New Developments in Masbate Port

I had been to Masbate port twice in recent days in this month of July of 2017. The first one was when my ship Super Shuttle RORO 3 of Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) was on the way to Batangas and dropped anchor in Masbate first. The second was when I took the route via Pilar and Masbate ports on the way back to Cebu. Those two visits afforded me a chance to compare and weigh developments in Masbate port since last January of 2017 when I was also able to visit the port.

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Masbate port

The first notable thing is all works in expanding Masbate port has already been completed. The lineal distance of the port is a little longer now. On the other hand, talking of infrastructure, the Masbate port terminal building deteriorated in the same span of time as it is no longer air-conditioned and yet the dear terminal fee which is more expensive than the much better Cebu and Batangas ports remained the same when Masbate port does not even have shuttle buses and does not really have the capacity to take in all the passengers of the buses. And so it copied the Batangas port model which means bus passengers have to go down when the bus enters the port in order for them to pay the terminal fee and then board the bus again or walk to the ferry. The former is the preferred mode now.

Another new thing is Masbate port has an X-ray machine now for the baggage but it is not operational yet. Another useless piece of equipment just to justify the terminal fee and to have another reason for “cattle-herding” the passengers. It seems what is good enough for the buses is not good enough for PPA (Philippine Ports Authority), security-wise, because buses don’t bother checking the baggage of the passengers because they know the chance of them being victims of terrorist attacks is next to nil, at least in Bicol. And I think if one asks the ferries they will say they are not bothered if there is no X-ray machine. The buses and the ferries do not have the ISPS thinking that all passengers are possible terrorists. Actually that is simply ridiculous and is just the product of “praning” minds.

One more notable thing is that the passenger motor bancas are now practically gone from Masbate port and they have already transferred to the municipal port of Masbate near the public market and the bus/van terminal because of the high passenger terminal fee being charged by the port when passengers have no actual need for the terminal as they go direct to their vessels. Actually, last January I saw a terminal building (it was named as a community fish landing center) being built in Masbate municipal port and I saw that it is already finished when I went to the bus and van terminal.

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The problem now in Masbate municipal port is congestion, I was told, especially in the rush hours of the morning and the early afternoon. The boat landing areas there are actually the facility being used by the so-many small passenger motor bancas and motor launches headed to the different barrios across Masbate Bay. Add to that that that is also the docking area of the passenger motor bancas to barrios just outside Masbate Bay and up to Baleno town. Now the bigger motor bancas to Ticao island, Pilar port and Burias island are also lumped there now. That also includes a few cargo motor boats that were once passenger motor boats.

Actually, some small motor launch operators also built docking areas just beyond the northern end of Masbate port. I was told these transfers were the reaction to the terminal fee that costs P30. A terminal fee of that amount for a P10 boat fare? So right now just a very few motor bancas use Masbate port. One effect is congestion of the port was gone in one stroke. So I wonder now if there was any need to lengthen the port after all. Maybe they could have just donated the construction materials to the boat landing areas at the end of the port. The surface there is still dried muck which is obviously undulating and slippery. Well, if the funds were really meant to benefit the public.

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A makeshift boat landing area adjacent Masbate port

Regarding steel-hulled ferries, the competition in Masbate port is heating up and truck volume was obviously bigger than last January. Not in the buses though as July is already part of the lean months. Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation fielded their Cargo RORO LCT there, the LCT Aldain Dowey which was identified in PSSS (Philippine Ship Spotters Society) as the former LCT Ongpin. So now they have a total of three ferries in Masbate and I was told in summer Sta. Clara Shipping even fielded a fourth ferry. Their LCT is of the same length as their Jack Daniel and Anthon Raphael, their two ROPAXes there which are the best in the fleets of Sta. Clara Shipping Corporation and sister company Penafrancia Shipping Corporation (this is before the fielding of the former Tamataka Maru ships from Japan).

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Their LCT is the first to leave at noon and in the afternoon they are the only ferry departures from Masbate at 2pm and 4pm. Their three ferries are the biggest in Masbate because what their competitors have are only basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs because they use the shallow Pilar port whose depth cannot handle bigger ferries. By the way in terms of rolling cargo traffic the Pio Duran route now of Sta. Clara Shipping and Penafrancia Shipping is the favorite now since Pio Duran in Albay is nearer to Manila than Pilar of Sorsogon while the rolling cargo rate is just about the same.

With the exception of the ROROBus which is related to Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. practically all the other buses to Masbate are handled by Sta. Clara Shipping Corp. and Penafrancia Shipping Corp. as the third operator Denica Lines, a Pilar native does not load buses. Loading buses from Luzon meant extending discounts, rebates, free tickets and free meals and Denica Lines does not play that game because they say they have their share of rolling cargo too. And I saw that when we left left Pilar port aboard their Marina Empress at 3am and the car deck was full. From Masbate port their three ROROs Odyssey, Regina Calixta-II and Marina Empress all left full. Denica Lines has already bought the Regina CalixtaII of Regina Shipping Lines (RSL) of Catanduanes and so they have three ROROs also now while Montenegro Shipping Lines Inc. (MSLI) is down to two ROROs from three. Maybe because it is lean months now and maybe they have one undergoing refitting in a shipyard.

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If we assume that Montenegro Lines has a third RORO in Masbate then a total of 8 ROROs make a daily crossing now to Luzon plus there is a Cargo RORO LCT for a total capacity of about 100 truck/bus units (of course, since there are smaller vehicles mixed in, the actual total is higher). Many of these come from as far as Cebu island. Buses will be at least a fourth of that total. One will wonder why there is such a large number of people on the move when within Masbate island there are not that many number of buses although there is a significant number of commuter vans.

Montenegro Lines have three fastcrafts and a catamaran in Masbate including their newest and fastest, the City of Angeles which is a catamaran. They also have there one of their biggest fastcrafts, the City of Masbate. Their future rival, the two fastcrafts of Denica Lines are still not ready and are still being refitted in Pilar port. Meanwhile, I wonder if the Masbate-Pilar motor bancas are already in terminal decline. There are just so many ROROs and High Speed Crafts. Although the motor bancas are faster than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs, they are noisier. They might be noisy, however, but still they are better than the “Stairs Class” of Montenegro Lines.

But in trucks and buses Sta. Clara and Penafrancia are already beating Montenegro Lines by about 3:1. Denica Lines could also be level now with Montenegro Lines in trucks and buses. By the way, sedans, SUVs, AUVs are not that many in the Masbate crossing to Pilar and Pio Duran and jeeps are practically unknown.

However, there is a rumor in Masbate port that a new player will come and serve the Masbate-Pio Duran route and it seems it is not Medallion Transport which was gone from the route after their Lady of Carmel sank in 2013 off Burias island. It remains to be seen if this rumor will come true.

The Super Shuttle RORO 3 of AMTC is also back in Masbate port and it connects to Batangas and Cebu plus Cagayan de Oro but their schedule is irregular as in there are no definite day for arrivals and departures as it is more of a container carrier now. There are also still a few motor bancas to Bulan when where before that was the dominant route to Bicol from Masbate.

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There are also off-hours docking now in Masbate port as Denica Lines has an early evening departure from Pilar. To the credit of Masbate port they let the passengers stay in the port terminal as the arrival of that is midnight and there is still no transportation to the towns outside Masbate City (and that gave me an idea). And Sta. Clara Shipping sends back its ship from Pio Duran if there are a lot of shut-outs (vehicles left unloaded in port) and that becomes another off-hours docking. That was the reason why they fielded their LCT because shut-out were already happening frequently (I saw that last January when one Mega Bus cannot be accommodated and they asked passengers of that to get down the ship and it was an event not good to look at — I pitied the passengers).

Masbate port is changing. Traffic is obviously up and I think the port will only get more important in the future when more traffic will shift to it from San Bernardino Strait if the rates become lower. Maybe then competition will further heat up and we will see the full blooming of Masbate port.

But they have to get that passenger terminal fee down. It is much higher than Zamboanga port when that port is better than Masbate port and the passenger terminal is not really needed by most of the ship passengers. A sore point really and that must change.

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The Wrong Way of Treating Passengers in Intermodal Ports

The intermodal system by container ships has long been hailed as convenient and that is generally true. Goods no longer have to be brought to ports to be unloaded, reloaded, unloaded and again reloaded aboard trucks. This process is true especially in loose cargo. It might be more efficient if the goods are aboard container vans mounted on trailers. But then the trailers would have no other use while laden with container vans and there is no guarantee the container van will not lay still in the ports for days.

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It is different in the intermodal system by buses and trucks in terms of efficiency. When the truck leaves the factory it is already on the go and it will reach the destination faster, in general. And it can already make deliveries along the way especially if it is a wing van truck which opens on the side. So the intermodal system by buses and trucks is superior than the intermodal system by container ships in terms of flexibility and speed.

On the passenger side, the passengers no longer have to hazard a ride to the North Harbor (now called stylistically as “North Port”) and haggle with porters re luggage (and haggle again in the destination). Now they can take the bus to their destination and it need not even be in Cubao, Pasay or other terminals. It can be Alabang, Turbina or somewhere along the way as many buses have designated pick-up points. It is now easy with mobile phones. And the passenger will alight right by their gate or else there is a good connecting ride and it can be a bus, a van or even a jeep. And intermodal bus rides are available daily and in many hours of the day.

Whatever the convenience of the intermodal bus, what I found that what did not change is the boarding and the disembarking process in the intermodal ports. The passengers have to disembark from the bus, queue for many tickets, wait a little in the lounge before boarding, then board the ferry, disembark from the ferry, look for their bus, embark and be on the way again. It will not matter if it is midnight or if it is raining hard. A passenger must follow that routine like cattle being herded (“iyon ang patakaran, e”).

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Now they have to walk in the rain and look for their bus (Matnog port)

Come analyze it. Isn’t that the same as cargo being loaded in North Harbor and being unloaded in a destination port? Yes, people are treated just like cargo. And “dangerous cargo” at that because “people can sabotage” and “all are potential terrorists”. Yes, that is the ISPS (International System of Port Security) which applies like law in our busier ports even if it was not passed by our Congress and we were not asked if we agree to it (well, talk about “representation”). It is just like an imposition by a foreign power.

Well, that onerous procedure in ports against passengers is not surprising for me because the boss in the ports is the PPA (Philippine Ports Authority) and for too, too long they were used to bossing cargo and so they also boss people like cargo.

Can’t not the various tickets queued at the port be remanded to the bus companies so it can be bought and paid for together with the bus ticket? But the problem with the Philippines is we always suspect daya, palusot and rackets. Yes, that is what we are as a people and society. We may really be too crooked a society so we suspect in anything and everything that there are crooks and crookery. As if controls cannot work. It also betrays a lack of trust in the justice (justiis) system that true crooks can be punished and also lack of trust in the bureaucrazy that crookery can be stopped. Immediately.

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Now, because of all those ticket requirements in the port the passengers can’t board with the bus (well, the port authorities will also say “passengers can be hidden”). So it doesn’t matter if it is raining like hell, the bus passengers will have to disembark from the bus and walk scores of meters to the ferry without any shade. It also doesn’t matter if it is midnight and the passengers are too sleepy. It is PPA rules so one has to follow it. Fiats. And that is the PPA concept of “passenger service”. And they won’t mind if it takes you 30 minutes in queue. Or if you are already old and visually-impaired and can’t find your bus after disembarking from the ferry (a common occurrence at night in Matnog port when buses are sent outside the port gates at peak hours because there is not enough back-up area).

Once there was a change in Matnog port. In midnight when raining hard some hustlers will board the bus and solicit service for queuing. That means they will do the queuing. For a P12 PPA terminal fee they will accept P15 or P20 depende na sa buot kan pasahero (depending on the graciousness of the passengers). Practically all passengers wouldn’t mind the difference. Imagine the comfort of just riding the bus up to the car deck or the ramp of the ferry.

Then came the bureaucratic reaction (which always implies lack of understanding). They banned it. They called those hustlers as “fixers”. Many international economic experts understand that “fixers” have a place in the bureaucratic maze. After all, many people don’t want to lose their time or be hassled. It is a willing transaction anyway. The only problem with the Matnog “hustlers”? They lack a law degree. If it were in other cases and the “fixer” is an attorney he will be greeted with far, far more respect and will not be called a “fixer”. But actually the attorney is also “fixing” things. So what is the difference?

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Now came another bureaucratic kneejerk. MARINA questioned buses embarking on ships with its passengers. They say it is “dangerous”. Huh! Not for the drivers? Yes, they will also willingly let you get the “rain treatment” (plus the little mud and water in your shoes). Misplaced concern, I will say.

Aboard the ship MARINA wouldn’t let the passengers stay in the vehicles. The reason? There are no lifejackets in there. Yeah, really. Now, why don’t they require the ferries to have lifejackets in there? They say car deck is just for vehicles. Actually I have been aboard ferries where trucks stay with their trucks especially if it is “Stairs” Class upstairs (that means there are no more seats). I can understand the reluctance of the bus crew to have some passengers stay aboard the bus. Theft is possible and they will be the ones liable. But if it is midnight the drivers sleep with the bus and lucky is the passenger invited aboard for he can lay flat and sleep well unlike upstairs when one has to curl and contort in search of sleep, if that is possible. I have been invited aboard by drivers and I have slept atop the aluminum vans of trucks. It’s nice especially if there is carboard as mattress.

Actually there is also a problem with letting passengers sleep with the bus. If it is an aircon bus and the air-conditioner is running then slowly the car deck will get full of fumes and that will seep upstairs through the stairs. Well, unless ventilation fans are installed or the bow ramp is partially lowered (which is against regulations, too). Unless it is daytime, the ordinary buses can take passengers better. But if it is full and it is daytime and the bow ramp is not partially lowered or if there is no good breeze then the bus will soon be also uncomfortable with heat.

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In daytime and if the route is short there is no problem staying aboard the passenger compartments of the ferry. However, if the transit time is 4-6 hours then not even a TV is enough to while away the time and rest (well, unless one was able to hunt a girl or was hunted if female). Ferry seats are notoriously less comfortable than the bus seats and there is not enough change of scenery to distract the passengers.

Disembarking the passengers are also not allowed to board the buses while on the ship. Well, the car deck will be soon full of fumes if the buses wait for the passengers and sometimes the gap between vehicles is too narrow. But the problem again if it is raining hard and they require the buses to park a distance away from the ferry. It is doubly hard during the night and if there are many buses especially of the same company when the only distinguishing mark is a small number. I have always seen seniors lose their way or board a different bus. It is not unusual if a bus can’t leave for 20 minutes because they have a passenger or two “missing”. Even a veteran like me can make a mistake. I once boarded a bus wrongly. Good I saw the baggage lay-out was different and the driver does not look familiar. So I just asked him where the bus with a particular number is. They usually know.

I just wish the PPA and its guards don’t require the bus to park too far away from the ship and more so when it is raining. And I also hope that near the ramps they have covered areas. That is more important than the lounges that they have. The walks should also be covered. BALWHARTECO, a private port has a covered walk. Why can’t they copy it? Does it mean BALWHARTECO cares more for the passengers than the PPA? They should also bulk up their back-up area to match the traffic. If it means reclamation then they should do it. Is the terminal fee not enough? Or are their funds diverted to construction and maintenance of “ports to nowhere” and other ports that do not have enough revenue? I think the services and facilities of the port should be commensurate to the terminal fee being raked in.

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Covered walk of BALWHARTECO

I just hope that the PPA and MARINA change and look at things from the point of view of the passengers. They are not cargo, they are not cattle.

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?