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.

 

 

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The Bogo Connection to Masbate

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Photo credits: Philippine Herald and Gorio Belen

In the old days, the Cebu connection to Masbate went from Cebu port. And among those that provided that connection were liner companies whose ships pass by Masbate first before heading to Cebu and northern Mindanao and from there their liners will retrace back the route. That is gone now and the last Manila liner that provided such connection was the Cebu Princess of Sulpicio Lines which stopped sailing in the aftermath of the Princess of the Stars‘ sinking in a typhoon in 2008. However, until a few months ago there were a ROPAX Cargo ship, the Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation that was running a route from Batangas to Cebu (Mandaue actually) and Cagayan de Oro via Masbate.

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Photo Credit: Wakanatsu

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Trans-Asia Shipping Lines also had an overnight ferry route from Cebu to Masbate since almost 40 years ago. That is gone now too, a victim of the decline of their fleet and now it is only Cokaliong Shipping Lines that has a Cebu-Masbate passenger service but it only runs once a week. Also long gone was the Palacio Lines’ route from Cebu to Placer, Masbate. But still around is the Lapu-lapu Shipping Lines’ route from Cebu to Cataingan, Masbate which is usually run by their Lapu-lapu Ferry 1, a cruiser ship.

In the past, wooden motor boats also did routes from various ports in Masbate to northern Cebu using the ports of Hagnaya, Maya and Polambato. The three are in San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Bogo towns, respectively. However, from the 1980’s, MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency, consistently pressured the wooden motor boats (the lancha) to retire citing them as “obsolete” and “unsafe”. Some had their franchises revoked and that practically ended the lives of the shipping companies owning them (many operate wooden motor boats because they can’t afford to buy steel-hulled ferries).

MARINA was so successful in that campaign that no motor boats still do a Cebu-Masbate route. What remained were the big passenger-cargo motor bancas which run until now (maybe these are “modern” and “safer” than the phased-out motor boats?). These motor bancas originate from Cawayan, Placer, Esperanza and Pio V. Corpus towns in Masbate. The eastern portion of Masbate island, by the way, is actually Cebuano-speaking and their economic tether is to Cebu. Their motor boats connect their people and their goods to Cebu. Some of their scions actually study in Cebu, too, and work there later on.

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Polambato port (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

This was the state of things when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo pushed her Central Nautical Highway which pushed for ROROs. Since the nearest Maya port was in disrepair and there are issues of depth, the port of Polambato was designated as the connecting RORO port to Masbate. That was a two-birds-in-one-stone move as Polambato was already the connecting port to nothern Leyte via the Palompon port (it still is until now). So only one RORO port had two be developed for two routes. Neat but a route from Polambato is longer than a route from Maya port.

On the side of Masbate, two ports were offered as connection, the port of Cawayan on the southern side of Masbate island and the port of Cataingan on the southeastern end on the island in the protected Cataingan Bay. Cataingan port is the logical choice since it is actually the best port in eastern Masbate as it is considered the district port and it lies in a protected bay. In the past, it was a home of motor boats going to Cebu. It also has a shorter road distance to Masbate City, the main economic center of Masbate province and the take-off port of Masbate to the Bicol mainland. There was also an attempt for a two-birds-in-one-stone move there as Cataingan was also declared to be the Masbate port that will connect to Naval, Biliran and Leyte island.

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Cawayan port (Photo credit: Noel de Mesa)

Cawayan port, meanwhile, is a bit more distant from Masbate City and when the RORO route was opened its roads were in a worse state compared to the Cataingan-Masbate road which was at least asphalted though beginning to crack (now, however the roads of the two towns to Masbate are already improved). And in the Cataingan-Masbate road there are more towns and hence more commerce, more sources of produce and of course, passengers. But how come they still built the Cawayan RORO port? Well, maybe there was politics (I don’t know just where) and Gloria was actually too fond then of duplicate ports. It brings more income to you-know-where. So it was actually a one-bird-with-two-stones maneuver.

I also just wonder about the fate of Placer port on the southern side of Masbate island. In the past, Placer was the connecting port of the southern side of Masbate island to Cebu City. It is even closer to Bogo than Cawayan (or even Cataingan) and the RORO will be less broadsided by the habagat and amihan waves in that route. They said there is an issue with the port with regards to depth but it was never clear to me (again was there politics?). Whatever, Cawayan won out over Placer and that was that. One’s fate and progress can really just be decided in an instant in Manila and NEDA, the validator of projects is actually just a stamp pad.

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Cataingan port

Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cataingan route. Among its early clients were its own ROROBus intermodal buses doing a Manila-Cebu route via Masbate. Meanwhile, it was the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) that pioneered the Polambato (Bogo) to Cawayan route with their Super Shuttle Ferry 19, a double-ended ferry. Montenegro Lines used a rotation of ferries in the Bogo-Cataingan route while Super Shuttle Ferry 19 is sometimes not in the route and none is running at times as AMTC lacked ships as the years went by because they lose ships (as in hull losses) and also because of ship unreliability.

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The ferry next bigger to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO in Polambato (Photo credit: John Carlos Cabanillas)

Both routes are still running now and Montenegro Lines even tried a twice a day sailing but settled with a once a day sailing with a ship next bigger in size to the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO, the starting ship of both routes (or a modernized LCT at times). Lately, however, Asian Marine Transport Corporation sold out both its ships and its route to Cawayan and Super Shuttle Ferry 19 became the Cawayan Ferry 1 of the new company D. Olmilla Shipping Corporation. The Bogo-Cawayan route, as a note, still has no intermodal bus and it is the weaker of the two. I heavily doubt if it can overtake Cataingan.

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Cawayan Ferry 1 (Photo credit: James Gabriel Verallo)

Even with these two routes running, the motor bancas of Masbate still sail regularly to Bogo and Maya. These motor bancas sometimes carry hogs (in a deck below the passenger deck) and that is a commodity not acceptable to MSLI or AMTC unless it is loaded in trucks and even then it will only be loaded with reluctance (as their passengers might complain of the smell in the 6-hour voyage). And besides, the passengers and the cargo of the motor bancas enjoy a point-to-point direct sailing with no land transfer (the ROROs doesn’t go to Placer or Esperanza). It might even stop offshore near a remote barrio and the passenger and cargo will be transferred to his own motor banca. Bookings can also be done informally (and even by cellphone). A passenger from Placer can be picked up by the Cawayan boat at sea if they receive a validated text message and if there is no motor banca from Placer.

Though affected by the development of the Bogo-Cataingan route, the Cataingan-Cebu ship of Lapu-lapu Shipping is still running. Its service of loading frozen fish in styrofoam boxes without using trucks can’t still be equaled by the Cataingan-Bogo RORO as a truck would be needed from Bogo. They send it out by Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 and it will just be picked up by the customer in Cebu Pier 3 and the empty boxes will be loaded by the customer in the return trip. Sometimes, the advantage of a RORO is overstated by the government which is always pushing it. How can shipping 2 or 3 styrofoam boxes be sulit using a truck or a Multicab?

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Lapu-lapu Ferry 1 in Cataingan port

The route from Cebu via Masbate to Manila is not cheaper compared to the Cebu to Manila route via Leyte and Samar although looks shorter on the map. That was found out by a Swiss member of PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) member who did both routes in the same month. The RORO rates via Masbate is high because there is lack of competition and maybe the sea crossing is longer if the Bogo-Palompon route is taken as the comparison. Meanwhile the rates via Leyte and Samar are cheaper and sometimes there are discounting plus there is the cheap Cargo RORO LCTs. However, the land route through it is some 225 kilometers longer compared to a Pilar, Sorsogon route and 265 kilometers via a Pio Duran, Masbate that both uses Masbate.

Whatever, the Bogo routes will definitely stick. That is what was shown by the last decade. Well, unless it is supersed by the Maya port which is under construction now. It might not necessarily be cheap but there are people and goods that has Masbate as a destination (and newbies who will think it is cheaper through there since it looks nearer on the map). And there are those who will still prefer the shorter route and just save on time. And also save on wear on the vehicles and the driver. And arrive earlier and for truck owners save on wages and have their trucks be available for an extra day.

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Maya port (Photo credit: bUs sPoTTeRs

If only their rates are more competitive then maybe the Bogo connection will be flying now.