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.

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MORETA Shipping Lines

Moreta Shipping Lines is a shipping company based in Manila that was founded by Dr. Segundo Moreno of Quezon City and his family. It was originally an overnight ferry company based in Pier 6 of North Harbor that took over the Manila-Occidental Mindoro connection of William Lines. It is an open secret that the Morenos acknowledge their debt of gratitude to William Lines for their start in shipping. For Occidental Mindoro the transfer was a gift because they did not lose their ferry connection to Manila and they still retained their steel ship. The province then had motor boat (“batel”) connections but those did not follow fixed schedules and those beset by accidents. That time there were still no buses from Manila to the province and intermodal trucks were few as the roads and bridges of Occidental Mindoro were very primitive and vehicles have pass through river beds and flooded roads.
In the early days, the island of Mindoro has robust connections to Manila aside from connections to Batangas. Several shipping companies like William Lines, General Shipping, Philippine Steam Navigation Company, Aboitiz Shipping Company, Mabuhay Shipping, Javellana Shipping, Tan Pho, Compania Maritima, North Camarines Lumber (later NORCAMCO), Rio y Compania, South Sea Shipping and Galaxy Lines have routes to several ports in Mindoro like Tilik, Sablayan, Mangarin (later San Jose), Calapan, Pinamalayan and Roxas. Some of these passenger-cargo ships were still on the way to more distant ports in Palawan, Panay, Romblon, Eastern Visayas and Bicol and were treating Mindoro as intermediate port. These ships served as overnight ferries from Manila to Mindoro and almost all were converted ex-FS ships. Aside from these ships, wooden motor boats also connected Mindoro from Manila. These called on the main ports but these also went to smaller ports like Mamburao and Puerto Galera.
William Lines was the only liner company that remained in Mindoro when the 1990’s came (that was the time when rhe ranks of the liner companies have thinned and Batangas was already the main connection to the island). They were alternating the ex-FS ships Don Jose I and Edward and serving Tilik (in Lubang island) and Sablayan in a combined route and San Jose (the former Mangarin) in a separate route and schedule. It was the Edward that last plied a route to Mindoro. By this time the ex-FS ships were already on their last legs after sailing the seas for 47 years. Actually from about 70 ex-FS ships in its earlier years by the 1990 only half-a-dozen were still actively sailing and sickly ones were already donating parts to the still-sailing ones.

M/V Edward of William Lines ©Gorio Belen

William Lines, then in a tight struggle against Sulpicio Lines for the title “Numero 1” was in a midst of liner refleeting to RORO from cruiser while at the same time investing in new container ships. It seems to them reinvesting in a small route detracts from their main vista of their future and so they decided to withdraw from Mindoro like what the other liner companies did before them. To their credit, they helped prepare the transition so Mindoro will not be isolated and they helped pave the way for the emergence of their route successor, the newly-established Moreta Shipping Lines.

In 1992 the first ship of the new company, the Nikki arrived and William Lines and the ship Edward bowed out of the Mindoro shipping scene. Unlike Edward and Don Jose I, the Nikki was a RORO or more exactly a ROPAX. Though a ROPAX she however seldom carried rolling cargo and not even a container van used at the start. They were just doing loose cargo loading using porters and palletized loading using forklifts like the overnight ferry ships of Cebu. Well, even with this kind of loading it is an advance over the booms and porters of the ex-FS ships. Just the same unloading especially in Mindoro takes several hours and up to almost noontime.

M/V Nikki ©Irvine Kinea

Moreta Shipping Lines decided to just retain the Tilik and San Jose routes but separately. With that the Lumangbayan port of Sablayan suddenly almost became a port to nowhere and the only call came from the irregular motor boat from Manila and the twice a week Viva Shipping Lines motor boat from Batangas. Edward was sorely missed there. I have noticed that ports that lost liner connections and became desolate exhibit withdrawal symptoms and old folks sigh and fondly remembers when the old ships were still calling in their place. I found that out in my visits to Lumangbayan and Tayamaan port in Mamburao (now Lumangbayan is again an active port and improved).

Nikki and Moreta Shipping Lines were warmly embraced by Occidental Mindoro as a worthy successor. It was a plus that the Nikki was more modern, bigger and has an airconditioned Tourist section and real bunks. Though slow she was not slower than the ex-FS ships. The only regret of Mindorenos was the Tilik-Sablayan route was lost and so going to Lubang island which was part of Mindoro means going to Manila first before going back to Lubang. Lubang island became more distant to their mother province.

With their shipping growing Moreta Shipping Lines purchased their second vessel in 1994, the Kimelody Cristy, a bigger, faster and better ROPAX than the Nikki. She was assigned the San Jose route three times a week while Nikki concentrated on the Tilik route. Kimelody Cristy was a better handler of the sometimes-nasty South China Sea swells especially during ‘habagat’ (the southwest monsoon). She was even a better-loved ship in San Jose and with more cargo capacity to boot which was needed by San Jose merchants (the town is almost like a provincial city and the main trading center of Mindoro Strait area) which source their goods from Divisoria and Binondo.

But Kimelody Cristy was not a lucky ship for long. Cruising off the coast of Batangas on the early hours of December 13, 1995, she was hit by fire and explosions. She did not sink but the fire consumed the ship and casualties of at least 14 dead and several wounded ensued. The ship was no longer repaired and she did not sail again.

Kimelody Cristy ©Manila Standard/Gorio Belen

As usual, in the kneejerk reaction culture of the Philippines, accusations of “floating coffins”, “old ships”, “lax enforcement of maritime rules” flew thick and fast immediately. I found it funny that the governor of Occidental Mindoro which just a few months before was hailing Moreta Shipping Lines’ contributions to her province suddenly did a pirouette and began blasting the shipping company too so she won’t be accused of being “lax” on Moreta and so she had to “cry for blood” too.

But as usual, all these things come to pass in the Philippines in a classic “ningas-cogon” (grassfire) fashion and in a short time after the dead are buried “everything is back to normal”. In the same year 1995, even before the Kimelody Cristy burned to a crisp the ferry Conchita of Moreta Shipping Lines has already arrived and she became the permanent replacement of the ill-fated ship. Conchita was a slightly bigger ship than Kimelody Cristy but similar in many respects. The loss of Kimelody Cristy did not really mean Moreta Shipping Lines lacked ships.

M/V Conchita ©Rodney Orca

Way back in the mid-1990s there was already talk of the shipping threat from Batangas. Even to a not-so-keen observer the advantage of the intermodal truck which can make direct deliveries to customers is palpable. It was obvious the only thing holding them back were the very primitive infrastructure of Occidental Mindoro. With the Ramos administration policy of deregulation of the shipping industry players based in Batangas were beginning to mushroom.

Over the next years the combined intermodal and short-distance ferry threat to Moreta Shipping Lines increased as the roads and bridges began to be built and the road connection between the two provinces of Mindoro slowly began to take shape. In 2003, the Roxas-Caticlan sea route materialized and it had a fundamental impact on the sea and intermodal patterns in the area. By this time intermodal buses from Manila were already rolling to Occidental Mindoro via the Wawa port in Abra de Ilog town and rolling down to Sablayan and San Jose and even up to Magsaysay town and with them were trucks including the versatile and powerful wing van trucks.

I wonder if Moreta Shipping Line misread or did not understand the intermodal threat. Maybe they can be forgiven as even the leading shipping company then, the WG&A/2GO failed to understand it too. It’s really hard just sitting around in Manila and not going to Batangas, Calapan, Roxas, Caticlan, Matnog, Allen, Liloan, Lipata, Dumangas, Dapitan, Toledo, San Carlos, Tubigon, Samboan, Amlan, Bogo, Masbate, etc. With declining overnight ferry traffic in Occidental Mindoro they tried a Panay route to Dumaguit and Roxas City by using the Love-1 they purchased in 2004. It seems they never suspected that soon Panay island will be almost completely taken over by the intermodal transport system.

Love-1 ©Edison Sy

Love-1 is a nice ship, a near-liner masquerading as an overnight ferry. But it was not enough to change the reality that in a parallel route the intermodal transport system will defeat liner and container shipping (well, this is not understood too by Japanese shipping experts too and they are advising our maritime and port agencies through JICA, and maybe wrongly). And so the foray of Moreta Shipping Line to Panay island was not a success and soon they found themselves sailing fewer and fewer routes and schedules and their ships began to have days just anchored idle in North Harbor.

Moreta Cargo 1 ©Mike Baylon

Maybe Moreta Shipping Line was able to read the handwriting on the wall and ventured into Palawan using pure container shipping starting in 2009 by acquiring the Moreta Cargo 1. This was followed by Moreta Cargo 2 and Moreta Cargo 3, both in 2010 and they added new container routes. With their old passenger-cargo routes getting moribund and dying they began selling their ROPAXes starting with their oldest ship by Date of Build (DOB), the Conchita which was sold to Besta Shipping Lines in 2011. Next to be disposed was the Nikki which went to Medallion Transport in 2012. Last to be disposed in 2013 was the beautiful Love-1 which was part of a package deal to Medallion Transport.

Moreta Cargo 2 ©John Cabanillas

With these disposals Moreta Shipping Lines further strengthened its container shipping fleet and acquired the Moreta Cargo 5 in 2012 and Moreta Venture in 2013. Now the shipping company has a pure cargo fleet and it is noteworthy how they were to build it in a short time. More routes were added and now they have container shipping not only to Puerto Princesa but also to Dumaguit, Roxas City, Iloilo, Bacolod and Cagayan de Oro. Ironically, they are now gone in the ports of call in Mindoro where they started from.

Moreta Cargo 3 ©Irvine Kinea
Moreta Cargo 5 ©Mike Baylon