On A Parallel Route Sea Crafts Cannot Compete With The Buses

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The Mindoro-Panay connection scuttled the liners to Panay as they ran on parallel routes

Sometimes I wonder what the MARINA (Mariime Industry Authority, the Philippines’ maritime regulatory agency) really knows about shipping history because off and on I will notice them offering to prospective operators routes where sea crafts have to compete with buses. Almost every time the sea crafts will lose to the buses. Badly.

The reason is simple physics. Drag caused by overcoming water resistance is much higher than the rolling drag that has to be overcome by the buses. The sea crafts’ weight is also far higher than buses because of its thick hull and compartments plus the weight of the machineries and equipments it carries. Thus, on a given distance, the sea crafts’ fuel consumption will be much higher which then converts to a higher fare. Even if the sea craft can carry more passengers and cargo still on a per passenger basis the fuel consumption is higher. Add to that the fact that the sea crafts are much slower than the buses and it only docks in ports while a bus can stop anywhere.

Even four decades ago, ship operators already tried the Manila-Bataan route. One operator even tried the hydrofoil. A decade ago even the venerable SuperCat tried competing in that route by offering a Manila-Orani route. Before them the Prestige Cruises and El Greco Jet Ferries also fielded High Speed Crafts (HSCs) in the route. Sadly, all attempts to compete with the Manila-Bataan buses failed. The High Speed Crafts used might have been faster than the bus here in travel time because it does not have go round like the buses which also have to overcome traffic but still the Bataan passengers are not willing to pay the much higher fare of the High Speed Craft.

A few years ago, the MetroStar Ferry tried to compete with the Cavite buses by offering a Mall of Asia (MOA) to Cavite route. The builders of it tried to generate hoopla about its locally-built catamarans. Now however all its ships are laid up and one even burned and the other damaged. Like those which tried before them the MetroStar Ferry also lost to the buses.

A few years ago, Dans Penta 1, a fastcraft, tried to compete with the Davao to Davao Oriental bus. She only lasted a few month before quitting. And to think she was also faster than the bus. But of course the fare was higher.

Over fifty years ago, Madrigal Shipping had a Manila-Aparri passenger-cargo route. But when the road over the Caraballo mountains of Nueva Vizcaya became passable the ship had to go. It simply cannot compete. That was also the story of the passenger-cargo ships going to different Bicol ports like Larap, J. Panganiban (Mambulao), Mercedes, Tabaco, Legaspi, Bulan and Sorsogon town. When the road to Camarines Norte became passable the routes to Larap, J. Panganiban and Mercedes had to go. That was the story of the Bulan and Sorsogon ships, too. It was even a wonder to me the route to Legaspi and Tabaco lasted even when there was already a train. But when the bus came, again the ship had to go.

This was the story of Samar ports too. Once upon a time Calbayog and Catbalogan were vibrant ports. Other ports in Samar had ships too like Caraingan, Laoang and Victoria. The Leyte ports Tacloban, Ormoc and Maasin were also vibrant then. Other Leyte ports hosting ships were Calubian, Baybay, Cabalian and in recent years Palompon and Isabel. But when the RORO connection between Matnog and Allen (and San Isidro) was established and the San Juanico bridge was built the buses (and trucks) rolled and slowly all the Samar and Leyte port hosting passenger ships went kaput.

The story of Mindoro, Lubang, Marinduque and Masbate is a little different. Once upon a time, small passenger-cargo ships including the batel (a wooden motor boat) were their links to Manila. But when the short-distance ferry-ROROs came the ships from Manila disappeared too. The buses were not crossing yet but the buses already go to Batangas, Nasugbu, Lucena and Pilar ports (the three ports were the connection of the three islands to Luzon). The passengers ride the ships to three ports and in those ports the buses to Manila will be waiting. Now even the buses roll to Mindoro, Marinduque and Masbate.

Panay island had the same story as Samar and Leyte. Before it had vibrant ports especially the great Iloilo port.. It also had other ports with passenger ships like Estancia, Culasi, Dumaguit, Batan, Malay, Lipata and San Jose de Buenavista. But when the Roxas-Caticlan route was opened linking Mindoro and Panay island the ferries left. Now only Iloilo has a ferry from Manila but the frequency is already reduced.

Now even the far Davao also have no ship anymore. The budget airlines is part of the reason. So do the buses rolling into Davao from Manila. The buses passing Surigao is also part of the reason why Surigao has no more liner to Manila. That is also true in Bohol. Currently, there is no more ship to Tagbilaran and part of the reason are the Manila buses going to Tagbilaran via Samar and Leyte.

Once upon a time, Pagadian was a very alive port with ships going to Zamboanga and Cotabato. Then the highways east and west of that city were cemented. Now Pagadian has no more passenger ships. But in the Pagadian-Cotabato route it was the vans that drove off the ships. That is also true for the motors boat going to Malabang and Balabagan from Cotabato. Maybe soon even the Lebak-Palimbang motor boats from Cotabato will be gone because the road going there is already completed and the vans are already rolling. But clearly gone now are the Guiuan to Tacloban ships which lost to the bus and vans when a direct road to Guian from Tacloban was built not so long ago.

Well, once upon a time too, ships were going round Mindanao to connect the different ports. But with the coming of roads they had to go too. Well, once, motor boats connected the Mindoro towns too. That was also true for Samar and Palawan islands.

The losing streak of the ships is almost perfect except for one special case. This is the Metro Ferry ships connecting Cebu Pier 3 and Muelle Osmena in Mactan island over Mactan Channel. This is one case where the ferry is faster than the jeep and even cheaper. They do not take long to fill up and has many trips day round and even into the night. The single trip was actually the weak point of ships versus the bus or van when they lost in other places. Metro Ferry is different. They are almost like a big bus in departures.In Pasig River, the ferry might have a chance against the land transport with all the traffic it has to go through. But it seems another factor might torpedo it – the stench of the decaying Pasig River.

In Davao, the motor boats going to Samal are still fighting against the bus. And they recently even gained a victory when the bus to Kaputian District quit. And so the motor boats immediately raised their fares (when before they have to slash it for parity versus the bus). There are still some Western Samar big motor bancas putting up a fight against the bus (and the jeeps and the vans). It seems like in Samal it is too early to predict the demise of these small sea crafts. That is also true for the motor bancas crossing Ragay Gulf.

I can go on with more minor examples of sea crafts losing to the bus when roads were built and they had to compete with land transports. And lose. There are just so many and one of the more recent ones was when the Abuyog to Silago road in Leyte was finally built.

I think it would be best for MARINA to study cases of the gone ships and routes now. Before they start vending routes again. Vending losers is simply an irresponsible act. And never mind if what they are vending are “supported” by “feasibility studies” done by people who have no real knowledge of our seas and routes. Their Ph.D. titles are just decorations anyway.

Manila to Bataan HSC again?

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The Batangas-Caticlan Route

Once, as we were ship spotting Pier 4, me and Vinz noticed that there seems to be a ceremony involving Cebu Ferry 1 and Cebu Ferry 3. Asking the guard who is his friend, Vinz learned it was despedida (farewell ceremonies) for the two Visayas-Mindanao ferries which will be transferred in Batangas. We learned later that the Batangas manager of 2GO said he can make the two ferries earn more there than in Cebu. That was already the era of the retreat of Cebu Ferries Corporation (CFC) when to think that in the late 1990’s they were bullying the Visayas-Mindanao ferry companies which led to the demise of some. This time around, Cebu Ferries Corporation can no longer keep with their competition. What a reversal of fortune!

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The despidida for two Cebu Ferry ships

Vinz asked me how the two ferries will fare in Batangas. I told him it is a different ballgame there. What I meant was in Cebu it was a matter of attracting passengers and loose cargo, I told Vinz the game in the intermodal ports of Luzon (and Batangas is one) is in attracting the buses and the trucks and I told him discounting (called “rebates”) is the name of the game there (and that also includes freebies). That means whichever has the biggest discount will have the rolling cargo and for the regulars long-term agreements apply so it is not the decision of the drivers what ship to board. I told Vinz the new “Batangas Ferries” (my monicker) will have to learn the new game.

The new “Batangas Ferries” plied a direct Batangas to Caticlan route compared to their competitors which ply both the Batangas-Calapan route and the Roxas-Caticlan route and let the buses and trucks roll from Calapan to Roxas in Oriental Mindoro, a distance of about 120 kilometers or so or about 3 hours of rolling time. The “Batangas Ferries” can easily sail that route as an overnight ferry because they have the speed to do it in less than 12 hours (and as overnight ferries they are already equipped with bunks). In fact, early on they tried a round trip in a day for the Batangas-Caticlan route. Then they found out they don’t have enough load because many of the buses and trucks are already tied to their competitors and there is no load yet in the early morning in Caticlan as the buses and trucks are still rolling from many parts of Panay and will still arrive at noon or in the afternoon.

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A “Batangas Ferry” sailing into the coming night by Nowell Alcancia

In reality, even the slower ferries of their competition can do a Batangas-Caticlan route should they want to do it. It will take more than 12 hours but they will still be able to sail the next night. Even at the usual 11 knots they can do that route in no more than 16 hours. Their faster ferries than can do 14 knots can do the route in about 14 hours. Their ferries will just have to become overnight ferries+ instead of being short-distance ferries.

That then was the first rub. The ferries of Batangas are not used to and are even loath to operate overnight ferries. For one, they will have to convert their ferries to have bunks. That means expenses, that means lessening the passenger capacity. Now for shipping companies that are even loath to adding scantlings and were just content to have the unofficial “Stairs Class”, that is a difficult sell. Good overnight ferries also must be able to provide a restaurant and hot food. Well, nothing beats the ease and profit margins of overpriced instant noodles where the only capital is hot water. Now what if MARINA obliges them to provide free meals if the voyage time is over 12 hours like what Administrator Pacienco Balbon required then of Viva Shipping Lines? That could be disaster.

Well, it seems nothing will beat requiring the rolling cargo and its passengers two ferry rides within the same night (for some that leave Manila late). They will earn twice and anyway the rolling cargo won’t go to “Batangas Ferries” because many are tied to them with discounting and rebates. And they won’t just transfer because the rates in the sea is high for the same distance and the distance of Batangas-Caticlan is high and so it is not cheap and Batangas Ferries is not used to discounting (actually, the reason they eventually lost in Visayas-Mindanao is they were the more expensive).

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Passengers can’t be aboard the bus during the voyage and in loading and offloading

The buses won’t go along with “Batangas Ferries” too. If they ride on a Batangas-Caticlan ferry they would have to forego the fare for 120 kilometers or so and that is not peanuts. It has long been held by the LTFRB that a bus cannot charge for the distance traveled at sea (of course, secretly they will try to do it since anyway most passengers don’t know how to compute the fare nor do they know of the number of kilometers). And they will have to pay higher for the longer sea distance crossed. Does anyone need a nail to the head?

And so the buses will rather have their passengers ride two ferries at night. That connotes all the trouble of disembarking and boarding again plus the queues for the various tickets. And never mind if it is raining. In that route, that can be the definition of “passenger service”. Is there a difference between passengers and cattle?

And so until now it is still just 2GO, the renamed “Batangas Ferries” which do the direct Batangas-Caticlan route. Montenegro Shipping Lines, Starlite Ferries, Archipelago Ferries Philippines, Super Shuttle Ferry (Asian Marine Transport Corporation) and Besta Shipping Lines never did that direct route. Who said they will walk the extra mile for their clients?

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“Batangas Ferry 3”

Anyway, passengers are appreciative of the superior accommodations of the 2GO ferries. They have never seen such ferries in Batangas before (and they haven’t been to Cebu either, the home of good overnight ferries). They never ever thought that their ropaxes are actually just cattle carriers. And they have never seen a true restaurant in a ship before which the 2GO ferries have. And oh, plus true, polite passenger service (they have been too used to masahista ng bakal in T-shirts before pretending as stewards).

Will Archipelago Ferries Philippines do a direct route since their catamaran ROROs are faster (theoretically they can do the route is just 10 hours but they will have to do it at daytime since they don’t have bunks)? Well, I don’t think so. I heard they are even happy with the farther Bulalacao-Caticlan route since their sister company bus rolls farther and thus earns more from fare.

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A catamaran RORO of AFPC by Jon Erodias

And that is the situation of the Batangas-Caticlan route. Now I wonder when the Panay passengers will demand for something better.

Are they just content to get up at night and disembark even if it is raining and continue the trip with their heads hanging out from seats and their bodies contorted in search of sleep?