POSTSCRIPT / March 17, 2015 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Port users must help ease cargo handling

WAIT AND SEE: Like river silt flowing back in if neglected after dredging, cargo congestion will creep back at the Manila port if its stakeholders do not help maintain the unclogged situation that was achieved before the last APEC meetings here.

Business groups have indicated skepticism on government claims that operations at the port of Manila have “completely normalized” after months of tightness due to the pileup of cargo containers.

Local trade groups such as the Semiconductor and Electronics Industries of the Philippines Inc., the Philippine Exporters Confederation Inc. and the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines Inc. have expressed reservations about the reported easing of the situation.

They said it remains to be seen if the normal situation at the ports could be sustained when the peak season for trade starts at the second half of the year.

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COMMON GOOD: Some of the skeptics warn that congestion in ports in other countries will soon overflow into the “normal” Manila ports and restart the jamming up of cargo containers anew.

They mentioned the huge backlogs now being experienced in Kaoshiung, Singapore, Hong Kong and even in the United States, which have problems that are mostly unrelated to the improving local situation.

The local situation that should be the concern of the Manila port stakeholders, however, calls for all sectors to contribute in sustaining the improvements at the harbors for their common good.

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COMMITMENTS: A major concern among stakeholders is the resistance of freight rates to go down, both in shipping and trucking charges, despite the vastly improved ports situation.

For instance, even the slide of fuel prices has not resulted in lower trucking rates, which have risen by 50 to 100 percent after a truck ban was imposed in Manila in February last year.

Director Alberto Suansing of the Confederation of Truckers Association of the Philippines said that while fuel cost eats up around 30 percent of the total operating cost of truckers, “it is still competition that primarily determines trucking rates.”

Suansing, however, had committed that truck rates will be reduced once the tight situation at the Manila ports eases and truck turnaround time returns to pre-congestion levels. Shipping lines also made the same commitment.

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ILP IDEA: Maintaining the improvements at the Manila ports depends on the collaboration of port operators and users.

Cooperation, for instance, helped resolve the electricity supply deficiency now being addressed through the so-called Interruptible Load Program. The ILP was the product of collaboration between the government and private firms to ease the looming power shortage.

Demand for electricity rises with economic growth, but the requirement may not be met because the setting up of new power plants had been overlooked by the administration.

One stopgap remedy found was to lease high-capacity generators of private firms to run during the peak hours. One problem here is the high cost to government and to consumers who will bear the pass-on increase in their electricity bills.

Another solution proposed was for huge power users such as supermalls to help reduce the pressure on the grid by using their generators when the demand rises.

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BOOKING SYSTEM: A similar scheduling system being introduced at the Manila ports could be key in maintaining efficiency at the harbors when movement of goods peaks and shipments start to build up by the second semester.

Manila International Container Terminal (MICT) operator International Container Terminal Services Inc. (ICTSI) will introduce a vehicle booking system (VBS) in the second or third quarter, in time for the expected rise in ports use as shipments pick up for the holiday season.

For the project to be seamless, Asian Terminals Inc. (ATI), operator of Manila South Harbor, has agreed with ICTSI to integrate their systems to avoid booking one truck in both terminals at the same time.

A successful run of the VBS in both terminals may encourage government to lift all forms of truck ban in the metropolis. Note that while Manila has lifted a daytime truck ban, the Metro Manila Development Authority maintains a ban during rush hours.

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REDUCED QUEUING: The VBS is a truck appointment system requiring truckers to secure advance appointment from port operators before proceeding to the terminals to pick up or deposit containers.

The system can reduce queuing of trucks on nearby roads, since trucks can travel to the ports only when they have a verified transaction. Similar appointment systems are already being used in other ports around the world.

A similar Internet-based empty container return application is being tested in Metro Manila. With the application, shipping lines can book online a truck to haul empty containers to an off-dock yard. This cuts their queuing outside container yard while waiting for available space.

Data from the Philippine Ports Authority show that the port situation has vastly improved even as the volume of in-out cargo grew faster last year despite the congestion arising from the Manila truck ban.

Cargo volume went up by 4.6 percent to 211.2 million metric tons last year from 201.9 million MT in 2013 at the Manila ports from a 4.4 percent increase registered in 2013.

Container volume went up by 4 percent to 5.43 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) from 5.23 million TEUs, as foreign container traffic rose 3.4 percent to 3.29 million TEUs while domestic container traffic grew 4.9 percent to 2.14 million TEUs.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 17, 2015)

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