Once upon a time one bus company dominated the landscape of Bicol. The combined ALATCO-BITRANCO-CAL completely dominated all the lines, from the major to the minor including routes going to the far-flung barrios. In almost every town it has a terminal where buses and crew lay down for the night. In anticipation of the next day’s market, the bus consortium even lays over buses in the interior barrios. There were no jeepneys then.
ALATCO stood for A.L. Ammen Transportation Company, the first bus company in the country. BITRANCO is Bicol Transportation Company and CAL means Consolidated Auto Lines. ALATCO and BITRANCO sported near-identical red liveries while CAL used a yellow-orange livery. While ALATCO and BITRANCO mainly used full-sized buses, CAL used mini-buses and it concentrated in the barrio and minor routes. The consortium was headquartered in Iriga City.
But before the end of the ’60s the consotium floundered. It was bought by PANTRANCO (Pangasinan Transportation Company) whose reputed beneficial owners are the Marcoses. It was renamed PANTRANCO South and later Philtranco Service Enterprise, Inc. (PSEI).
PANTRANCO South and Philtranco never lived up to the legacy of ALATCO. It withdrew from the minor and barrio routes then slowly concentrated on the Manila run. Later they fully abandoned the local Bicol routes.
From a legend in maintenance and service, PANTRANCO South and Philtranco began fielding unsafe and shoddy units. It was associated with taking forever on the road and poor service. Bicolanos started to shun the bus company. With that, new Bicol bus companies began emerging starting with JB Lines. Soon the so-called “colorums” of Bicol began sprouting. Its main weapon was its low fares.
For a while Philtranco made a comeback with the entry of Pepito Alvarez, who re-capitalized the company. But soon the former “colorums” started easing out Philtranco in more and more routes. It was offering a flat rate to Bicol which was only half of what Philtranco is charging. Even today with high fuel prices, it is offering fares in the range of P300-350 (ordinary class). It is now the bus of the masses and in this role it supplanted the moribund Philippine National Railways (PNR) trains.
Its buses are now much improved. From “fly-by-night” and TOP (Temporary Operator’s Permit) operations, it slowly legalized itself. It even bought old franchises from defunct bus companies.
Was is their secret? One, they are able to pack in their buses and it is good in looking for passengers in the highway. It even uses “hustlers” for this. It also assembles most of its units using mid-sized but thrifty engines. This gave rise to the Bicol bus-making industry which is centered in Tabaco City. Its RMB and JYQ brand of buses are among the most prominent and it is even “exported” now to other regions like the Eastern Visayas.
Its operations are low-cost, no-frills. To comply with terminal requirements, it just make arrangements with carinderias (food joints) so passengers will have a comfort room to use and chairs to sit on. Many do not even have inspectors. And they have no expensive terminals and depots to maintain.
Now some of the old “colorums” can even buy new units including air-conditioned ones while Philtranco is content with rehabilitated/re-bodied units (but factory-done so it still looks good). Among the former upstarts that upset Philtranco are St. Jude/Buban, TAWTRASCO, Antonina, JVH, A. Bragais, Barbosa, I. Bea, R.U. Diaz/RJ, N. Bolanos and A. Arandia. Most of it came from the 1st District of Albay whose center is Tabaco City.
At the top end, Philtranco is squeezed by quality operators like Isarog, Penafrancia, RSL, Cagsawa, Executive Carriers and Gold Line. But looming on the horizon, with ever-increasing shadows is Raymond Transportation. More and more it is being called as the “new Philtranco” of Bicol. Not bad for a former mini-bus operator in Calauag, Quezon some 20 years ago whose first Bicol route is a line to Ragay, Camarines Sur.
Good that Bicol is a deregulated area like Eastern Visayas. Without it these upstarts might not have made it. Bicolanos enjoyed choice and lower fares as a result.
PANTRANCO South and Philtranco abandoned the local Bicol routes and ALATCO’s legacy. It is where their challengers emerged. Karma?