The Problem With The LCTs

In the old days after World War II, the LCTs, then known as “Landing Craft Tank” was the means to transfer vehicles across the islands and our Navy has the biggest number of that and they even have the bigger LSTs (Landing Ship Tank) which has a door covering the ramps while the LCTs have unshrouded ramps. The Navy then did the service of transferring the vehicles and the heavy equipment between the islands and in general for free for after all most of the businesses then were also in the hands of the local powers or their friends.

THE BRITISH ARMY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1939-45

A World War II LCT. Source: navsource.org

Along the years, privately-held LCTs started growing in number. It was easy to build, no sophisticated equipment is needed, it is cheap and it is practical with different uses. It can be used to transport goods to practically anywhere and even where there are only  unprepared ports. Loose cargo can easily be loaded and unloaded without the use of cranes or booms as a truck can just board the LCT and dock handlers or peons can manually load or unload the cargo. Plus, the LCT is actually a RORO (Roll On, Roll Off ship) as vehicles or tracked equipment can be loaded or unloaded through its ramp.

Our first short-distance ferry-ROROs carrying passengers, cargo and rolling cargo were actually LCTs. That was when there were still no shirt-distance ROROs (and that arrived only in 1979). The short-distance ferry-ROROs came and came but the LCTs remained in the shipping scene. They were still cheap to acquire and operate and they can be built practically anywhere and even in just an improvised shipyard. The skill level needed to build them was not high and the equipment level needed is low as in the acetylene torch was the most critical tool needed.

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A Maayo LCT by Mike Baylon of PSSS

Along the years, the LCT designation changed to “Landing Craft Transport” to better reflect that it no longer carry tanks as they were really full-pledged transports already. As of now, most of our LCTs are just pure cargo ships carrying anything including the ores of strip mining. However, they can still be found in some routes practically unchanged and being used as passenger-cargo ROROs and probably the premier exponent of that is the Maayo Transport which connects Cebu and Negros islands in the southern part. That company has a pure LCT fleet. Other notable operators are Tris-Star Megalink (although their design have evolved already) which connects Negros and Panay island through the Bacolod-Dumangas route. Starhorse Shipping Lines which started in the Marinduque routes also had LCTs in their start. Lite Ferries which is active in Central Visayas and northern Mindanao also uses many LCT and lately they have been acquiring those from China. Recently, a new shipping company touting the LCT came, the Orange Navigation of Baleno Shipping that has lost half its fleet to maritime accidents and which decided on the cheap LCT as replacement. Island Shipping, meanwhile, disposed of it basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs and cruisers and invested in LCTs built right there in its Hagnaya base, There are also other small operators of passenger-cargo LCTs aside from the six mentioned.

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An Orange Navigation LCT by Jon Erodias of PSSS.

However, there is a problem now with the passenger-cargo LCTs and that is its lack of sophistication which means the passengers have to unnecessarily put it with them. That might be okay in the earlier days when we still lacked short-distance ROROs but times have already changed and so the LCT should also evolve.

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An Island Shipping LCT by Karl Sabuga of PSSS.

LCTs clearly lack passenger space and amenities and it is generally hot because the metal of the superstructure is just too near. They do not have the passageway at the sides of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO which keeps the sunlight away from the passengers.

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Late-model Lite Ferries LCTs by James Gabriel Verallo of PSSS.

The LCTs are also bugged by lack of speed because of the shape of the hull (they are flat-bottomed) and generally they are underpowered. When the LCT was designed, speed was never one of the considerations. They were just designed to chug along and carry the cargo cheaply to unprepared docking areas. While short-distance ferries will sail at 10-12 knots, LCTs generally sail at 7-8 knots. Passengers have to put up with such deficiencies and for what? The same level of fares and rolling cargo.

I would argue that to be fair, operators of LCTs should charge lower rates, a discounted one. For them to charge the same with lower acquisition and operational costs means all those advantages just accrue to them and none for the passengers and shippers. One cannot say they have a choice because there is such a thing as time slot in shipping (and also two-hour separation in departure times in many ports) and the passengers and shippers would wait for hours just to wait for a better ride. MARINA, the maritime regulatory agency should also take note of this.

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A Tri-Star Megalink ferry evolved from the LCT by Tristan Lirasan by PSSS

I commend the efforts of Tri-Star Megalink’s evolution of their LCTs into ferries already alike that of the basic, short-distance ferry-RORO.  Those are already faster, the bridges were move forward and so the passenger accommodation  were enlarged and an air-conditioned Tourist section is already standard. That’s the way it should be. There should be progress.

Meanwhile, Montenegro Shipping Lines pioneered the use of Korean hybrid LCTs like the Reina Justisya and the Reina Banderada which are fast for an LCT (because the power is higher) and do not have any more the hull of an LCT. Those even have bulbous bows. But the superstructures of those are not yet extended.

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A modernized LCT of Starhorse Shipping Lines. Photo by MJay Muyo of PSSS.

Lately, however, in a good development starting in 2018, Korean-type LCTs with extended superstructure and bulbous bows started arriving in the Philippines. This was represented by the Virgen de Penafrancia IX and Virgen de Penafrancia X of the Starhorse Shipping Lines of Lucena. In the same year, with the acquisition of a shipyard in Lucena, Montenegro Shipping Lines rolled out the new-build Santa Carmelita to be followed by the Santa Soledad, another new-build this year. Not to be outdone, Starhorse Shipping Lines is bringing anytime to the country their new Korean-built Virgen de Penafrancia XI.

On the other hand, the big Lite Ferries of Cebu which is beginning to dominate the short-distance routes in Central Visayas still have the traditional LCTs and lately they have been acquiring surplus and new-build LCTs from China. Lite Ferries also have LCTs just used for cargo including rolling cargo.

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An improved LCT by Montenegro Shipping Lines. Photo by Carl Jakosalem of PSSS.

There is now a new type of ship, the Cargo RORO LCT, the Philippine version of the RORO Cargo ships of Europe but much less sophisticated. They now serve as truck carriers in the busiest short sea crossings in the country and this segment is actually growing fast. A version of this serves as container van carrier from Manila to selected major ports in the Visayas and Mindanao to as far as Davao. In this role, the LCTs deficiency is minimized because what is mainly carried are trucks and its crew which is already used to the harsh realities of the road.

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A Cargo RORO LCT. Photo by Joe Cardenas of PSSS.

I think in due time LCTs should already be phased out in the passenger-cargo trade. Otherwise, the operators should strive to improve them and not just build the same model that was practically unchanged since 1945.

Our passengers deserve better now.

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It Seems They Are Beginning To Fear The Cargo RORO LCTs Now

Once upon a time, in the early days of connecting islands, LCTs had a place as exemplified by Millennium Shipping in the 1970’s and the LCTs connecting Mactan island and the islands of Samar and Leyte. But as it moved into the 1980’s and the 1990’s, it was the short-distance ferry-ROROs that began connecting the islands like in San Bernardino Strait, in Surigao Strait, in Verde Island Passage, in Guimaras Strait, in Tanon Strait, in Bohol Strait, across Camotes Sea, in Basilan Strait and in Panguil Bay. LCTs began losing favor then and some of the reason might be psychological. There was a belief then that LCTs were “less safe”.

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It was actually only Maayo Shipping and Tri-Star Megalink which bucked the trend in those decades before the change of the millennium by still using LCTs as passenger-cargo carriers. To some extent, Asian Marine Transport Corporation (AMTC) can also be counted here before the start of the new millennium. Among the the most notable operator of passenger-cargo LCTS in this millennium are Lite Ferries and Starhorse Shipping Lines. Of course, LCTs also connected Samal island, Guimaras and Olutanga islands but I would rather exclude it here as they were very short connections like the connection across Sula Channel of Albay to Cagraray island.

LCTs as means of transport are slow and slower than short-distance ferry-ROROs. Their passenger accommodations are also very basic and small and can be uncomfortable. They were never really meant to be people carrier unless one is talking of the hybrid Korean LCTs (like the Ma. Angelica Grace, Reina Banderada, Reina Justisya and Star San Carlos among others) which have more comfortable passenger accommodations and even airconditioning plus bigger engines which afford speeds higher than the basic, short-distance ferry-ROROs.

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I do not know which started the trend of using LCTs for vehicles mainly with not much intent to carry passengers. The most significant I noticed that had an operation like this was Golden Bridge Shipping of the Lua family (owner of a tramper company and Oceanjet) which has its base in Cansaga Bay and had a route to Hindang, Leyte. Early on they were known as Socor Shipping. Of course, Mandaue Transport also had a route from Mandaue to Tagbilaran and Simpoi Shipping had a route from Carmen to Ormoc.

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There were also LCTs that were used not for rolling cargo but as container van carriers. Ocean Transport chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation for this purpose which was copied by others until they were able to acquire their own LCTs. But of course, transit time from Manila to Cebu can take up to 4 days but container vans won’t protest unlike passengers. Some Asian Shipping Corporation LCTs were also chartered to load container vans from Manila to Cagayan de Oro.

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These operations are of course Cargo RORO operations. The only difference is instead of using Cargo RORO or RORO Cargo ships, LCTs are used. That is why I termed these LCTs as “Cargo RORO LCTs”.

Starting in 2012, LCTs from China began appearing in great number in Mactan Channel and the biggest owners were Cebu Sea Charterers, Broadway One Shipping, Concrete Solutions/Primary Trident Marine Solutions and Royal Dragon Ocean Transport. The first two simply had numbers as names of the LCTs. The third one was the owner of the Poseidon LCTs and the last one was the owner of the Meiling LCTs. Asian Shipping Corporation also bulked up their LCT fleet. Supposedly, these LCTs which were called “deck loading ships” in China will be used to transport ores from Surigao to China.

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However, two major happenings intervened. One, the need of China for ores declined and in November of 2013, Typhoon “Yolanda” wreaked havoc in Eastern Visayas. In the aftermath, in the need for relief and rehabilitation of the region, trucks and trailers have to cross. This happened during a time that the long-distance trucks were already running via Eastern Visayas as substitute for the ship-borne container vans and many of these are still destined for Mindanao.

Immediately, mile-long queues of trucks formed in the ports of Matnog, Allen, Liloan, Benit and Lipata leading to loud protests. MARINA then allowed the temporary use of LCTs which became de facto permanent until today. Meanwhile, there was also a great demand for bottoms to be used by trucks across Camotes Bay. Suddenly, the moored “deck loading ships” in Cansaga Bay was crossing Camotes Bay, San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait. Cebu Sea Charterers and the Poseidon LCTs slowly begans Cargo RORO LCT operations together with the Adnama LCTs (many more were used in Surigao and elsewhere). Roble Shipping meanwhile chartered LCTs from Asian Shipping Corporation which they replaced when they were able to acquire their own LCTs.

There was also an upsurge in LCT demand to Bohol and some old LCT began plying routes. Feeling their grip threatened, Lite Ferries bought them all lock, stock and barrel aside from buying additional LCTs. Meanwhile, Cebu Sea Charterers invaded other routes like the Carmen-Ormoc, the Dumangas-Banago and the Tuburan-Escalante routes. Suddenly, the lowly LCTs which became Cargo RORO LCTs looked menacing. Even the pioneer Golden Bridge Shipping which had queues even before “Yolanda” feels threatened now.

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How did this come to be? One reason is at the start, the overnight ferry companies crossing Camotes Sea did not give due regard to the rolling cargo or vehicles. They were too content in their successful palletized and loose cargo operations and they underestimated the need of the rolling cargo. At the start only Golden Bridge Shipping, Simpoi Shipping and Asian Marine Transport Corporation were servicing them. It seems Lite Ferries saw the need earlier than their fellow overnight ferry companies. Well, they are strong in rolling cargo operation in Bohol and is even dominating it.

Secondly, in terms of rates none can beat the Cargo RORO LCTs. They might be slow but in terms of rates they are far cheaper than the overnight ferry companies as in they can give rates that are cheaper by 40%. Well, they don’t need to invest in passenger services and accommodations and they have small engines compared to overnight ROROs. Now they even carry container vans not in trailers to Leyte from Cebu superseding the container ships that used to call in Leyte ports from Manila.

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That is always the danger brought by Cargo RORO LCTs, the low rates. Now feeling they can’t beat it, the overnight ferry companies are beginning to acquire their own LCTs. Lite Ferries is so well ahead in this game but Roble Shipping is already following suit. Medallion Transport seems not to be that worried yet because compared to other they saw immediately the need for rolling cargo operations and were not too dependent on palletized and loose cargo operations. After all they started in short-distance ferry-RORO operations and so they might have had a better understanding of rolling cargo from the start.

The old ROROs better adjust now. From what I heard even the big Asian Shipping Corporation which has the most number of ships in the Philippines is joining the fray. It seems they might have already tired of just chartering LCTs.

In the eastern seaboard, I heard the Cargo RORO LCTs are already the favorites of the truckers. As they say money talks. Price point as decision point is simply too easy not to miss. Everybody wants savings.

To me, it is no longer a question if the Cargo RORO LCT sector will take a slice of the pie. The question is how much. From container ships to liners to overnight ships to short-distance ferries, all are threatened. They will not be overwhelmed but they must be prepared to share the pie with the Cargo RORO LCTs. By how much, now that is the guessing game. All I know is the Cargo RORO LCT rates are simply unbeatable. And that might be sending shivers now down the spine of the competition.

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And I dare say this development is good. Rolling rates are simply too high in the Philippines because the regulatory agency MARINA never learned how to compute rates. It is as if fuel and distance are never really factored in.

Rolling cargo rates of the LCTs across Camotes Sea is now lower than RORO rate across Surigao Strait. How did that happen?