor dashed all the hopes for the Tacloban Princess. Of course, Sulpicio Lines did not expect another incident on the scale of the Dona Paz tragedy will happen and this time it will doom the entire passenger shipping of the company. Their flagship Princess of the Stars sank in a storm in 2008 and in the aftermath of the reactions Sulpicio Lines was suspended from passenger shipping and in order to get back, stringent conditions were demanded by MARINA (the regulatory agency Maritime Industry Authority) from the company. In the early days of the suspension (which was killing to the mechanical viability of the ships), Sulpicio Lines decided to sell ships to raise cash and among the victims were the Tacloban Princess along with the highly-regarded Princess of Paradise and Cotabato Princess (and in this sense, the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess were luckier as they went to Roble Shipping and not to the breakers).

The Tacloban Princess was bought by a Tayud shipyard in Cebu for breaking as we heard. World metal prices was still high then and no shipping company was shopping for a liner as the liner industry was obviously on the way down already because of the growing shares of the budget airlines, the forwarding companies and the intermodal trucks and buses. However, while in the shipyard the Tacloban Princess caught fire and was reduced to charred metal. The incident just made her chopping faster.

And so in 2009 Tacloban Princess was already dead, killed by the aftermath of the sinking of the Princess of the Stars. Maybe if she was just the size of an overnight ship she might have survived like the Cebu Princess and Cagayan Princess.

Selling under pressure just kills ships.

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The Ferry Routes of Sulpicio Lines and the Assignments of Its Ships

Among the local liner shipping companies before, it was Sulpicio Lines which was known for an almost unvarying schedules and routes. For nearly 15 years until they were suspended from sailing by MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) because of the capsizing of the MV Princess of the Stars off Sibuyan Island, their schedules were almost the same. The only significant change was when the MV Princess of Unity arrived in the country in 1999 and Sulpicio Lines created an entirely new route for her, the Manila-Cebu-Davao-Dadiangas (General Santos City) route. But this route was permanently gone in 2005. For a time, Sulpicio Lines also gave MV Manila Princess a route similar to the MV Maynilad (Manila-Zamboanga-Davao route). But she did not last as they can never make it engines reliable enough.

With an unvarying route, Sulpicio Lines does not need to advertise in the national and local papers unlike her main competitor WG&A Philippines (later the Aboitiz Transport System or ATS) which always changed assignments and schedules. Passengers know which day there is a Sulpicio ship in their area and what is the hour of departure. They just go to the port as Sulpicio Lines does not practice the online booking system. The only failure would be then was if the scheduled ship is on drydock. However, if a suitable reserve ship is available, Sulpicio Lines will still run the route and schedule. And that was one of the functions of their MV Manila Princess then, to relieve ships going to the drydock.

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Folio credit: Ken Ledesma

The queen route of Sulpicio Lines was the Manila-Cebu route. This was the route where they field their flagship and that runs twice a week (so that means plenty of interport hours for the ship). Many of her passengers are still bound to the other islands including Mindanao and so they still transfer ships. Some of them do after shopping in SM Cebu or in Colon. Or some leave their belongings somewhere and go to Carbon Market. SM Cebu, Colon and Carbon are all just near Cebu port.

Conversely, some of the passengers of the ship going to Manila are from the other islands including Mindanao. Cebu Port is actually a great connecting port. In a hub-and-spoke model, Cebu Port is the hub and the routes emanating from her as the spokes.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

In these nearly 15 years, three ships served as the flagship holding the Manila-Cebu route. The first was the MV Princess of the Orient starting in 1993 when she arrived in the country. She replaced the old flagship which was the MV Filipina Princess. However, on 1998, Princess of the Orient sank in a storm off the coast of Cavite. The MV Princess of the Universe then replaced her on the route and she held the route until 2004 when MV Princess of the Stars arrived.

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Going back to a more distant past, it was in 1975 when Sulpicio Lines adopted an exclusive Manila-Cebu route in the mold of MV Sweet Faith and MV Cebu City when it fielded the MV Don Sulpicio came (this ship was more known by her latter name – MV Dona Paz of the sinking infamy). When MV Don Sulpicio was hit by a fire while sailing (and beached), the MV Dona Ana replaced her on the route (this ship was also more known by her latter name – MV Dona Marilyn of the foundering infamy near Maripipi island). When the MV Philippine Princess arrived in 1981 she took over the Manila-Cebu route until MV Filipina Princess displaced her in 1988.

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The next most important route for Sulpicio Lines in this period was the route held by the MV Princess of Paradise, the fastest liner in the country for about a decade or so. She held the Cagayan de Oro route and she sails to that port twice a week. One was a direct voyage and only taking 25 hours for the 512-nautical mile route. On the way back to Manila, she calls on Cebu. Her next voyage in the same week will be a one that will call first in Cebu and Nasipit before going to Cagayan de Oro. From Cagayan de Oro she will do a direct voyage to Manila.

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Photo credits: Sulpicio Lines and Josel Bado

The third most important route for the company during this time was the Manila-Cebu-Surigao-Davao route held by the big and former flagship MV Filipina Princess. This route has rough waters during the ‘amihan’ (the northeast monsoon) but it seems with her sailing ability she was just fit for this route. Being just run once a week she has long lay-overs in Cebu Port especially on her way back to Manila where she stays overnight. These long lay-overs was one of the characteristics of Sulpicio Lines and passengers appreciate this because they are given time to visit relatives and to shop. As for me, I welcome it as it gives me a chance for “free tourism” (as I don’t have to spend to reach the place and if I am already tired and sweaty I can go back to the ship and partake of its free meals, too).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route of Sulpicio Lines after this was the weekly Manila-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Dadiangas route, a route that does not pass through Cebu but nevertheless calling on three regional centers of trade and commerce. In the Philippines, the routes passing through Iloilo are the next most important after the routes passing through Cebu. Three ships held this route for Sulpicio Lines. The first was the MV Princess of the Pacific. After she grounded on an islet off Antique in 2004 which resulted in comprehensive total loss (CTL), she was replaced by the MV Princess of the World. Later, when she was destroyed by fire the MV Princess of the South held this route. Except for MV Princess of the World, in terms of size, these ships were already a notch below the ships that served the first three routes, an indication of the relative difference of the central routes via Cebu and the western routes via Iloilo. Their speed too is also no longer in the 20-knot range of the ships in the first three routes (except MV Princess of the World).

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

After the four come the relatively minor ships and routes of Sulpicio Lines (although the route held by MV Cotabato Princess does not look minor). And I will start first with that. MV Cotabato Princess held the Manila-Estancia-Iloilo-Zamboanga-Cotabato route. Actually, the liners from Manila does not dock in Cotabato Port which is a shallow river port. Instead, they dock in Polloc Port in Parang, Maguindanao, a significant distance away. This route has long lay-overs, too. Since there are plenty of marang, durian and lanzones in Zamboanga, enterprising passengers will bring in those fruits and sell to the passengers while sailing. It will be sold out by the time the ship is docking in Manila. So that there will be no restrictions they will also give the crew and the captain their shares. Estancia, meanwhile, is known for its abundant fish supply.

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Photo credit: Britz Salih

The next most important route after this was the weekly Manila-Dumaguete-Ozamis-Cebu route. Upon reaching Ozamis, the ship still goes to Cebu and comes back the same day in the evening after the arrival. In this way, the Sulpicio Lines ship also serves as a Visayas-Mindanao overnight ship but she has only a few passengers in this role. Since this route was a chopped version of the former route that still calls on Cagayan de Oro (dropped when MV Princess of Paradise arrived), she has two overnight lay-overs in Dumaguete which was nice. Adventurous passengers use that chance to roam the famous Dumaguete Boulevard. Two Sulpicio ferries served this route. The first was the old flagship MV Philippine Princess. When she burned in 1997 (in a drydock), the MV Princess of the Caribbean replaced her. Both ships are cruisers.

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I do not know the next most important route of Sulpicio Lines. All were weekly and all seems not to be priority routes. Here, the older and lesser ships of Sulpicio Lines were concentrated.

I might start with the near-parallel route of where MV Princess of Caribbean served. Incidentally, they depart Manila simultaneously. The ship on this route was the MV Dipolog Princess and from Manila it goes first to Tagbilaran, then Dipolog (actually Dapitan) before proceeding to Iligan and Cebu and she will retrace the route. Like the MV Princess of Caribbean she was also assigned an overnight Visayas-Mindanao route. She has even less passengers in this role. She has also long lay-overs but not overnight ones. This ship and route functioned as the ride of the Bol-anons in Lanao to their home province. This was not actually a strong route as the voyage takes too long and the ship was no longer at par with the good standards of the era. Many in Lanao just take the ferry to Cagayan de Oro and take the bus. That was also true for passengers from Manila.

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Photo credit: Joe Cardenas

I would rather next discuss the route to Palawan before discussing the routes that hook eastward. Sulpicio Lines has also the route to Puerto Princesa via Coron. It was the MV Iloilo Princess that was assigned there. But if there is a vacancy in the other routes, the ship has the tendency to leave Palawan and substitute. MV Iloilo Princess was also not that reliable as her engines were balky and I heard that only one chief engineer, the most senior, had a good feel for her engines. When MV Iloilo Princess burned in a shipyard in 2003 there was no replacement on the route any longer.

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Photo credit: Gorio Belen

The next route was a route that has permanence. It was the “longest” route in the company which means it had the most ports of call, a type which was a remnant of the routes of the past when express liners were just few, the roads were still bad and shipping companies try to call on most ports possible for increased revenues. This was the Manila-Masbate-Calubian-Baybay-Maasin-Surigao route. This was even the chopped version (it was up to Butuan in the old past) so it might be a surprise to some. Calubian was a port of call because of the emotional attachment of the owners to it (they started somewhere near there) although it has lost all significance. The MV Palawan Princess mainly held this route after she was displaced in the route to Ozamis. It had no airconditioned accommodations and the general arrangement plan was much like an ex-FS ship although she was bigger. She was the oldest liner then (not really a liner but a passenger-cargo ship). Her alternate was the much better MV Surigao Princess. But she cannot hold the route for long because of problematic engines. Too bad because though small her accommodations are up to Suite level (what a contrast with MV Palawan Princess). MV Surigao Princess was gone in 2003 when she was broken up.

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Photo credits: Times Journal and Gorio Belen

Surigao Princess

Photo credit: Edison Sy

The next route and ship were remarkable because they were able to hold on to the route when her era was already over because of the coming of the intermodal transport. The route was the Manila-Masbate-Ormoc-Cebu route. No, you can’t buy a Manila-Cebu ticket for this ship. You would have to pay extra for the Ormoc-Cebu leg which functions as an overnight route (in the MV Princess of the Caribbean and MV Dipolog Princess one can’t also ask for a ticket up to Cebu from Manila). There were long lay-overs too in Masbate and Ormoc. Even when the intermodal was already ruling, the MV Cebu Princess still soldiered on in this route because Sulpicio Lines simply won’t send ships to breakers as long as it was still capable of sailing.

The last liner route of Sulpicio Lines was a route that changed, was cropped within the period I am discussing (the other I mentioned that were cropped were cropped before this period). This was the route of the MV Tacloban Princess. Originally, she had a twice weekly route to Tacloban with one of that passing by Catbalogan. But with the loss of passengers and cargo to the buses and trucks, they dropped Catbalogan. For a time she even stopped sailing the Tacloban route (just too many buses here and also trucks especially trucks going back to Manila looking for a load). There was a time Sulpicio Lines combined her route with the route of MV Cebu Princess. Sulpicio Lines simply does not give up on a route and area. And that characteristic was the one lost by Philippine shipping (and that was irreplaceable) when they went out of ferry business because the other competitor was known for dropping routes in a minute because bean counters ruled there.

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Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas

Aside from these liner routes, Sulpicio Lines also had dedicated overnight ferry routes and ships. For the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route they used two ships. The first was the MV Cagayan Princess. But when the competition heated up in this route they fielded the new liner MV Princess of the Ocean. After she was assigned there, nobody can outgun Sulpicio Lines in the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro overnight route in size and speed (well, even in the prestigious and premier Manila-Cebu route, Sulpicio Lines does not want to be outmatched).

And for the Cebu-Nasipit overnight ferry route, they have the MV Nasipit Princess at the start. But she does not sail in most days as its engines were really bad. When MV Princess of the Ocean was assigned in the Cagayan de Oro overnight route, the MV Cagayan Princess was assigned the primary duty in the Nasipit overnight route. In 2005 the MV Princess of the Earth came and she relieved the MV Cagayan Princess which was then brought to a new route, the overnight ferry route to Naval, Biliran. The Nasipit (Butuan in Sulpicio Lines parlance) overnight ferry route was one overnight route that Sulpicio Lines dominated in this era as the competition was inconsistent (sometimes there were ships, sometimes there were none).

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In 2008, Sulpicio Lines was suspended from sailing in the aftermath of the MV Princess of the Stars tragedy. Three ferries, the MV Cebu Princess, the MV Cagayan Princess and the MV Tacloban City were sold off immediately to raise cash (and I knew then that the routes that hooks eastward and the most threatened by the intermodal will be finally lost). A few ships were allowed to sail thereafter but MV Cotabato Princess quit soon. Meanwhile the Sulpicio Lines fleet languished in Mactan Channel.

One by one the laid-up ships were sold to the breakers starting with the MV Princess of Paradise and MV Palawan Princess. This was followed by the MV Cotabato Princess. I guess they were trying to raise cash for settlement and other expenses by these disposals and also to amass cash for the purchase of new cargo ships. They had then two ships sailing, the MV Princess of the South which was holding the Manila-Cebu route and the MV Princess of the Earth which was sailing the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route with a diversion to Nasipit twice a week.

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There were five ships then in Mactan Channel and in their wharf in Pier 7 in Mandaue. These were the MV Princess of the Universe, the MV Filipina Princess, the MV Princess of the Ocean, the MV Princess of the Caribbean and the MV Dipolog Princess. It is as if Sulpicio Lines was still waiting for a favorable turn of events in the greatest crisis of their company when public opinion was very much against them. But in one fell swoop they sold the five laid-up ships to the breakers. Maybe for emotional reasons the departures happened in the night.

Laid up three years those ships already deteriorated especially they were in sea water. Every year not used the budget needed to get them going again mounts. And the hope that the government and MARINA will relent on restrictions seemed to have evaporated. Being politicians, they would rather feed off on uninformed public opinion. Having no understanding of the maritime industry, they did not know they were killing the already threatened liner sector. Along this time PSACC (Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation – the new name of Sulpicio Lines) reached the decision to just concentrate on container shipping.

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In 2014, Sulpicio Lines sold their last two ferries, the MV Princess of the Earth and lastly, the MV Princess of the South. Now they are gone from passenger shipping. And when PSACC had already sold their last liners, MARINA withdrew their passenger license. Funny.

Ironic but the government is now encouraging entrants to this sector. But definitely there would be no takers as the viability of liners has changed and they have killed the most interested and most loyal shipping company in this sector. As the saying goes, “The medicine was too strong that it killed the horse”. That is what they did to Sulpicio Lines. The company will still survive in cargo shipping but the dedicated sea passengers have no more liners to sail with. Sad.

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The Opening of the RORO Connection Between Mindoro and Panay

Port of Dangay, Roxas, Occ. Mindoro. Image © Mike Baylon

In the past, the main connection between Panay and the national center was through ships from Manila that call on several Panay ports. The foremost of these ports was Iloilo (Fort San Pedro Port) because Iloilo is the regional center. Secondary ports that connect then to Manila were Dumaguit (New Washington, Aklan), Culasi (Roxas City) and Estancia (Iloilo). At various times the ports of Malay (Aklan), Batan (Aklan), Ibajay (Aklan), Lipata (Antique) and San Jose de Buenavista (capital of Antique) also had connections to Manila. There was practically no connection from Batangas or Lucena before.

There was also a connection before to Mindoro across Tablas Strait. This was mainly done by the “Aida” wooden motor boats (the “batel”) which connected up to Palawan and the Semirara islands. There were also other batel and big motor boat operators in these routes. But as they are, they cannot carry vehicles. They also don’t sail when the swells are strong especially during the ‘habagat’ (the southwest monsoon) which can be fierce in these seas especially for the smaller crafts (well, even liners do not pass west of Mindoro during ‘habagat’).

Using Mindoro as a bridge to Panay in the past might not have been possible, too. First obstacle of all then were the nearly impassable roads and rivers of Mindoro in before. Aside from long stretches being unpaved, muddy and treacherous during the rainy season, Mindoro is one peculiar place I have reached that in many critical river crossings there were simply no bridges existing anymore and vehicles have to cross a river through the river itself!

In Oriental Mindoro, reaching then the southern towns of Roxas, Mansalay and Bulalacao was a big challenge when the monsoon rains set in and the rivers are swollen. To get out of Roxas, heavy equipment must assist the trucks and buses (don’t even think of small vehicles) in the river or else take the treacherous mountain pass. If it is dry, vehicles can reach up to Mansalay. Bulalacao then can only be reached in the driest of months but of course past the town of Bongabong there is almost no surface to speak of. It is for this reason that there were motor bancas from Roxas going south because if no vehicles can pass then those were the only connections. There was also no road going to San Jose in Occidental Mindoro except for an old logging road which was nearly impassable then except for the brave with 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Well, even past then the near town to Calapan of Victoria, one’s vehicle has to wade through the river as the bridge has collapsed. That was how difficult travel then was in Mindoro (and I have not even described the roads and bridges to Abra de Ilog and Puerto Galera). Add to that the very poor state of power in the island and “poor state” might even be an understatement. Using then Pinamalayan as connection to Panay is also not an option as the port then there was primitive and not capable of handling ROROs. It is also a little bit far from Panay. That was how sad the state of infrastructure then in Mindoro.


Port of Caticlan (Malay) © Edison Sy

In designing a RORO connection to Panay, the obvious entry point there will be Malay port (now known as Caticlan port) as it is the closest to Mindoro. In Mindoro, it should have been Bulalacao because it is the closest to Panay and closest to Occidental Mindoro, too (as the southern end of Occidental Mindoro is also connected to Panay). But Dangay port in Roxas won and maybe not for anything else except for practicality then (and also the lobbying of the well-connected mayor before) as the road there was already built when the road further was not yet paved and the mountain pass to Bulalacao was slippery and treacherous. And so Dangay port connected to Caticlan port in 2003 and the ROROs came and the vehicles rolled to Panay. Suddenly, Manoc-manoc became more accessible (which was already better known as Boracay). This intermodal route originated from Batangas port and the port of entry to Mindoro is Calapan.

Gloria Arroyo called the intermodal connection as the Western Republic Nautical Highway (isn’t nautical highway an oxymoron?), part of her Strong Republic Nautical Highway (SRNH). When Gloria touts of SRNH, it is as if it only came into being during her term when in fact the intermodal, short distance connection was mainly laid out in 1980’s and 1990s. The ports, routes and ROROs were already there even before she became the president. More routes would have been around too if not for a shortage of short-distance ferry-ROROs in some areas. Actually, this Mindoro-Panay connection was her only major achievement in this field.

After the opening of Dangay port in Roxas town, the road to and the port of Mansalay were also developed. Mansalay was touted as an alternative to Dangay but it did not take off. Ironic since earlier proposals pushed for Mansalay since it is closer to Caticlan and it has a good harbor. Meanwhile, the government of Gloria Arroyo which is a master of port and route duplication (to ensure her political survival) also pitched for a Bulalacao-Lipata route with a premise that Bulalacao will also be the connecting port to Caluya in the Semirara islands group. The Bulalacao-Lipata route did not take off for the simple reason that it is a longer route than Roxas-Caticlan.


Port of Roxas (Dangay) terminal building © Nowell Alcancia


Port of Roxas (Dangay) wharf © Nowell Alcancia

The new intermodal connection through Mindoro took off very fast especially since the Batangas-Calapan connection was already very developed. Suddenly, the shippers and traders found they need not go through anymore the horrible gauntlet to Manila North Harbor where thieves, mulcters and hustlers abound. That is not to mention the bad traffic and the very slow break-bulk process inside North Harbor where one has to load the cargo on containers even though arrastre fees has already been paid. Batangas port might not have been 100% hassle-free (especially if there is a rush of vehicles) but it beats Manila port by a mile in ease in moving cargo. This was a perfect example of the true intermodal beating the break-bulk. With trucks as carriers, the shippers and traders can already make point-to-point deliveries and not risk again all the perils in break-bulk at the port of destination like theft, extortion and paper hassles aside from the need to reload their cargo on trucks and pay the hustler-porters. And besides, their cargo arrives faster.

With the opening of the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay route, the liner route from Manila declined immediately, both in passengers and in cargo. Ports and shipping companies were thus affected. Where before the passenger liners to Dumaguit and Roxas were lively, the two ports soon declined until there were no more passenger ships from Manila to these two ports because the passengers were already taking the buses to Iloilo, San Jose de Buenavista and Estancia. The passenger ship to Lipata in Antique also lost along with liners that stop off Caticlan and Boracay. Even the number of passenger ships to Iloilo City also declined considerably. In fact, Iloilo port is the only port now left in Panay that has a passenger liner connection to Manila. But then maybe two dozens or more buses leave Panay now for Manila every single day and even more during the peak season.

Fortunes of shipping companies also went down south fast. MBRS Lines which has also routes to Panay stopped operations and sold its ships (although admittedly most of their routes were outside Panay). Moreta Shipping also stopped passenger operations and sold its passenger ships and shifted to cargo shipping (like MBRS most of Moreta routes were also outside Panay). The loss of passengers also contributed too to the path to illiquidity of Negros Navigation. Even the Aida motor boats that once had a Palawan-Mindoro-Panay-Semirara connection lost out eventually along with the other motor boats and big motor bancas.

Cargo that were once transported through container vans and carried by the ROROs and container ships also declined considerably because the trucks were already rolling (admittedly, this intermodal route is also used by tractor heads hauling container vans). For goods from the CALABARZON factories, the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay connection became the default route since bringing their goods to Manila with its traffic and hassles is a farther and regressive route. Panay shippers also began to patronize this route to short-circuit the hassle-full and dangerous Manila port. And if they will be delivering goods to various places like markets then there is no better way than to use a truck especially a wing van truck and roll to Batangas port through Mindoro. Suddenly, with the paradigm shift to the intermodal the bottom fell from the ships serving the Manila-Panay routes.


Ships waiting for a berth in Caticlan © cruxader27/Flickr

Today, Panay is essentially one of the main islands lost by shipping to the intermodal form of transport like Masbate, Samar, Leyte and Bohol islands. The only hold-out there for Manila shipping is Iloilo port and even there shipping has been weakened, too. Essentially, it is just a rear-guard battle for them now that they don’t lose Iloilo. Well, they won’t be completely driven away since Iloilo is the midway port to Western and Southern Mindanao for the container ships like in the past. As for passenger shipping it might also survive since the travel time compared to the bus is the same and the ship is still more comfortable. However, those who take the ship have to battle the Manila gauntlet (it is outside the port now after the redevelopment of North Harbor by MNHPI) and there is no liner leaving everyday unlike the bus. With the bus. there is “free tourism”, too, as bonus.

Now, there are more connections between Mindoro and Panay because the FastCats of Archipelago Ferries are using Bulalacao port to connect to Caticlan. The sea route is shorter there but more land kilometers have to be rolled by the vehicles. As a note, there is also the Batangas-Odiongan-Caticlan and Batangas-Romblon-Roxas City routes being run by 2GO Travel. Aside from that, the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also has a Batangas-Odiongan-Dumaguit service.

As further notes, vehicles that are bound to/from Negros also take the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay route since connection to that island is easy using the Dumangas-Bacolod route or the Iloilo-Bacolod route. As a matter of fact, there are vehicles to/from Cebu which also use the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay route. And that is aside from the few vehicles bound for Guimaras and Dapitan in northern Mindanao. Truly, the Batangas-Mindoro-Panay connection is now very important in linking the Visayan island chain (except the western part) to Manila and the industrial belt of CALABARZON.

The Emergent Port of Masbate

Twenty years ago, the port of Masbate was mainly known for the so-many motor bancas (and a few motor boats) that ply routes to Pilar, Sorsogon, to Ticao Island and to the western portion of Masbate Bay up to the town of Baleno, Masbate. The only liners from Manila that call then in the port were the MV Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines and a liner of WG&A Philippines. Surprisingly, they were not the RORO connection of Masbate Island and neither is the overnight ferry from Cebu of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines. Actually, the RORO connection of the Masbate then was the unlikely ferry of Viva Shipping Lines that originates from Batangas Port.

Pilar then was the main connecting port to Masbate. Buses from the semi-regional trade center of Daraga, Albay roll to Pilar. Then, there are many buses from Manila whose end point is Pilar. The motor bancas that ply the Pilar-Masbate route usually have already an arrangement with the buses. Motor banca tickets can even be issued aboard the buses in many cases. In the reverse route from Masbate, aboard the motor bancas, bus tickets can also be issued. But for those who are experienced enough, they won’t buy those tickets and instead look for discounts in the buses to Manila waiting in Pilar. They know that the buses with only a few passengers are vulnerable to these discounting tactics.

Pilar-Masbate motor bancas also take in a lot of cargo either way when there were no ROROs yet (actually, they still do today but on a comparatively smaller scale). One advantage offered by these motor bancas is there is no porterage. The crew takes care of the cargo and one just goes direct aboard and the purser will take care of charging the fare so there is no need to queue for tickets. Two motor boat companies dominated this trade here, the Denica Lines and the Lobrigo Lines. Though not comfortable, their motor bancas are fast.

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M/B Gloria Express at Masbate Port. © Mike Baylon

 

There were also a few cargo ships that called on Masbate Port aside from a few cargo motor boats. One regular incoming bulk cargo is cement and one regular outgoing bulk cargo is copra.

Archipelago Ferries (actually it could be another of their legal fiction companies) attempted the first short-distance ferry connection to Masbate through the MV Maharlika Tres. They used the Bulan Port since at the time the Pilar Port was not RORO-capable. With it also came the Philtranco buses rolling to Masbate. However these ferry and bus services did not last long. One problem is without RORO company support, the buses won’t last long because it was upheld by the maritime regulators that they cannot charge the RORO rate to the passengers (although some try to charge that on the passengers part of that, slyly). And without a good number of vehicles regularly boarding, the ferry companies would be hard put to give discounts.

Viva Shipping Lines and then its new competitor Montenegro Shipping Lines also tried a RORO connection from Lucena to Masbate. Parallel with this, the twin company of Viva, the DR Shipping Lines tried a fast ferry service from Lucena to Masbate using their own-designed and built ships, the MV Penafrancia 10 and MV Penafrancia 11. These services stopped after a few short years for different reasons. For Montenegro Lines, their RORO MV Maria Carmela burned in 2002 just before reaching Lucena, with casualties. Its local government authorization was canceled and they were embroiled in lawsuits. For Viva Shipping and DR Shipping, it was already the beginning of the tailspin of the Don Domingo Reyes shipping companies which ended with them defunct and their ferries sold or broken up.

Montenegro Lines then built their own ramp in Pilar and they were able to operate a basic, short-distance ferry-RORO from it. They have to do it themselves because the administration then of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo wouldn’t provide funds for the construction of a RORO port because the Representative then of the congressional district encompassing Pilar was a bitter political opponent (he is now a vice-presidential candidate).

Lobrigo Lines tried to operate two fastcrafts between Pilar and Masbate. Montenegro Lines also did so. Lobrigo Lines later quit and their fastcrafts ended up with Montenegro Lines. Later, this route became the niche of Montenegro fastcrafts driven out by superior competition in the Batangas-Calapan route (until now they are the only operator of High Speed Crafts in the route).

Sta. Clara Shipping with twin company Penafrancia Shipping tried to enter Masbate through different routes. They tried a Bulan-Masbate route (their ships are not fit for the shallow Pilar Port which is located in a river estuary) but the bus passengers from Manila were not willing to pay extra for the longer Manila-Bulan land route. They also tried a Pasacao-Masbate route but they found out early that the strong habagat swells were dangerous for their ship. Finally, they found the Pio Duran, Albay Port with its new RORO ramp as the Masbate connection and they stuck here along with newcomer Medallion Transport.

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M/V King Frederick of Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. © Mike Baylon

From Cebu, another player also entered the Masbate route, the MV Super Shuttle Ferry 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation and this ship continues its voyage to Batangas. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines continued plying its route until recently. However, a shortage of ferries forced them to stop but they replaced the service with a former ferry that was converted into a cargo ship, the MV Trans-Asia 5. The cargo was simply too big and too important for them to lose to competition. Cokaliong Shipping Lines is the new entrant from Cebu lately using a ferry. The Sulpicio and WG&A liners are gone now for different reasons but they have been more than replaced. Actually, they might not even be missed in Masbate.

Nowadays, Masbate is already a busy port and growing in importance because it is already the fulcrum of a growing intermodal route between Cebu and Luzon (that includes the National Capital Region, Bicol and CALABARZON). Many of the trucks loaded in Polambato Port in Bogo, Cebu that are unloaded in Cataingan and Cawayan ports still connect to Luzon (and they have to use Masbate Port on the way to that). Meanwhile, distribution trucks from Manila and CALABARZON now roll direct to Masbate along with the trucks of the Bicol traders (incidentally, some of them used motor boats and motor bancas in the past).

Today, fewer and fewer Masbate passengers still take the motor bancas. They now prefer the intermodal buses that come from Manila that roll to the various destinations in Masbate Island like Masbate City, Aroroy, Milagros, Esperanza, Cataingan and Placer. Because of the needs of the buses and trucks, Montenegro Lines now operates several ROROs and so do the twin company Sta. Clara/Penafrancia Shipping (and with even bigger ships) and Medallion Transport. Another new operator from Pilar is Denica Lines which bought their own small ROROs.

 

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Ferries at Masbate Port © zheek / Flickr

The fastcrafts are still operating between Pilar and Masbate and the motor bancas did not seem to lessen in number. More cargo ships are also now calling in Masbate Port. The port was expanded a decade ago and now a second phase of expansion is near completion. In Region 5, the Bicol Region, it is clear that Masbate Port is now the busiest port. Good thing it is not yet an ISPS (International System of Port Security) port and so it also functions as a people’s park (and a jogging area in the morning) and anyone can go in and go out.

As said by old timers, shipping activity is a accident of geography that cannot be dictated by the maritime authorities nor by legislation. In this sense, Masbate is fortunate because she lies between Luzon and Cebu, the commercial center of Central Visayas, part of Eastern Visayas and of northern Mindanao. As such, her growth as a port will surely continue in the coming years and probably she will be more well-known by then.

The PANGUIL BAY CROSSING

Panguil Bay is the narrow and shallow body of water between Lanao del Norte and Misamis Occidental that at its narrowest might just be two kilometers across or even less especially at the southern end. At that end, the maps mark it with dotted lines because it is not clear where land ends and where the sea begins because most are fishponds and shallow marshes. This small sea is known for sea foods including crustaceans and some foreign entities even have buying stations in the area.

Panguil Bay ©Mike Baylon

Even before World War II Panguil Bay was a sea lane connecting the two provinces. One can take the road through Monte Alegre which goes round Panguil Bay but the distance is simply too long as in about a hundred kilometers or over and will take several hours of travel. But if one takes it the views of Panguil Bay is simply breath-taking from the mountain.
Motor boats once connected the two shores and several competed in the route including Charles Brown, an American resident. After the war small steel-hulled passenger-cargo ships began to dominate and slowly the successor of Charles Brown, Tamula Shipping began to dominate. Ruperto Tamula was the son-in-law of Charles Brown.

Wooden Ship at Tubod Port ©Mark Ocul

The old routes in Panguil Bay was Ozamis-Kolambugan and Ozamis-Tubod and R.P. Tamula Shipping completely dominated that by the ‘90s. Their ships sailed every hour and even more frequent at peak hours. However, they did not sail at night. Anyway at that time and security situation almost no public vehicles run in the Lanao del Norte highway after dark. Tamula used a lot of ships and some even have airconditioned accommodations. Also, when the winds blow their ships will rock and will take a dogleg route to avoid waves slamming broadside.

Rural Transit entering Royal Seal ©Mark Ocul

Millennium Shipping of Davao tried to enter the route by providing RORO service between Tubod, the capital and the barrio of Silanga in Tangub City. It was one of the shortest crossings in the bay but a little far from the main center which was Ozamis City. Millennium used LCTs but there were very few vehicles crossing then and there were no intermodal buses yet so the schedule of crossing was irregular.

A sea change happened when the compromise agreement of the buses in the area happened which opened the Dipolog-Cagayan de Oro route for the buses. This development coincided with the development of the private Mukas port in Tubod. Soon Daima Shipping, owner of Mukas port was transporting Rural Transit buses to Ozamis. Daima has the shortest crossing of all and their route is not that exposed to winds like the route of Tamula. Their ships were also in a spic and span condition when they first arrived unlike the tired ships of Tamula and the LCTs of Millennium.

LAKBAYAN UNO Lakbayan Uno of Millenium Shipping ©Carl Jakosalem

Millennium Shipping also built their own port further down the road in Tabigue and later they also built their own wharf in Ozamis. They handled the Lillian Express and buses but they cannot compete with Daima as the their route was longer, the ROPAXes were slower and not level to Daima’s standard. Aside from their LCTs like “Wilcox”, Millennium tried to bring in “Lakbayan Uno” but at 7.5 knots it was not any faster than the LCTs. With longer interval because of low patronage they were dead duck from the start and soon they quit altogether and sold the LCTs to Maayo Shipping.

Soon Tamula Shipping was losing patronage fast. Passengers no longer want to get off at Kolambugan proper and take the tricycle to the port and haggle with the “labor” and porters if they have cargo or luggage. They also didn’t like the sardines-type of loading. In Ozamis too connections are better with the bus that goes direct to the terminal 2 kilometers from the port and imagine if one will take the tricycle for that. So in a short time Tamula Shipping was dead duck too and in just a few years they also stopped sailing the Panguil Bay route (they were also doing the Balingoan-Camiguin routes). Last to go was the route to Tubod but soon the Tamula ships were just moored and slowly they began settling one by one into the shallow water.

Now only Daima Shipping is doing the Panguil Bay route. However, instead of operating full blast all their ships they let half rot and gather barnacles resulting in long vehicle queues and a long wait for boarding which is what usually happens if there is no competition and there is no other choice but to grin and bear it. And that happened when vehicle and passenger traffic in the route was on the rise year after year. On the other hand, one positive development brought by Daima was night sailing and ferries now run almost round the clock except for a few hours.

Daima Shipping Lines Inc. folio Daima Shipping Lines ©Mark Ocul

What is needed in the route now is a new player. But the problem of entry is that there are no suitable ports on the Lanao side except if the new entrant will build their own port. Tubod government port is available but the distance is much greater and that translates into higher rates and so competing is difficult. Maybe one possibility is the Tubod-Silanga route but for passenger which is a decisive factor in the route (a lot of them are not bus passengers). There is also just one bus company left, also a monopoly and it has a tie-up with Daima Shipping. There is a practically duopoly in the route.

The future threat to the route is if the Tubod-Silanga bridge is built. That has long been a proposal and the German government was willing to fund it and feasibility survey has already been made. However, the German government demands a local counterpart but the government so far is not willing to shoulder it. So the plans for over a decade now is gathering rust and I do not see it being revived soon no matter what the rosy projections are by the optimists.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/blueleo2/12303969024/in/photolist-jKg4jY-nTaTAK-e6XQXy-7cxFqb-4do5ew-oBhRNv-oBmyy Pangul Bay Bridge Proposal

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

written by: Mike Baylon

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

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

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

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

Dans Penta 1
Dans Penta 1 ©Aristotle Refugio

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

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

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

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

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

BFAR fastcraft in Mati port
Mati Port ©Mike Baylon

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

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

Port of Bislig
Bislig Port ©Janjan Salas

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

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

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

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

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

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

M/V Nathan Matthew
Nathan Matthew ©.BITSI_DoMiNiC_

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

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

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

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

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

It will be reality that will teach them this lesson.

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

THE “PORTS TO NOWHERE”

In the Philippine Ship Spotters Society (PSSS), “Ports to Nowhere” are ports that have no ships or have no meaningful traffic. In the whole country, there might be 200 or so such ports if useless municipal ports are included. Mar Roxas, by his department’s reckoning counted over a hundred. He counted ports whose meager revenues was not even enough to cover the operational costs. This was what the author of this article meant when he first used the term “ports to nowhere” many years ago even before the creation of PSSS. He equated “ports to nowhere” to ports whose incomes cannot cover the salaries of the personnel, the transportation and communication costs, security costs, electricity and let alone the maintenance of the ports. Usually, these are the ports that have no regular calls. Fishing bancas are not counted as usually they are not charged any docking fees and are just accommodated as a matter of courtesy.

Tubod Port ©Mark Ocul

In the past our towns had municipal ports and it was mainly fishing bancas which used them. In the coastal towns that have no roads then, these ports also hosted passenger-cargo motor boats. Whatever, many municipal ports then were no more than fish landing areas and were not suitable for steel-hulled ships. Most are of pile-type and many have piles made of timber and even the wharf floor is made of wood. Slowly as the ports were modernized concrete piles and wharf were used. Concrete was more durable as they did not rot unlike timber and wood.

Gradually, over time, some ports were extended and usually those ports that have connections to major cities were given priority. Some of these were considered district ports and these were usually deeper and some were sheltered. During the end of the 1960’s, regional ports were declared and they were improved and expanded so they can handle foreign and bigger ships.

Tabaco Port, a regional port ©Dominic San Juan

Ironically, after the build-up of ports, the downward slide of our shipping started. This started with the fall of abaca fiber to nylon fiber. Suddenly one of our major export crops fell and once upon a time this was the most major crop being traded from the 1880s up to the 1950’s. This was followed by the downturn in the ‘70s of the export of metallic ores due to the emergence of the plastic industry. In the same decade the trade and exploitation of our forests declined because the precipitous fall of our forest cover already showed its effects. Then in the early 1980’s, the trade and export of copra and coconut oil began to decline. Substitute edible oils appeared in the world market and coconut oil mills sprouted in the regions and ironically it was the government which pushed for this. So, one after another, the major crops being shipped declined.

The final nail came in the 1980’s with the policy that any shortfall in cereals (as in rice and corn) will simply be imported and in sufficient quantities so that the price can be depressed or brought down. This policy was even extended to the manufacture of animal feeds and so manufacturers can just import corn, soybeans and green peas. Suddenly, crops being traded between the regions were supplanted by imports being brought by foreign ships direct to regional and private ports ports and bypassing Manila entirely.

Nasico Eagle ©Mike Baylon

When the instant snack sector boomed in the 1980s local shipping did not benefit. This is so because the ingredients for the instant snack were coming direct from abroad to the regional ports. The snacks ingredients were actually imported animal feeds like yellow corn, powdered potato and greens peas. They can import those for “chicheria” use here since the animal food grade of the US for these commodities is even higher than our local grade, ironically. All of these factors depressed shipping and this sector never fully recovered after the ravages of the great financial crisis of the 1980’s.
With the decline of our commodities, the so-many foreign shipping companies that have ships calling in our country slowly pulled out from the 1980’s. The log ships and ore ships also stopped calling in the same decade. What replaced that in effect was our export of workers and domestic helpers but they ride the planes and not the cargo ships.


1979 Manila Bulletin Shipping Schedule ©Mike Baylon

The final nail in the coffin for shipping was the emerging dominance of the intermodal transport system especially with the arrival of the surplus and wing van trucks in the 1990’s. This was coupled with incentives which made it easy for bus operators to acquire new units. This was amplified by the great drive of industrialist Pepito Alvarez who pushed new buses with financing to the operators. Meanwhile, incentives were also laid out for shipping and many used this to acquire short-distance ROROs. And so suddenly there were enough ROROs to connect the near islands. By this time vehicles were already rolling as the major roads were already concreted including in Mindanao.

Balicuatro Port Buses ©Mike Baylon

When our national fleet was getting smaller both in ferries and in cargo ships the government through the Philippine Ports Authority held on to the completely wrong mantra that “if ports are built then ships will come”. They and their booster Aquilino Pimentel compared this to roads that when built even ahead of time will slowly have traffic. This is so because people will migrate along the route, people will try to take advantage of the land and forest and also, many roads are actually shortcuts.

It is a completely different thing in ports and shipping because the correct mantra is “ships come when there is something to load”. In the eastern seaboard of Mindanao, Samar and Luzon there were a lot of ports before and many were privately-built. Those ports existed because they were trying to exploit the forests and the mines then. When the forest was gone and when metallic ore trade fell those many ports suddenly became disused and became “ports to nowhere” and slowly they dilapidated. Ports dilapidate faster than roads because of the weathering action of the winds and waves and of the sun. Add to that our many typhoons that damage ports especially since we don’t construct breakwaters.

An example of wrong advanced preparations was the 12 fish ports that Luis Villafuerte was able to wangle for Bicol from Ferdinand Marcos in 1983-84. Those were supposed to be dual-use ports as in other ships can also use them. When the ROROs came 25 years later the ports were already damaged and dilapidated. If only bureaucrats and politicians open their closed eyes they should easily see that empirically and historically their mantra is completely wrong.

Old Port of Pio Duran, Albay ©Mike Baylon

One of the reasons for the rise of “ports to nowhere” is building or improving of ports is used as political patronage to show a local politician “was able to wangle a project”. Of course, in the corrupt Philippines almost all public works have percentages for the pockets of powers-to-be which are euphemistically called as “S.O.P” and that is a very great incentive. National powers meanwhile give that in exchange for political support. The worst excesses of this syndrome were in the previous administration which needed all the support it can buy to stave off impeachment. And the gall of it all was the contract with a French company using soft loan to acquire pre-fabricated ports to be built especially in our eastern seaboard which no longer has shipping! This is a very classic example of a “ports to nowhere” mentality. That lady responsible for that was also wont to transfer national ports to LGUs in exchange for political support and votes. As rightly observed by the next administration those ports deteriorated fast because there was no maintenance and were just being used as milking cows.

Bato Port ©Mike Baylon

The good development is the current dispensation reversed the policy of “ports to nowhere” creation and even took back some ports “donated” to LGUs and it also canceled the contract with the French company even under threat of a court case. The current administration is actually judicious with building new ports reasoning we have more than enough. And that is true because the truth is there are even more private port and this mushroomed after the incentive given by Marcos in the early ‘80s. These port can also handle ship commercially, a policy upheld by the Supreme Court when it was challenged by the PPA.

There is also another set of factors that speed up the creation of “ports to nowhere”. When the ships grew in size, both the ferries and the cargo ships, suddenly many old district ports can no longer accommodate the bigger ships for lack of depth. Also when containerization came the old wooden wharves were no longer able to handle the higher weight. Express ferries and container ships also came and so many intermediate ports were left behind. And finally, highways sprouted throughout the country. Towns that were reachable only by ships before now have roads. Because of that many routes both for passenger and cargo ships disappeared. That is part of the reason why so many shipping companies of the past are gone now.

To summarize, it was the retreat of shipping which first created the “ports to nowhere”. Subsequently this was exacerbated by a wrong and corrupt push from Malacanang for selfish motives full not only of political motives but also to build private fleets. With no more largesse to touch these recent times, these fleets fast growths suddenly slowed in the current dispensation when before they were buying ships as if there is no tomorrow.

Tagpopongan Port ©Aristotle Refugio

Ports to nowhere are just a big waste of taxpayer’s money. It is just like throwing billions of money to the wind. And the madness has not even completely stopped. They still completed ports like the Pulupandan port which cost P700 million and it has almost no traffic since 30 years ago. 24 kilometers north of that, they want to build a port in Bacolod for the same price because of just some politician’s pique at the successful private port operator BREDCO. To get one congressman to support that, another congressman offered that congressman to build a port in her district some two dozen kilometers to the north of Bacolod. When further down the road in Sagay, another port was just recently completed.

In Bislig, the port of PICOP was still operational and yet the government still built a new port. And soon after, another port was built which they promptly closed down because there was no traffic. In Samal, they also completed a port which is not even worth as a palay or corn drying area now. We must really be a country of mad people. And I marvel at the gall of politicians and bureaucrats and at the stupidity of “goalkeeper” NEDA. Recently, I read that improvement in the port in Tandoc, Camarines Sur was finished. Amazingly, there is no actual road to the place and access to that is via a motor banca. It seems the “goalkeeper” was just looking at some imaginary roads in the map and doesn’t even know how to pay for a satellite images to check if there really is a road. It can only be one of two things for NEDA – outright dumbness or corruption too. With such a distant and remote place with few inhabitants, who would dare ships through there when the port of Pasacao is nearer to the main commercial and population center?

Lawigan Port, Bislig ©Janjan Salas

Wastage and corruption are big banes to our country. In shipping that primarily manifests in the “ports to nowhere”.

WHEN EASTERN VISAYAS SHIPPING LOST TO THE INTERMODAL

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.

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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.