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.

Superferry 12

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.

Cagayan de Oro Port And Trans-Asia Shipping Lines

Cagayan de Oro port is the main connection of Mindanao to Cebu through the sea and in the south it is Cebu that is the primary trade and commercial center. Cebu supplies so many goods to Mindanao and it also attracts a lot of students and professionals from northern Mindanao. Besides a lot of people in Mindanao have Cebu origins. Cebu’s pre-eminence goes back a long, long time ago and that was even before the Spaniards came. When Magellan reached Cebu they noticed that there were many ships from Siam! Sugbu was already a great trading center even before Fernando Magallanes and Lapu-lapu were born.

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Cagayan de Oro port

Cagayan de Oro was not always the main port of entry from Cebu to Mindanao. Misamis town (Ozamis City now) reached prominence earlier than it and that was why it was the capital of the unified Misamis province then. And in the boom of copra before the 1929 Wall Street Crash in the US, Medina town and Gingoog were even more prosperous than Cagayan de Misamis, the old name of Cagayan de Oro (by the way there is no gold in that city; it was just a name creation to make it more attractive-sounding). Camiguin was also more prosperous then than Cagayan de Misamis (because of copra and not because of lanzones). All these are validated by the biography of former Vice-President Emmanuel Pelaez who hails from the area and whose father was the former Governor of the unified Misamis province.

But things always change and when the interior of Mindanao was opened for exploitation and the Sayre Highway that extended up to Cotabato province was built, slowly the central position of Cagayan de Misamis buoyed it up until it exceeded Misamis, Medina, Gingoog and Camiguin. The Americans’ interest in Bukidnon agribusiness (think pineapple and Del Monte) also helped a great deal and with that even Bugo port in Cagayan de Misamis became a port of importance.

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Part of Sayre Highway leading to Bukidnon

Many shipping companies served the growing commerce between Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. Some of earlier ones were national liner companies (almost all liners then going to Cagayan de Oro call in Cebu first) and some were regionals like Central Shipping (but this graduated to the national liner company Sweet Lines). The situation then was national liner companies dominated the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro corridor (in fact the entire Cebu-northern Mindanao corridor). On the side of the regionals, they were then dependent on wooden motor boats and at best they would have ex-”F” ships or ships converted from minesweepers or PT boats.

In 1974, a new shipping company was born in Cebu which was first known as Solar Shipping Lines but they immediately changed their company name to Trans-Asia Shipping Lines Inc. or TASLI for short. This company had an entirely new tack which made them surpass their regional rivals immediately. Their strategy was to buy good surplus cruisers from Japan whose size even exceeded the former “FS” ships which in those days still dominated the fleet of the national liner companies (but which actually are already reaching the end of their reliable service and were already prone to accidents). The age of those surplus ships of TASLI was about the same of the small liners being purchased then from Japan by the national liner companies. So imagine TASLI’s edge in the regional and specifically the Cebu-northern Mindanao shipping wars especially the premier route to Cagayan de Oro.

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Asia Philippines by TASLI

The cruisers of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines were of course faster, more reliable and more comfortable as comfort was not the strength of the former “FS” ships then which has cargo origins. And, of course, the ex-”F” ships, etc. were even more inferior along with the wooden motor boats. Even in the 1970’s when our population was much smaller and the trade of goods then smaller too, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was able to form a fleet of seven of these modern (by Philippine standards) cruisers which were all built in Japan in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

These TASLI ships bore the names which later became familiar even to the current generation: Asia Philippines, Asia Japan, Asia Indonesia, Asia China and Trans-Asia (two were sold and replaced by ships that bore the same name). To complete the modernist approach, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines built a modern main office and an airconditioned ticketing office just across Plaza Independencia which stands until now and the company was justifiably proud of those. And I say I have to congratulate its architect and the owners because the building still looks beautiful four decades later. Their buildings were just near where their ships docked then. Actually, I sometimes go there just to feel the ambiance and the history of the place.

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TASLI ticketing office

When the new shipping paradigm came which we know today as the RORO ships, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines immediately went aboard and sold their old cruisers. In this field, among the Visayas-Mindanao regional shipping companies, only Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. (CAGLI) was ahead of them. In the 1980′,s after the break-up with Lorenzo Shipping Corporation, CAGLI stressed regional operations and they were first to realize the superiority of the ROROs even in the overnight ferry field. Roble Shipping Inc. and Cokaliong Shipping Lines Inc. (CSLI) were among the recipients of the cast-off cruisers of TASLI.

In succession from 1987, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines acquired Asia Hongkong, a new Asia Japan, Asia Thailand, Asia Taiwan, Asia Brunei and a new Asia Indonesia, a new Asia Singapore, a new Trans-Asia, a new Asia Philippines and a new Asia China with the last one added in 1995. Trans-Asia Shipping Lines were adding more than a new ship a year in this stretch and this brought them easily to the top of the Visayas-Mindanao regional shipping companies. From Cebu as a hub, their routes spread like the spokes of the wheel with routes to Mindanao, the all the major Visayas islands and even Masbate in the Bicol Region. And they dominated the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route. They even exceeded there Carlos A. Gothong Lines and Sulpicio Lines.

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The jewels of their fleet were the sister ships Trans-Asia and Asia China. The two were nearly liner in size and speed and they had the appointments and comforts of a liner. In those days, the two were probably the best overnight ships in the whole country and Trans-Asia Shipping Lines was justifiably proud of the two. It was more than a statement that “they have arrived”. They were the best among the regionals, the top in the totem pole of this category.

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But storms at sea can suddenly appear out of nowhere and their fury could be fiercer than one might expect. The “typhoon” that battered Trans-Asia Shipping Lines appeared on January 1, 1996 when the “Great Merger” between Williams Lines Inc., Carlos A. Gothong Lines Inc. and Aboitiz Shipping Company happened which produced the giant shipping company WG&A. With the creation of WG&A, a new, more powerful regional shipping company suddenly appeared, the Cebu Ferries Corporation or CFC. It also had another subsidiary, the High Speed Craft (HSC) company SuperCat.

In Cebu Ferries Corporation, WG&A passed on their old liners and the former regional ships of William Lines and CAGLI. To top it and to challenge the jewels of TASLI which were ruling the prime Visayas-Mindanao route, the Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route, CFC fielded the Our Lady of Lipa and later the Our Lady of Good Voyage, a small William Lines liner which was the former Mabuhay 6. So as not to lose in the one-upmanship, Sulpicio Lines then fielded the even bigger Princess of the Ocean which was really a liner in appointments, speed and size.

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Photo credit: Ray Smith

The Our Lady of Lipa and Princess of the Ocean were both capable of 20 knots and so the races between Cebu and Cagayan de Oro began. The bragging rights comes from which ship will arrive Cagayan de Oro port first. In Cagayan de Oro that matters because maybe half of the passengers will still be travelling long distances to Bukidnon, Davao, Cotabato, Gensan and Lanao (the farthest I heard was still bound for Sarangani islands). If one is able to hitch to a connecting ride before dawn then he will have lunch at home even it is as far as Davao. In won’t be dark already when the passenger reaches Sarangani province unlike before (if one is late and there are no more trips then one sleeps in Gensan).

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And reports of 2:00 or 2:30 am arrivals (or even earlier) began filtering back. From an 8pm departure in Cebu! There was no way the sister ships of Trans-Asia Shipping Lines can match that. In comfort and accommodations they probably can match ships fitted as liners (except in speed and maybe in the restaurant). But Cebu Ferries Corporation also has a more extensive route system and in conjunction with WG&A liners passing through Cebu their frequencies can’t be matched. WG&A liners acting also as Visayas-Mindanao liners were simply untouchable like the SuperFerries emanating from Cebu. Or when they use the likes of Our Lady of Sacred Heart in a Vis-Min route. Maybe TASLI then were asking what sea god they have crossed to deserve such a fate and tribulation!

Trans-Asia Shipping Lines tried to fight back (and show they are not cowered). They acquired three more ships in a short stretch between 1997 and 1998, the Trans-Asia 2, the Asia Malaysia and the Asia South Korea. However, they lost two ships to accidents in 1999 and they sold three more ships early this millennium. There was simply a surplus of bottoms in the Visayas-Mindanao routes so there was overcompetition (contrary to what Myrna S. Austria claims but those knowledgeable of Visayas-Mindanao shipping will easily contradict her). A lot of regional shipping companies failed in this period. The growth of others were stunted and that included Trans-Asia Shipping Lines.

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Soon, even Cebu Ferries Corporation stepped back, gave up routes and sold ships. It was not simply the effects of overcompetition on them. The “Great Merger” unraveled and the Chiongbian and Gothong families pulled out and they had to be paid for their shares and so still-good ships were thrown to the torches of the breakers. Later, reeling from the resurgence of competitors, Cebu Ferries Corporation gave up completely and its remaining ships were brought to Batangas (and becoming “Batangas Ferries”, jokingly).

But Trans-Asia Shipping Lines suffered a lot. For ten years from 1998 they didn’t acquire any ships until when the purchased the Trans-Asia 3 in 2008. From 2010, Trans-Asia Shipping Lines acquired four more ships. But the difference this time were they were purchasing ships discarded by others (that was the pattern of their clients Cokaliong Shipping Lines and Roble Shipping Lines before). It seems they have forgotten the formula which brought them to the top. As I observed, they were not the same company after that bruising battle with Cebu Ferries Corporation. The “Great Merger” was actually a curse to our shipping as it turned out. Not only to TASLI but to the whole shipping industry. Shipping companies that were growing were blighted by them, some were even snuffed out completely.

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While Trans-Asia Shipping Lines still added four more ferries from 2010, they also lost about the same number through disposals and an accident, the sinking of the Asia Malaysia. And then they sold to the breakers their former jewels which might have weak engines already but the interiors were still superb.

Now one of the cast-offs they bought, the Trans-Asia 5 now just sails as a Cargo RORO ship and another has fast-weakening engine, the Trans-Asia 9 (the Captain of her as Our Lady of Good Voyage admitted to PSSS that its engines were weak already). Trans-Asia Shipping Lines severely lacks ships now and their fleet is beginning to get gray. They still try to hold to the premier Cebu-Cagayan de Oro route but challengers are now baying at their door.

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I hope they have a renaissance. And like in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s that they sail boldly on to a new dawn.