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Taking another look
While controversy swirls regarding the current challenges being faced with the seabridge between Trinidad and Tobago, it must be noted that the issues regarding reliability and adequacy of service did not occur overnight.
Ferry after ferry and service after service have been fraught with complaints for the decades in which the ferry service have been in place.
Those who are old enough would recall the days of the MV Tobago, the MF Panorama, MF Gelting, The Cat and Lynx and within more recent times the T&T Express, T&T Spirit and the Warrior Spirit. While there were some improvements seen over the periods of these leases or acquisitions, one common denominator has been controversy and considerable sums expended by successive governments in the form of transport subsidies.
Fifty plus years and billions of dollars later there is little positive to show for the experiences. The people of Tobago have been the ones who have been coming out on the losing end both economically and socially, while the citizens have footed the subsidy bill.
Modernising cargo flow to Tobago
Based on the preceding, and considering the challenging economic times that we now face, the current situation should be considered unsustainable and therefore it is prudent that other alternatives be considered as potential solutions for the movement of goods between the two islands.
Trinidad and Tobago has an overall population of 1.35 million persons.
Tobago—with a population of 60,000—represents 4.4 per cent of the total population of both islands. Imports of containerised cargo into Trinidad total approximately 1,500 containers weekly.
If one were to approximate consumption patterns accordingly to Tobago, this would mean a cargo requirement equivalent of roughly 67 containers per week for Tobago.
Such a volume could easily be handled by a small container vessel similar to what calls at the Ports of Point Lisas or Port-of-Spain.
Making the change
Based on the foregoing therefore, Tobago—and assumedly the Port of Scarborough—can potentially be able to accommodate normal cargo vessels that call at both Point Lisas and Port-of-Spain, for the necessary one-time capital investment.
The implications of this are two-fold:
1. The potential to significantly reduce the cost of cargo movement to Tobago, and
2. Placing government in a position to eliminate the subsidy for goods movement, and transfer instead reasonable costs to Tobago wholesalers.
Other systems and processes that will need to be put in place would include container handling equipment at the Port in Scarborough, storage ship direct warehouse in Tobago, and positioning of a small fleet of trucks and trailers in Tobago for movement of the containers.
Cargo for containers can be stuffed at any warehouse in Trinidad and shipped through any one of the two major ports. The added benefit of utilising container vessels is that containers can also be packed at source with items destined for Tobago, thereby negating the need for packing of imported products at warehouses in Trinidad.
This proposed arrangement could effectively eliminate the need for multiple weekly cargo vessel sailings to Tobago as a single weekly sailing may suffice.
It is instructive to note that based on the Shipping Association’s understanding, there is no clear knowledge of what tonnage of cargo is being shipped to Tobago. The only information available is the number of trucks and or vehicles that are sent with cargo for each sailing.
Further, regardless of truck size, the same amount is payable by the truck owner to the Port for each slot on the vessel. The truck owner then charges the shipper from Trinidad or the receiver in Tobago for the shipment of the cargo.
So, in explaining the current government subsidy for shipment of the goods, the government pays the difference between the overall operational cost of the vessel and the total paid by the trucking companies or transporters to the Port Authority (effectively the government).
Utilising the dedicated containerised vessel, the only subsidy the government should consider is payment to the shipping company for unutilised cargo space on the vessel. The utilised cargo slots would be paid for by the shippers from Trinidad or receivers in Tobago.
The proposed scenario will require some level of adjustment by businesses in both islands but will—in the medium term—result in better logistics for movement of goods, lower overall costs and better predictability of demand.
Some of the shipping lines that currently call at Ports in Trinidad have the ability to handle the cargo movement requirement. These lines include CMA-CGM, Crowley, Seaboard and Tropical, and any one of them can make the required adjustments to their current vessel rotations to incorporate Tobago into the schedules as the trip could only take about five hours in each direction.
For all this to work effectively, however, government must actively embrace the one country/multiple port concept.
This means the necessary laws need to be changed to eliminate the need for Customs input for every port call within T&T’s territorial waters, thus eliminating timely and unnecessary delays. The legislative changes would also require the repeal of the Droghers Act, which like the new Shipping Act, has been carded for execution for the last decade.
With government’s announced plans for a ferry terminal in Toco, the requirements should, ultimately, be reduced to facilitating the movement of passengers only, thereby significantly reducing infrastructural costs.
The Shipping Association stands ready and willing to collaborate with any and all stakeholders to explore the development and realisation of the aforementioned vision.
The Shipping Association of T&T
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