Is There Enough Cargo To Move Around?

In the last few years there has been an upsurge in the ships that move cargo. First, that became noticeable with the LCTs that became ore carriers of the black sand mining in a few provinces and particularly in Surigao where opening of mines close to the sea boomed. That happened because of the sudden great demand then of metals in China.

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An aggregates carrier LCT off Taganito, Surigao

Just after the peak of that demand, a fleet of brand-new LCTs built in China appeared in north Mactan Channel. That happened when the demand for metallic ores in China was beginning to wane. And so initially those LCTs especially those owned by Broadway One Shipping and Cebu Sea Charterers were just anchored in the channel. Those LCTs were only known by their numbers but in size those were bigger than the average Philippine LCT. Generally, their powers and speeds were also higher and better.

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Row of newly-arrived LCTs in north Mactan Channel

With nowhere to go these LCTs including those owned by others but also built in China (like the Poseidon LCTs, the Meiling LCTs, those owned by Premium Megastructures Inc., Adnama Resources, etc.) became aggregates carriers and Cargo RORO LCTs and in the latter it challenged in the business then dominated by Goldenbridge Shipping which had a route from Labogon, Mandaue to Hindang, Leyte. Sand is gold in Cebu because of its construction needs and it is not readily available in the island in quantity because of its upraised sea floor origins which meant just a lot of limestone. And so sand is transported from Leyte whose land is volcanic in origin and thus there is plenty of sand and hard rock. Aggregates carrier LCTs go as far as Samar and some also go to Bohol.

The value of Cargo RORO LCTs was highlighted when the super-typhoon “Yolanda” struck and lots of trucks have to move to Leyte and long queues of truck formed in Matnog and Lipata ports and there was also a lot of needed bottoms for trucks crossing from Cebu to Leyte. The LCTs filled this need and suddenly the Cargo RORO LCT segment was here to stay. It challenged not only old LCT operators like Mandaue Transport and Simpoi Shipping but also the overnight ferry companies operating ROROs that Roble Shipping even felt the need to charter LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation (ASC), owner of many LCTs for charter. Now Cargo RORO LCTs connects many islands and it is also a viable transporter now of container vans from Manila to the Visayas and Mindanao, a mode pioneered by Ocean Transport that also started by chartering LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation before acquiring their own China-built LCTs.

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On the left is an LCT of Asian Shipping Corporation chartered by Roble Shipping

I can understand the need and value of LCTs which have proven their uses and versatility recently and that is why it is still continuing to increase in number. But in the same period I also noticed the rise in the numbers of our container ships and general-purpose cargo ships which are mainly freighters on tramper duty. In general that is a surprise for me as I know our local inter-island trade is flat and intermodal trucks have already stolen a significant portion of their cargo and that can be shown in the queue of trucks in many short-distance crossings like in the routes to Panay, the routes to Eastern Visayas and Surigao and Cargo RORO LCTs are used by these intermodal trucks along with short-distance ferry-ROROs. Cargo RORO LCTs are also used by tractor-trailers hauling container vans to serve islands where local container ships are now gone or where the service is weak or the rate expensive. Examples of these are Samar, Leyte and Bohol islands.

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A Cargo-RORO LCT

I have been contacted by a writer doing the history of Delgado Brothers or Delbros which once dominated the Manila ports and which was also involved in shipping then (it was also the first employer of my late father). Delbros happened to by one of the two dominant leasers of container vans locally together with Waterfront and they cannot resolve the problem of flat leasing for several years already and they cannot fathom the reason why. I told her the reason is simple – the intermodal trucks are stealing their business.

But in recent years I have seen our container shipping companies add and add container ships. Most remarkable is Oceanic Container Lines (OCLI) which has the most number of container ships now. Notable too is Philippine Span Asia Container Corporation (PSACC), the new name of the controversial Sulpicio Lines. Lorenzo Shipping and Solid Shipping have also added a few. There are new players which are Moreta Shipping Lines which was formerly in overnight ferries, Meridian Shipping and Seaborne Shipping and these new players are also expanding their route networks. To this might be added Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Incorporated (TASLI) which now has a container ship to Manila.

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A deck loading ship

Another notable addition is Fiesta Cargo and Logistics (this is not the exact name of the company) which operates true deck loading ships. These ships have flat decks like those in LCTs and booms for cargo handling. Aside from this and container ships, the Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) also added a few RORO Cargo ships, their forte and choice of transport.

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A RORO Cargo ship

For NMC Container Lines and 2GO there was no noticeable addition although the latter have chartered container ships from Caprotec and they also charter ships from Ocean Transport (or is it Key West?). Hard to say because of the rumored split between the two. Escano/Loadstar meanwhile seems to be exhibiting a decline in their fleet.

In general-cargo ships a few companies showed newly-acquired ones and probably topping the list is Avega Brothers which from chartering ships from Asian Shipping Corporation went on a spree of acquiring trampers that though Manila in origin they regularly anchor ships now in north Mactan Channel. Medallion Transport and Roble Shipping also both acquired a significant number of freighters. Aside from the three mentioned many other shipping companies also added freighters to their fleet.

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Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs in their Mandaue port

Asian Shipping Corporation which specializes in chartering ships and operating barges aside from LCTs needs special mention because of the rate they are adding ships annually. As of last year their fleet total is nearly 200 ships already including the lowly tugs but MARINA (Maritime Industry Authority) has noted that they already have the biggest fleet in the country in terms of Gross Tonnage (GT), the traditional method of comparing ship and fleet size and that they have already displaced 2GO from its old Number 1 perch. 2GO temporarily regained the top ranking with their acquisition of the liner St. Therese of Child Jesus but I wonder if they did not slide to Number 2 again with the sale of the liner St. Joan of Arc. For an operator of supposedly “lowly” ships the achievement of Asian Shipping Corporation certainly has to be lauded.

But all of these leads me to the question, “Is there enough cargo to move around?” I know many of the trampers are just carriers of cement and other construction/hardware/electrical materials that they are practically “cement carriers”. Some are “copra carriers”. And these trampers are also carrier of bagged flour of various kinds and also other bagged products like fertilizers and feeds. But our freighters seldom carry rice and corn now unlike in the past. Ditto for cassava – the volume now is small.

Is there really a significant rise in the volume of these products? Maybe in cement and related materials because of the construction boom. But I wonder about the others. Are there other products being carried now? What I know is a lot of grocery items is now carried by the intermodal trucks.

Coal might be big now because of the rise in number of our coal plants. But freighters do not carry that. Other types of fuel are carried by the tankers.

There are incentives now from the government on the acquisition of new ships and it even opened a loan window with the government-owned Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP). Are shipping companies taking advantage of that just to hoard ships?

What I know is shipping rates in the country are high if compared to other countries. That can cover low cargo volume. The most visible show of that are our container ships. Seldom will one see them full or even near that. Well, operating ships is expensive especially since MARINA exactions adds to the cost.

Whatever, newer ships are always good. I just want to see where this would lead. Lower rates? Probably not. Better service? That is hard to measure on cargo ships. More availability of ships? Maybe one can count on that.

Anyway, this article is just meant as an update on one aspect of our cargo shipping.

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Container Ships Also Sink Our Liners

In the past, before 1980, there was no conflict between the our liners and the container ships. First, container ships did not exist before the late 1970’s. Second, before that time, general cargo ships were not many as it is our liners that were mainly carrying the inter-island cargo that should be transported fast and were not in bulk. That was the reason why even though our production and the number of people were not yet as high like today, there were so many liners existing with as high as 90 liners at its very peak.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In the early 1970’s, the Sea Transport Company came into existence. What was notable for this new company is they offered regular express cargo service to Mindanao which means a direct service and aside from loose cargo, their ships were able to carry small container vans which were non-standard as in they were offering 8-foot containers which they themselves designed (it was rectangular in shape). In due time, they also shifted to standard container vans and they fielded pure container carriers.

In 1976, Aboitiz Shipping Corporation converted one of their general cargo ships, the P. Aboitiz into a container carrier. Conversion like this was not difficult because only some internal structures need to be modified so a container van can be slot in and that also means modifying the holds and the hatches. The grabs of the booms also have to be modified by a bit so it can handle a container van.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In 1978, containerization was already in full swing when Aboitiz Shipping Corporation added more container ships and William Lines Incorporated followed suit. The next year, in 1979, Sulpicio Lines Incorporated also joined the bandwagon to be followed in the next year by Lorenzo Shipping Corporation which had already split from its merger with Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc (CAGLI). Negros Navigation Company also joined this new paradigm in 1980. In 1981, Sweet Lines Incorporated also followed suit but they used their old company name Central Shipping Corporation. Among the major liner companies then, it was only Compania Maritima which did not join this new paradigm.

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

These new container services offered direct sailings as in there were no intermediate ports. With direct service, the container ships might be a little slower than the liners (except for the fast cruisers) but their transit times were not worse than the liners (except to Cebu) because they don’t lose time in an intermediate port or ports. With the speed, convenience, security (no pilferage), lack of damage and contamination, soon the shippers were already shifting en masse to the new container services.

In the liner crisis of 1980 when many liners were deactivated and laid up, it seems the main cause of that was the emergence and immediate success of the container ships and container shipping. Maybe the liners suddenly found they don’t have enough cargo and hence they can’t maintain the old sailing schedule and from the outside it looked like that suddenly there was a “surplus” of bottoms (actually the liners complained of that).

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Gorio Belen research in the National Library

In December 1979, the first RORO liner, the Dona Virginia of William Lines came. This RORO and those that came after her were capable of carrying container vans especially the XEU or 10-foot container vans that can be loaded aboard by the big forklifts. Soon even the fast cruiser liners were also carrying container vans atop their cargo holds especially at the bow of the ship. Some can also carry container vans on a platform in the stern.

Locally, I did not see a new paradigm take hold as fast as container shipping. The ROROs even took longer to be the new paradigm. In containerization, there was even a rush to convert general cargo ships into container ships. All the “new” container ship of Lorenzo Shipping Corporation were converts at the start. The other container shipping companies bought general cargo ships from Japan and converted them into container carriers. Our first container ships looked like general cargo ship unlike the modern container ship which does not look like general cargo ships (and nor can they handle loose cargo).

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In just a little over a year William Lines had 5 container ships (Gorio Belen research in the National Library)

The emergence of the RORO liners even pushed containerization faster as that new kind of ferry is ready-made not only for vehicles or rolling cargo but also for container vans, wheeled in atop chassis (which means atop trailers) or not (if not wheeled then big forklifts “wheeled” them in). There were not yet reach stackers in the early years of our containerization to handle the container vans.

In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the liners can still hold off the container ships. The reason was there were no budget airlines yet (Philippine Airlines fares then were really stiff) and there were no intermodal buses yet in the bulk of the islands (it was only strong in Eastern Visayas, their pioneer area). And liners can still pack in the passengers (even up to “overloading” or overbooking point) because people has already learned how to travel and there was a great push for migration to Metro Manila (which later led to the overcrowding of this metropolis).

However, when budget airlines and the intermodal buses came in droves, the passengers of the liners dropped. The 2,000 to 3,000 passenger capacity slowly became “too big” and hence the national shipping companies no longer fielded liners with capacities such as this in the new millennium. Aboitiz Transport System (ATS) also tried to reduce passenger capacity and increase cargo capacity by converting some of their liners to have two decks for rolling cargo like what they did in SuperFerry 12, SuperFerry 9 and SuperFerry 2.

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Photo by Edison Sy

Can the liners compete with container ships when the passenger demand dipped? The answer is a plain “No way”. Liners usually have more than three times the horsepower of a local container ship (and it is single-engined which means less spare parts are needed) and yet the local container ship usually have three times the container capacity of a RORO liner. This even became more pronounced when the regime of high oil prices came in the first decade of this millennium. Per fuel prices alone, the container ships can carry each container van much cheaper than what a liner can.

Container vans also do not need the amenities needed by the passengers. Moreover, it does not need the service expected of the passengers which need to be fed and be given more than decent accommodations plus some entertainment. Because of that, the crewing needs of a liner is far higher than that of a container ship. All of those means more expense of the part of the liner company. Besides, a RORO liner is more expensive than a container ship for the same size and its insurance is higher.

Ever since the 1980’s, even when the passenger demand was still great, the national shipping companies were earning more from cargo than their passengers. That is true even today when 2GO admits that almost 70% of their revenues are from cargo (and to think under their roof is SuperCat which widens the passenger revenues). Definitely their investment for liners is greater than their cargo ships. Maybe it was only loyalty to their passengers and passenger shipping why they were not quitting this segment. Maybe it is also because of inertia which means just keeping doing the old things.

Lorcon Dumaguete assisted by tugs

If we look at the recent years we can see that for every liner acquired at least 7 container ships were acquired and this is even a conservative estimate. If we look at the last 10 years starting from 2006, only 11 liners came to our shores and that includes the 3 Cebu Ferries, two of which are still used as overnight ships although already converted into small liners. Meanwhile, MARINA registered 80 or more newly-arrived container ships in the same period. These are the container ships of Oceanic Container Lines, Sulpicio Lines/Philippine Span Asia Carrier Corporation, Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, NMC Container Lines, Solid Shipping Lines, Negros Navigation/Caprotec Corporation/2GO, MCC Transport Philippines (MCCTP), Moreta Shipping Lines, Meridian Cargo Forwarders, Seaview Cargo Shipping Corporation, Escano Lines/Loadstar Shipping Company and West Ocean Lines and Transport acquired in the last ten years. Now how many container lines is that compared to a sole passenger liner company?

There are few liners sailing now and all are under just one company which is 2GO (since Romblon Shipping Lines has already quit). Meanwhile, container ships are still mushrooming and more container shipping companies are joining the field. Even 20 years ago there were already more container ships than liners. Now the container ships are already outstripping the liners in number. And the trend holds true year after year.

The question is why? Well, the simple answer is the shipping companies won’t invest in liners as it does not make sense. More revenues can be earned from container shipping at less investment with less hassles from regulations and supply needs (like the food needed by the passengers). So why would they enter passenger liner shipping? Better “pets” like containers vans rather than people like the passengers who can raise a ruckus and if the ship sinks then goodbye to all the advertising and service spent for the goodwill. If a cargo ship sinks, the uneducated public and the media almost won’t mind at all.

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A Cargo RORO LCT by Asian Shipping Corporation

If cargo is the bread and butter of shipping it will now go to the container lines because they can actually offer the lower shipping rates. If not it will go to the intermodal trucks which has even lower rates. And arriving now recently are the Cargo RORO LCTs which carry container vans (even from Manila) like those of Roble Shipping Incorporated, Ocean Transport and Asian Shipping Corporation. This new paradigm can offer even lower rates than the container ships.

Sometimes it looks like liners are already passe. But I don’t want them to go because I prefer them over planes and the intermodal buses are sometimes too tiring especially those who are no longer young.

Will the liners survive? Now, that is one question I would not like to answer.