WHEN IS A RORO VIABLE?

This article was originally posted on the old PSSS Website, and is reposted for archive purposes. No changes are made, including grammatical changes.

Written by Mike Baylon

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ROROs (Roll On, Roll Off ships) have long been viable as connectors of our major islands in the last three-and-a-half decades. All our big and medium islands have been connected already along with a few minor islands. One major factor for this was the completion of good roads in the major islands. With good roads the vehicle density then correspondingly shot up.

With good roads the cargo jeeps, trucks and the buses rolled along the new intermodal sea lanes. The sedans, AUVs and pick-ups soon followed. The booming of trucks was helped by the entry of surplus units in the free ports while financing for buses became easier with the availability of more money during the economic recovery. Versatile and fast wing van trucks also arrived and these became serious competitors to container shipping especially since they can depart daily and at any hour and need not queue in the North Harbor. Refrigerated trucks, too, revolutionized how we moved goods from place to place and they carried a variety from sea foods to processed or fresh meat to fresh produce and fruits.

M/V Odyssey loading a wingvan truck. ©Mike Baylon

RORO connection from Luzon to Samar and Leyte up to Mindanao immediately became successful and later connection from Luzon to Mindoro and Panay became  viable too. RORO connections between the main Visayan islands of Leyte, Bohol, Cebu, Negros and Panay also took off early. Soon there came also the connection of Negros and Bohol to Mindanao. In later years we also saw RORO connections to Alabat, Marinduque, Masbate, Catanduanes, Palawan, Cuyo, Guimaras, Bantayan, Siquijor, Camiguin, Siargao, Samal, Olutanga, Basilan and Jolo islands and the Romblon, Calamian, Camotes and Tawi-tawi groups of islands.

A privately-owned port. Click to open full-size to better appreciate the details. ©Mike Baylon

Not too long ago there was a push to connect smaller islands by RORO with MARINA  offering “missionary route” status to entrants. Along with a host of incentives, this status conferred to entrants exclusivity in the route and other and protection from entry of competitors in nearby connections up to a distance of 50 kilometers away. MARINA even produced feasibility studies made by foreign shipping experts with doctorate degrees but who have no knowledge of local shipping to support this project. But alas, as expected their recommendations bombed as in the ROROs stopped sailing and transferred routes because as they say in analytics it is “garbage in, garbage out”.

This way of thinking was exacerbated by a Ph.D thesis of someone who has no knowledge of shipping who did a paper on the state of competition in the Philippine shipping industry. The basic thesis was the assumption that if in a route there are only one or two competitors then “there is lack of competition”. The lady never thought some routes can barely support a ship and years later many routes she thought “lacks competition” are actually already gone or the shipping company or companies serving then are already bankrupt or defunct now. In actuality, one thing the so-called local “experts” in shipping and the government do not understand is the short-distance ROROs are actually eating up the market of the liner and even the overnight ferry sector including container shipping.

A law professor who has no background in shipping who headed a maritime agency also pushed LCTs (Landing Craft Transports)to connect small islands and coastal barrios in the interest of safety. This never really took off as motor bancas can land anywhere while LCTs can’t in the main (they still need wharves) and passengers and traders prefer point-to-point service rather than a single LCT covering many coastal barrios and minor islands that will result in delay. Nor did the lady lawyer understand that coastal island or small island people travel at dawn especially if they have catch to sell and if there is no passenger-cargo motor banca then fishing bancas will do the trip and they will not wait for an LCT that will still drop by many points. Maybe she also didn’t know that motor bancas are faster than LCTs in cruising speed. She maybe did not reckon also that LCTs consumed much more fuel than a motor banca and so what will be a viable route for a motor banca might not be so for an LCT. Finally, an LCT will cost in the mid-8-figure money while a motor banca will cost much less than a million and if a trader has mid-8-figure money he would probably not be living in a coastal barrio or a remote town.

LCT being built. Currently LCT St. Brendan. ©Mike Baylon

What makes a RORO route successful? I think the main determinants in this are the number of population and economic activity of the island including tourism. This is assuming there is no competitor route halving patronage or parallel routes dividing the market.

The magic number needed for viable RORO operation, in my observation, is between 50,000 and 100,000 and depending too on economic activity and tourism. There are some islands which have a population of 100,000 but cannot support a RORO and examples of these are Polillo and Dinagat islands. Located in far-flung places, there is really not that much economic activity in those islands. Meanwhile, the similarly-sized Siargao island in the same place as Dinagat can support a RORO because of its tourism.  The island-provinces of Guimaras, Siquijor and Camiguin which all have about 100,000 in population are able to support ROROs especially being independent provinces there is more money from the national government pouring in. if the tourism is stronger like in Camiguin (where the abundance of lanzones does not hurt) then there are more ROROs. Population in Marinduque, Palawan, Catanduanes and Masbate is even bigger. And Jolo island, the main island of the province of Sulu and Bongao island, main island of Tawi-tawi, both have populations well in excess of 100,000.

Lipata Port. Click to view full-size. ©Mike Baylon

Samal, Bantayan and Camotes, all islands which are not provinces, all have 100,000 people and tourism too especially in the first and the second have an egg industry. The population of Tablas is even bigger. Romblon island have ROROs because it is still a gateway to the province, the capital is there and it is the gateway to the nearby Sibuyan island. Romblon island might just have have a population of 40,000 but combined with Sibuyan’s nearly 60,000 the magic number of 100,000 is reached. It is also in this sense why Calamianes can support ROROs. The island group’s population might not reach 90,000 but it has tourism, fish and it is an intermediate point to Palawan and Cuyo.

That brings us to the peculiar cases of the islands of Alabat, Cuyo and Olutanga. Alabat island has a population of just 45,000. Maybe it is the tourism and economic activity which buoys up the place to merit a RORO. Cuyo group of islands has a population of about equal to Alabat and not much short of 50,000 too. Originally cruisers and motor boats (“batel”) served the route and operators maybe just used a RORO as a substitute for a cruiser. Montenegro Shipping, which serves the route from Iloilo and Palawan, likewise has no cruisers.

M/V Catalyn-E ©Mike Baylon

Olutanga island, meanwhile, which has about the same population of Alabat and Cuyo is just very near the mainland. Besides it is the Provincial government which owns and operates the LCT connecting the island as a public service. And that brings us to the case of the small islands of Sibutu and Simunul which have an LCT too. Same case, it is the Provincial Government which owns and operates the LCT. And by that what I imply is the service is not a strictly commercial service. The case of Cagraray island in Albay is somewhat similar. The operator of the classy resort Misibis Bay fielded an LCT so that vehicles can cross – for more patronage. It didn’t hurt that the resort owners were already LCT operators previously (but the LCT is already withdrawn now as the bridge connecting the island is already operational).

Among island-municipalities it is only Samal (which is a city) that I know can support a RORO. All others cannot, historically, so it is puzzle to me why the previous administration pushed for ROROs in these places and it even built ports with RORO ramps to support that (well, that administration was infamous for building “ports to nowhere”).

Caliclic Wharf ©Mike Baylon

Can islands with two towns without much economic activity support a RORO? I have not seen it in the cases of Burias, Buad (in Samar) and Dumaran (in Palawan) islands. Lubang island with two towns was able to support a RORO before but with the advent of motor bancas in a competitor route from Nasugbu, Batangas, the RORO lost. It remains to be seen if Atienza Shipping will be successful in reinstating the RORO there. It might be if Lubang is used a midway point to a longer route.

Ticao island with four towns and a population of over 50,000 cannot support a RORO. There is also no RORO now to the Batanes. There is also no RORO doing coastal barrio routes like in the southern Bicol coast which has no road or in the Samar Sea linking the island-towns there.  That is also the case in the many small islands between Basilan and Jolo and the Babuyan islands in Cagayan and the Polillo group of islands. MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) should really do empirical studies first before pushing for RORO routes and not just hypothesize from their air-conditioned offices.

Maybe in the future when economic activity rises and the disposable income of the peoples there improve significantly our island-towns and other small islands might have a RORO of their own. But until that happens it will still be the motor bancas which will do the job and that might still be for a long while.

Motor Bancas of Surigao. Click to view full-size. ©Mike BaylonBASI

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!