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‘I can’t stop being of service to T&T’
As newly appointed chairman of the Port Authority of T&T (PATT), Lyle Alexander is now at the helm of an entity plagued with problems, including a malfunctioning seabridge, ageing infrastructure, rising operational costs and increased regional competition.
So he was quick to raise the question that has been asked ever since he took up the position: why was I crazy enough to take this position?
The former military man, who stepped in following the resignation of Alison Lewis, offers a simple answer, “Somebody has to do it.”
He is confident he has the experience to deal with the challenges at the PATT, including the ones that have kept the state run body in the headlines for the past year.
“I can’t stop being of service to the country and I saw this as just another way to serve as best as I could. I now have to do the best that I can with what I have been dealt with,” he said.
A soldier for some 33 years, Alexander retired at the rank of colonel. He is a former commanding officer of the Defence Force Reserves and he has also worked with oil giants Amoco and BP for about ten years collectively in the area of risk management.
Alexander has since established his own company, Specialists Limited, which is based at Fitt Street, Woodbrook.
“I am very passionate about risk management and, to some extent, that is part and parcel of the military experience and so I decided to make that a second career.
“Somewhere in there also I looked at it from my experience in business. I learnt quite a lot and got interested in business resilience and responding to emergencies and just being able to function as best as you could under any circumstance so that is sort of my preparation for where I am now.
“I think you are never totally prepared but I am sufficiently prepared to deal with whatever circumstances I may face,” he said.
Alexander said he will be guided by a team of experts, all of whom make his job easier as he attempts to steer the PATT back to viability.
“From a business point of view we need to get the port to optimise its potential and by port I’m not talking about the ferry service,” he explained.
“There is a whole lot more to the port than the ferry service and I think if we can get that service sorted out and back on track this will provide a lot of opportunities for us to optimise its potential that resides in this port at the moment.”
Tapping into the potential
Alexander said people, an obvious and valued resource at the port, must be further developed as they are integral in making it work.
Young people in management positions provide opportunities for development, lending itself to long-term capability within the leadership of the PATT, he said. However, there is need for developmental leadership and more management training.
According to Alexander, there is a keen sense of commitment and willingness on their part of PATT personnel to increase efficiency and profitability. There is also a real need for re-strategising the future direction of the facility, to thoroughly understand its functions and what this means for the development of the economy and by extension the country.
“There is a need for us to get a little more involved with our stakeholders—those involved in the maritime sector—to be able to fully get the Port up to the level where it is really making a significant contribution to T&T,” he said.
“This will include the Shipping Association and cruise liners. There needs to be that coming together of minds to see what best we can do to be able to catch up with some of our neighbours in the Caribbean because some of them have left us behind.
To some extent it’s a wide, clean slate that we have in front of us and we can really put strategies in place in line with government’s policy because everything platforms on that.”
There is an urgent need to upgrade very old infrastructure but that requires significant sums, Alexander admitted. However, that work will provide much needed investment opportunities which are key to the Port of Port-of-Spain’s sustainability.
“Once we have that we will know what kind of strategies we will have to employ in terms of where the port needs to go. We will have a roadmap to take us to where we want to get to,” Alexander said.
The Inter-island Ferry Service has been an area of concern.
There are recurring issues with long lines of cargo trucks and frustrated passengers at peak periods.
Alexander said there is need for a better organised service to achieve greater efficiency requires an improved structure, better equipment and even upgrades to the way we do business.
“We have to see it as not just a ferry going between Trinidad and Tobago. We have to see it as a critical social service to the people. If we see it like that, then we have to start focusing on our customer service, paying attention to the needs of our customers.”
He explained that the ferry service is really a “tenant on the port,” which must be properly functioning so that it does not negatively affecting the commercial aspects of the PATT.
On the issue of whether there should be more vessels to increase the strength of the seabridge, Alexander said a feasibility study of the ferry operations is in the pipelines.
“It may not only be the vessel. It may mean schedules, looking at passenger and cargo; many things come into play. It’s really about streamlining all the requirements to make that service not only effective but sustainable.”
Reports of sabotage
Last month malfunctioning toilets affected the operations of the Cabo Star, the only cargo vessel servicing the domestic route. It was discovered that rocks, lemons and clothing had been placed in the toilets to choke the vessel’s sewer system.
There have been claims the acts were deliberate but Alexander insists that facts supported by evidence must be first presented.
“I come to conclusions when I have sufficient evidence to support them. There is no evidence I have at the moment to specifically say there is or has been sabotage,” he said.
“There are times, however, when you can speculate based on how things are happening but in the same vein it can all be coincidental,” he added.
Ferry service heavily subsidised
Vilma Lewis-Cockburn, manager, marketing and public relations at the T&T Inter-island Transportation Company (TTIT), said with respect to current cargo operations there is excess capacity which must be ramped up for the port to be financially viable.
“We have space but the vessels are not coming as they used to. While we make some money with the cargo operations there is a lot more we can make,” she admitted.
Profitability is hampered by the post Panamax traffic which has resulted in the loss of business to this country. The US$5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion which opened for commercial purposes about two years ago, had a significant effect on maritime traffic across vital international lanes that link the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf-of-Mexico.
It created a demand for ports to handle new Panamax ships with a length of 1201 feet and cargo capacity up to 13,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU).
Due to the limited depth of T&T’s harbour, post Panamax vessels cannot be accommodated.
“What used to be a mainline feeder is now a small or feeder vessel in the scheme of things so they have consolidated larger vessels in operation but those vessels can’t call here. We lost a Brazil service. We have lost transshipment cargo as well,” Lewis-Cockburn said.
She shares Alexander’s view that infrastructural upgrade is essential.
“Investment is so significant that you need to justify at least that you will get back that cargo when you actually spend that kind of money and that’s the challenge for us now,” she said.
Another drawback is that the ferry service is heavily subsidised by the government.
“At $50 a ticket for an adult, $100 one-way, it really doesn’t cover sometimes the fuel we use to make the crossing. We are not making revenue simply because it is heavily subsidised. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world you can get a one-way ticket—three hours for $50, child $25 and toddler zero,” Lewis-Cockburn said.
She said a study was done some years ago recommended that to at least to break even, a ferry ticket should cost more that the return $300 airline ticket to Tobago.
“This was about ten years ago, so that gives you an idea of the kind of cost, the kind of losses in terms of revenue,” she said.
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