The Problem With The LCTs

In the old days after World War II, the LCTs, then known as “Landing Craft Tank” was the means to transfer vehicles across the islands and our Navy has the biggest number of that and they even have the bigger LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) which has a door covering the ramps while the LCTs have unshrouded ramps. The Navy then did the service of transferring the vehicles and the heavy equipment between the islands and in general for free for after all most of the businesses then were also in the hands of the local powers or their friends.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1939-45

A World War II LCT. Source: navsource.org

Along the years, privately-held LCTs started growing in number. It was easy to build, no sophisticated equipment is needed, it is cheap and it is practical with different uses. It can be used to transport goods to practically anywhere and even where there are only  unprepared ports. Loose cargo can easily be loaded and unloaded without the use of cranes or booms as a truck can just board the LCT and dock handlers or peons can manually load or unload the cargo. Plus, the LCT is actually a RORO (Roll On, Roll Off ship) as vehicles or tracked equipment can be loaded or unloaded through its ramp.

Our first short-distance ferry-ROROs carrying passengers, cargo and rolling cargo were actually LCTs. That was when there were still no shirt-distance ROROs (and that arrived only in 1979). The short-distance ferry-ROROs came and came but the LCTs remained in the shipping scene. They were still cheap to acquire and operate and they can be built practically anywhere and even in just an improvised shipyard. The skill level needed to build them was not high and the equipment level needed is low as in the acetylene torch was the most critical tool needed.

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A Maayo LCT by Mike Baylon of PSSS

Along the years, the LCT designation changed to “Landing Craft Transport” to better reflect that it no longer carry tanks as they were really full-pledged transports already. As of now, most of our LCTs are just pure cargo ships carrying anything including the ores of strip mining. However, they can still be found in some routes practically unchanged and being used as passenger-cargo ROROs and probably the premier exponent of that is the Maayo Transport which connects Cebu and Negros islands in the southern part. That company has a pure LCT fleet. Other notable operators are Tris-Star Megalink (although their design have evolved already) which connects Negros and Panay island through the Bacolod-Dumangas route. Starhorse Shipping Lines which started in the Marinduque routes also had LCTs in their start. Lite Ferries which is active in Central Visayas and northern Mindanao also uses many LCT and lately they have been acquiring those from China. Recently, a new shipping company touting the LCT came, the Orange Navigation of Baleno Shipping that has lost half its fleet to maritime accidents and which decided on the cheap LCT as replacement. Island Shipping, meanwhile, disposed of it basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and cruisers and invested in LCTs built right there in its Hagnaya base, There are also other small operators of passenger-cargo LCTs aside from the six mentioned.

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An Orange Navigation LCT by Jon Erodias of PSSS.

However, there is a problem now with the passenger-cargo LCTs and that is its lack of sophistication which means the passengers have to unnecessarily put it with them. That might be okay in the earlier days when we still lacked short-distance ROROs but times have already changed and so the LCT should also evolve.

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An Island Shipping LCT by Karl Sabuga of PSSS.

LCTs clearly lack passenger space and amenities and it is generally hot because the metal of the superstructure is just too near. They do not have the passageway at the sides of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which keeps the sunlight away from the passengers.

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Late-model Lite Ferries LCTs by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS.

The LCTs are also bugged by lack of speed because of the shape of the hull (they are flat-bottomed) and generally they are underpowered. When the LCT was designed, speed was never one of the considerations. They were just designed to chug along and carry the cargo cheaply to unprepared docking areas. While short-distance ferries will sail at 10-12 knots, LCTs generally sail at 7-8 knots. Passengers have to put up with such deficiencies and for what? The same level of fares and rolling cargo.

I would argue that to be fair, operators of LCTs should charge lower rates, a discounted one. For them to charge the same with lower acquisition and operational costs means all those advantages just accrue to them and none for the passengers and shippers. One cannot say they have a choice because there is such a thing as time slot in shipping (and also two-hour separation in departure times in many ports) and the passengers and shippers would wait for hours just to wait for a better ride. MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency should also take note of this.

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A Tri-Star Megalink ferry evolved from the LCT by Tristan Lirasan by PSSS

I commend the efforts of Tri-Star Megalink’s evolution of their LCTs into ferries already alike that of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.  Those are already faster, the bridges were move forward and so the passenger accommodation  were enlarged and an air-conditioned Tourist section is already standard. That’s the way it should be. There should be progress.

Meanwhile, Montenegro Shipping Lines pioneered the use of Korean hybrid LCTs like the Reina Justisya and the Reina Banderada which are fast for an LCT (because the power is higher) and do not have any more the hull of an LCT. Those even have bulbous bows. But the superstructures of those are not yet extended.

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A modernized LCT of Starhorse Shipping Lines. Photo by MJay Muyo of PSSS.

Lately, however, in a good development starting in 2018, Korean-type LCTs with extended superstructure and bulbous bows started arriving in the Philippines. This was represented by the Virgen de Penafrancia IX and Virgen de Penafrancia X of the Starhorse Shipping Lines of Lucena. In the same year, with the acquisition of a shipyard in Lucena, Montenegro Shipping Lines rolled out the new-build Santa Carmelita to be followed by the Santa Soledad, another new-build this year. Not to be outdone, Starhorse Shipping Lines is bringing anytime to the country their new Korean-built Virgen de Penafrancia XI.

On the other hand, the big Lite Ferries of Cebu which is beginning to dominate the short-distance routes in Central Visayas still have the traditional LCTs and lately they have been acquiring surplus and new-build LCTs from China. Lite Ferries also have LCTs just used for cargo including rolling cargo.

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An improved LCT by Montenegro Shipping Lines. Photo by Carl Jakosalem of PSSS.

There is now a new type of ship, the Cargo RORO LCT, the Philippine version of the RORO Cargo ships of Europe but much less sophisticated. They now serve as truck carriers in the busiest short sea crossings in the country and this segment is actually growing fast. A version of this serves as container van carrier from Manila to selected major ports in the Visayas and Mindanao to as far as Davao. In this role, the LCTs deficiency is minimized because what is mainly carried are trucks and its crew which is already used to the harsh realities of the road.

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A Cargo RORO LCT. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

I think in due time LCTs should already be phased out in the passenger-cargo trade. Otherwise, the operators should strive to improve them and not just build the same model that was practically unchanged since 1945.

Our passengers deserve better now.

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The Masbate-Pio Duran Route and How It Grew

The last time I was in Masbate City and that was last year, I have already observed that this new competing route is already dominating the old connection by RORO to the Bicol mainland or peninsula and that is the Masbate to Pilar, Sorsogon route although it is a longer route and people of Masbate except for Burias island have no normal connection with Albay.

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Masbate Port by Mike Baylon of PSSS

The leading shipping company in the route, the combined Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and Penafrancia Shipping Corporation, can already field three ROROs there and mind you those are not basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs but the size of small overnight ferries. Plus they also have a Cargo RORO LCT for the trucks because in the ROROs the priority are the buses because they carry passengers. Besides there is also a new competitor in the route, the CAVS Transport Services whose second RORO has just arrived.

In terms of capacity, that of the Masbate-Pio Duran route is already well ahead of the Masbate-Pilar, Sorsogon route because only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs or Korean hybrid LCTs can be accommodated there because of the shallow depth of the port although there are also High Speed Crafts (HSCs) in that particular route plus many big motor bancas which is in decline already although they are very friendly and accommodating (and it seems they are no longer reinvesting for fear of phase-out).

When the route first opened a few years ago, I did not expect such growth of the intermodal can happen. I had my doubts as the Masbate-Pio Duran route is longer than the Masbate-Pilar route and I know that if the rates of the new route are far off that the old route then it would just die as the vehicle owners and crews will stick to the old but cheaper one which is already familiar to them although the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs  of the old are less comfortable. Now, using faster ROROs meant that the transit time of the new route is just the same that of the old route.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

But Sta. Clara Shipping, the primary company really knows its salt as shown by their history. The mantra really is how to encourage the buses to cross. Buses are a different breed because they have passengers and that is a multiplier of revenues whether there rebates or there is none. And Sta. Clara Shipping knows how to encourage that by many kinds of incentives (and that even having to provide the bus crew with a good meal) and the buses just came and came. Soon, the intermodal trucks found that the route through Masbate is a good alternative to Luzon from Cebu rather than using the longer route via Samar and Leyte islands.

The development  was a resounding slap to the pioneering Archipelago Philippine Ferries (better know as the Maharlika ferries) which did not last in the Masbate to Bicol route via Bulan in Sorsogon although they are horizontally integrated as in one person owns the bus and the ship. Who says Economics books are always right? With incentives the RORO is full and that is the critical thing. What is the use of a RORO without incentives if it is not even half-full?

Early on, a new shipping company in the route, the Medallion Transport Inc. of Cebu and Leyte had a misstep as fate played games. Not long after they opened the route, their Lady of Carmel sank at night while on the way to Masbate from Pio Duran. That happened near Burias island in 2013. At its peak Medallion Transport had two basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs in the route and they even named the ship that sank as “Barko Masbateno”.

Medallion Transport then lost their foothold in the route as the policy of the Masbate provincial government is they won’t let a shipping company continue sailing until and unless the shipping company settle first its obligations to the victims of the tragedy. That was actually the reason too why Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) lost its Masbate to Lucena, Quezon route when their Maria Carmela caught fire in Pagbilao Bay near the end of its route.

Meanwhile, the original route of Sta. Clara Shipping/Penafrancia Shipping was actually Pasacao, Camarines Sur to Masbate City, a far longer route and they started it in the habagat (Southwest monsoon) and early on they had a scare there and with that and the unfeasibility of the route they decided to transfer to the Pio Duran to Masbate City route. With no competition and the right strategy they soon flourished. The buses flourished too and the Manila bus passengers benefited also. What lost were the local buses and jeeps (since the passengers are already aboard the intermodal buses) and the big motor bancas were impacted too. But then that is how the world goes. Some gain, some lose but change will always be there.

The Pio Duran port which was a very basic port before in an out-of-the-way place is now improved and expanded. The port back-up area was expanded and there is now a passenger terminal building. However, like before the berths will not be enough for the ferries in the route because in the dawn and early morning all the ROROs will be there in Pio Duran port. Masbate port has no such problem as it has been continuously expanded over the years.

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Photo by Mike Baylon of PSSS

In this route, the ROROs leave Pio Duran port from dawn till breakfast time. It is the buses that dictate that as the buses leave Manila from noon till late afternoon and the travel time from Manila is up to 12 hours. In Masbate port the ROROs depart starting 10am until 2pm because they have to wait for the buses from its starting points in the far Masbate towns. These buses have contracts already with the shipping companies in Masbate and so the ferry waits for them even if they are delayed. The policy is no bus will be left behind either way because they have passengers. Clearly, trucks are second priority but there is now a Cargo RORO LCT to cater to them although it is a slow ride because it is an LCT.

What is the future of this route? If the past is any indication and the progress is linear then I expect more traffic in the route in the future and both Masbate and Pio Duran ports will further gain in importance and improve. Maybe more companies will be sailing and that can lessen the rates in the route like what is now happening in the Cebu to Leyte routes.

Whatever, I see a rosy future for this route. By the way, this is not the route that was promoted in the SRNH of Gloria. Well, sometimes the best of plans is not what turns out to be. Pio Duran port graduated from being just a port to Burias island to being a busy port and that is good. And being a port under the PPA, the national government will back its expansion unlike the competing Pilar port which is a municipal port ran by the LGU (and so they collect its expensive passenger fees but the onus for its development is supposedly borne by the municipality).

Whatever, let’s be glad that this route came into being and it flourished.