The Trucks and The Completion of the South Road Sank the Passenger-Cargo Ships to Bicol

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Shipping Guide of Philippine Herald of Dec. 10, 1938 from Gorio Belen

In the past there were passenger-cargo ships from Manila whose route were ports in the Bicol peninsula. It was numerous before the war because in that period the Bicol Line of the railways was not yet connected to the South Line (it was only connected in 1938 and was dynamited at the start of the Pacific War).

After the war there were again passenger-cargo ships sailing to Bicol mainland ports but not as numerous before the war (because the Bicol Line of the railways was again connected to the South Line and there were plenty of rolling stock left by the US Army). These ship usually called on many Bicol ports on its voyage with Larap port in Camarines Norte the farthest port (which means the ship rounds almost the entire Bicol peninsula). Madrigal Shipping, however, had a route to Bicol that go round northern Luzon(what a long route!).

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Among the other Bicol ports where ships from Manila called were J. Panganiban and Mercedes (in Camarines Norte), Tandoc (in Camarines Sur), Virac (in Catanduanes), Tabaco and Legazpi (both in Albay)and Bulan, Casiguran and Sorsogon (all in Sorsogon). Also among the Bicol ports where postwar Bicol ships called was Masbate. Before the war there were other Bicol ports served by passenger-cargo ships from Manila like Rio de Guinobatan, Aroroy, Pilar, Donsol, Gubat, Nato, Lagonoy, Paracale, etc.

Some of these passenger-cargo ships also called in northern Samar ports before pivoting and going to eastern Bicol ports. These ships were not big as many were just former “FS” and former “Y” ships. The others that were not were just of the same size. At the postwar peak of these Bicol routes the backbone of the local passenger inter-island fleet were just ex-”FS” ships anyway. Besides the cargo was not really that big because the ships were in competition with the railways which was faster than them.

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A former “FS” ship that once had a route to Bicol (from the research of Gorio Belen)

Among the shipping companies that served Bicol, initially the most prominent was Madrigal Shipping which were mainly using former “Y” ships. Philippine President Lines served Bicol when they started in 1960 but it did not last long. Among the minor shipping companies that had routes to Bicol were North Camarines Norte Lumber which later became NORCAMCO and NCL. Others that served Bicol were N&S Lines, Rodrigueza Shipping, South Sea Shipping, Mabuhay Shipping and Eastern Shipping Company (though not all at the same time).

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From Manila Times, 6/7/67; Gorio Belen research in the National Library

How come then that these Bicol ships survived against the faster trains which had four freight trains to Bicol daily at its peak? The reason is the train only goes up to Legazpi. All the ports in Bicol served by the passenger-cargo ships to Bicol except for Legazpi were not served by the trains. As for transfers, trucks were very few in that era. And pilferage and robbery were very rampant in the trains and in its stations.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

Trucks, in the first 30 years after the war were not a viable way to ship to Bicol. The South Road (the original name of the road going to Bicol) was not only bad. It was atrocious. Practically, only ALATCO then can complete that route then as they had many stations along the way where checks can be made and repairs performed as they have mechanics and parts in those stations. They also had tow trucks and their vehicles had regular runs and so breakdowns can be reported (most towns then do not have telephones yet; what they had were telegraphs).

Things however changed sometime in 1975 when the South Road was already nearly complete. Trucks (and buses) began to roll. And the new cemented highway extended up to Bulan. Suddenly, the speeds was faster and breakdowns became few. Where before ALATCO took two days for the Manila-Larap-Tabaco run, now the Manila-Bulan run took only a night of travel even though it passes via Camarines Norte.

These trucks can make direct deliveries to Camarines Norte, the Partido area of Camarines Sur, Tabaco and Tiwi (site of the geothermal plant) and Sorsogon, which formerly were not served by the railways. Moreover, because of the Mayon Volcano eruption of 1968 the railway service to Legazpi was also cut (the new train terminus was just Camalig).

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From go.bicol.com

In the late 1970’s the shipping lines to Bicol were already under very great pressure by the trucks (and also by the buses which also carry some cargo). I think what broke the camel’s back was the emergence of the express trucks in Bicol sometime in 1976. These trucks really run very fast because they carry the newspapers to Bicol. From the first editions of the newspapers that rolled out of the presses at 10pm the previous night, they were expected to be in Naga by daybreak (after offloading papers and cargo for Daet) and continue to Legazpi and arrive there before the start of office hours while making deliveries in the towns along the way. These trucks will barrel their way again to Manila the next night irregardless of the volume of cargo. Before the end of the decade, these express trucks were already ubiquitous in Bicol.

In 1979, Luzon and Visayas were finally connected intermodally between Matnog and Allen by Cardinal Shipping. Trucks and buses began to roll to Eastern Visayas and they can do the trip in no more than a day and they ran daily. The liner companies from Manila which had combined routes to Samar and Bicol suddenly saw the bottoms fell out of them because the trucks and buses were beating them badly in both areas. By 1980, the shipping lines serving Bicol were already on its death throes.

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From the research of Gorio Belen in the National Library

That was how the Bicol shipping lines lost to the trucks and buses. The completed of highway was now called as the Maharlika Highway. Incidentally, in the same period the railways also began to sink too due to the relentless onslaught of the buses and the trucks.

Yes, things always change. Some rise, some lose.

The Short-Lived Return of Madrigal Shipping Company to Passenger Shipping

The Madrigal Shipping Company is a shipping company with a long history although few are still familiar with the name. They started before World War II with the name Madrigal & Company and was probably the Philippines biggest shipping company at that time if listing is limited to Filipinos. However, they were mostly in cargo shipping unlike the rival Compania Maritima of the Fernandezes which concentrated on passenger shipping. The founder of the company, Vicente Madrigal was considered the top Filipino industrialist-businessman then by the reckoning of many and probably is the richest Filipino then. He was also politically very well connected to Malacanang and is a political heavyweight himself being a Senator of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. The Madrigal Shipping Company was connected to the many businesses of Vicente Madrigal and it moved their goods like abaca (Manila hemp), coal, ore, copra and also sugar. However, when World War II happened Madrigal Shipping Company lost their entire fleet save for one. Most were captured by the Japanese which were then subsequently lost to American attacks.

After World War II, the company was renamed to Madrigal Shipping Company and started shipping again in 1946. The company has a mixed passenger-cargo and cargo fleet and the latter has the bigger ships. The passenger-cargo ships of the company was smaller and it might have something to do with the routes it was sailing. Madrigal Shipping Company concentrated its branch of passenger shipping on routes to Bicol and Northern Luzon. The route to Bicol would extend to as far as Larap port in Jose Panganiban town in Camarines Norte and the Northern Luzon route would call on Salomague (in Ilocos Sur), Batanes and Aparri. They also had a passenger-cargo ship that would go round the entire Luzon starting from Manila to Northern Luzon before proceeding to Bicol ports and round the Sorsogon tip of Luzon on the way back to Manila.

The passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company cannot be called luxury liners by any means as they were simply basic passenger-cargo ships. They can even be described as primarily cargo ships with passenger accommodations and the accommodations are generally of one class only, the Economy class. Half of their passenger fleet consisted of former “Y” ships, the smaller cousin of the ex-”FS” ships which were former tankers. In the postwar shipping fleet of the Philippines only they and Luzon Stevedoring Company (LUSTEVECO) operated ex-”Y” ships but the latter operated them as they were originally were – as tankers. In Madrigal Shipping Company, their ex-”Y” ships were converted in passenger-cargo ships with cargo holds. These ex-”Y” ships seemed to be the replacement ships for the Madrigal ships commandeered by the US for the war effort. The other half of the postwar passenger-cargo fleet of Madrigal Shipping Company consisted of old ships from Europe. The company has a penchant for buying old ships from Europe just like another major shipping company, the Manila Steamship Company.

In 1955, in the aftermath of the capsizing and sinking in Babuyan Channel of their ex-”Y” ship Cetus which was trying to beat a typhoon, Madrigal Shipping Corporation sold all their ex-”Y” ships to North Camarines Lumber Company (no typographic error; this is also a shipping company). I wonder if this has a connection to their reputed superstitiousness. However, it was a favorable sale from the Bicol point of view since North Camarines Lumber Company also has the same passenger routes to Bicol and so no ship was lost on that region. Maybe Madrigal Shipping Company made sure of that as the patriarch Vicente Madrigal was actually born in Bicol and had many businesses there.

However, they held on to their other passenger-cargo ships but of course their routes and frequencies were affected by the sale since they did not purchase replacement passenger-cargo ships. In cargo shipping they were still strong and still buying cargo ships but in passenger-cargo shipping this sale of ex-”Y” heralded their slow retreat. This retreat might also be in anticipation of paradigm changes. Even in those days it is easy to foresee that the rail and the trucks will challenge the ship in Luzon in due time. Being in politics (the daughter Pacita of Vicente Madrigal succeeded him in the Senate) and conversant with government plans they might even have the inside track in foreseeing the future. By the 1970’s only one passenger-cargo ship was still sailing for Madrigal Shipping Company, the Viria and before the end of that decade they were already out of passenger shipping. However, the cargo shipping of the company remained but it also declined in due time. It however sprang a surprise later when together with a Taiwan shipping company it bid for the state-owned National Shipping Company of the Philippines which was then being privatized.

In 1988, to the welcome surprise of many Madrigal Shipping Company came back to passenger shipping as the A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. This time it was truly liner shipping and not just like the basic passenger-cargo shipping of before. They did that when they fielded the Madrigal Tacloban in 1988 (this was later known as the Madrigal Romblon), the Madrigal Surigao in 1989 and the Madrigal Masbate in 1990. The notable thing about the three is they were all cruiser ferries and the negative thing is by that time nobody is buying or fielding cruiser ferries anymore because it was already obsolescent and the RORO (Roll On, Roll Off) ships have already proven their superiority over the cruisers (well, maybe not in safety or stability).

The first two ships were actually sister ships named the Tai Shan and the Nam Shan and they were originally Hongkong ferries. They were acquired by A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. as bareboat charter with option to purchase from Cortes Shipping of Zamboanga. Tai Shan became the Madrigal Tacloban here while Nam Shan became the Madrigal Surigao. Madrigal Tacloban‘s applied route was Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban while Madrigal Surigao‘s applied route was Manila-Maasin-Surigao. It was also a welcome move by many since these routes are exactly the same routes just recently vacated by Escano Lines which went out of passenger shipping (they however stuck to cargo-container shipping).

However, some shipping lines including Sulpicio Lines Incorporated and Aboitiz Shipping Company opposed their applications because of the so-called “prior operator” rule which was the usual “basis” for opposing a new entrant to a route. Actually, the two mentioned shipping companies were fearful because A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc.’s ships were better than their ships in those routes (however, Aboitiz Shipping Company had long ago abandoned their Catbalogan and Tacloban route). And besides Sulpicio Lines Inc. had no Catbalogan/Tacloban ship at that moment because of the sinking of Dona Paz. But however the opposition at the start, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was eventually allowed by MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency to sail the applied routes.

Even then, there was actually already a problem in these routes as these are also the same routes slowly being threatened already by the intermodal trucks and buses borne by the short-distance ferry-ROROs that were already serving as the “bridges of the sea”. Maybe this was the reason behind what was cited by Aboitiz Shipping Company that they experienced a 60% drop in passenger volume. However, as cruisers that can’t carry much cargo (they were even described as “pure cargo”) maybe Madrigal Shipping Company thought that won’t be much of a problem for them. Maybe they were just intent on beating the competition with superior ships, in their view. Their ships have more beautiful lines anyway. And as bare-boat charters their risk is not high as they can just return the ships if they did not turn in a profit.

Madrigal Tacloban (Madrigal Romblon) and Madrigal Surigao were sister ships and both were built by Niigata Shipbuilding & Repair Incorporated in Niigata, Japan in 1972. The two both measured 78.6 meters by 12.1 meters by 5.6 meters in L x B x D. The LPP was 70.0 meters but Madrigal Surigao had a higher GT at 2,147 while Madrigal Tacloban had 2,136. The NT was 1,035 and the DWT was 312 tons. Both had two masts and two passenger decks on a steel hull with semi-bulbous stem and a retrouvaille stern. They were not equipped with cargo booms. The sister ships were both equipped with twin Niigata diesel engines with a combined 5,100 horsepower that propelled them to a top speed of 17.5 knots. The two ships looked identical.

Another ferry, the Madrigal Masbate came to A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. from Taiwan Navigation Company Ltd. of Taipei but this ship was actually homeported in Kaohsiung. This was a beautiful ship with magnificent and modern lines that was built as the Tai Peng by Hayashikane Shipbuilding and Engineering Company Limited in their Nagasaki shipyard in Japan in 1971. The ship measured 77.5 meters by 12.6 meters by 5.5. meters with an LPP of 70.0 meters. She had a GT of 1,992, an NT of 743 and a DWT of 474 tons. The ship had two masts, two passenger decks with a steel hull with a raked stem and a cruiser stern. She was powered by a single Kobe Hatsudoki marine engine of 4,900 horsepower which gave her a top speed of 17 knots.

When all three were already sailing, the renamed Madrigal Tacloban which was now Madrigal Romblon was doing the Manila-Odiongan-Malay (this is better known as Caticlan now) route. Meanwhile, Madrigal Surigao was running the Manila-Odiongan-Maasin-Surigao route. And it was Madrigal Masbate which was sailing the Manila-Catbalogan-Tacloban route. Although they were already set by 1990, the Madrigal ferries, however, did not sail long. This was already the era when more liners were coming fast including great liners with four passenger decks, a passenger capacity of well over 2,000 with a true gross tonnage of 10,000 and over and of speeds nearing 20 knots and with hotel-like accommodations, amenities and service.

And A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. was unlucky to bet in routes that were already being eaten up by the intermodal form of transport where trucks, buses and private vehicles are transported between island by the short-distance ferry-ROROs and whose travel times are shorter with flexibility of routes and ubiquity of departures. Moreover to some former ship passengers travelling by intermodal bus it is a new adventure and tourism too to places they have never seen before. To the traders and shippers, the intermodal option meant no more hassles with North Harbor port and the crooked Manila policemen. That also meant no more pilferage and delays and they are no longer at the mercy of the arrastre.

After just a few years, A.P. Madrigal Steamship Co., Inc. quit passenger shipping (however, they were still in cargo shipping). The sister ships Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were sold to the breakers and they were broken up in 1994. It was an early death as the ships were only 22 years old. It was also a premature death because if they waited a little longer they might have gone to Sampaguita Shipping Lines which soon geared up to buy former liners to be used in the then-developing Zamboanga-Pagadian route and the Zamboanga-Jolo or Bongao route. They would have better choices than the ships they acquired from WG&A, the former Tacloban City and the former Iligan City as they were newer and have sailed far less nautical miles.

Madrigal Masbate was far luckier than the sisters. In 1994, another Zamboanga shipping company that was buying better overnight ferries (and the shortcut to that is to buy hand-me-down liners), the SKT Shipping Line (later the Kong San Teo shipping company or KST Shipping Line) purchased the laid-up Masbate Madrigal. She was fielded in the premier route to the east Zamboanga then, the Zamboanga-Pagadian route. Appropriately, she was named the Pagadian City. She was by far the best ship in the route, the most beautiful and the most gorgeous ever to call on Pagadian port, as the locals would concede and included in the comparison were the Manila liners which called on Pagadian port in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Zamboanga City was actually a beehive of acquiring new ferries in the mid-1990’s including new-build fastcrafts. They actually had the most acquisitions of Malaysian fastcrafts then which was equal in number to the Cebu HSCs. Bullet Express and Weesam Express plus the fastcraft Sea Jet actually all originated in Zamboanga and just migrated to the Visayas. In 1996, the latter great Aleson Shipping Lines of Zamboanga was also gearing up. It was actually a dogfight then in Zamboanga between Sampaguita Shipping Lines, SKT Shipping Lines and Aleson Shipping which was latter won by the latest-named. Too unfortunate Madrigal Romblon and Madrigal Surigao were not snagged up in Zamboanga then.

After this episode, Madrigal never went back to liner shipping again. Well, I hope they will try again. After all we have almost no liners left now. They will be applauded this time if they do.

[Photo Credit: Manila Bulletin through Gorio Belen]