The Trinidad and Tobago transport sector refocuses on long-term strategies


Trinidad and Tobago has a long history as a transport hub. On his first trip to the region in 1595, British explorer Walter Raleigh considered the Gulf of Paria, away from the hurricane belt to the north, to be a suitable port. He found the ideal source of asphalt for caulking his ships in Pitch Lake and could use the naturally sheltered island as his base for exploring South America and the Caribbean. In the twentieth century, the discovery of hydrocarbons and the industrialisation of the island allowed T&T to become the largest exporter of natural gas in the Caribbean, spurring the development of modern ports and airports.

However, in recent years T&T’s transport sector has faced significant competition and challenges, and with government coffers squeezed by the drop in global oil prices, major infrastructure updates and the proposed creation of a multi-modal public transit system have been put on hold. In the 2016/17 budget the Ministry of Works and Transport received TT$2.09bn ($312m) in funding, far behind national security at TT$7.6bn ($1.13bn) and education at TT$7.2bn ($1.07bn). However, if government efforts to diversify industry, attract tourists and alleviate road congestion are to be successful, improvements to the country’s maritime, aviation and public transport systems should gain renewed focus.

Missing The Boat 

In July 2016 the newly expanded Panama Canal began commercial operations allowing for a greater number and size of ships. A new set of locks enables the transit of New Panamax vessels – measuring up to 366 metres in length, 49 metres in width and 15.24 metres of draft – and will have the capacity to accommodate container vessels of up to 13,200 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) or 170,000 deadweight tonnes. While the $5.3bn expansion allows for greater economies of scale for Asian shipments destined for the Caribbean and the east coast of the US, as well as greater revenues for Caribbean shipping in general, T&T has not been able to take advantage as the country’s ports are unable to accommodate ships of that size. T&T has two container ports: the largest is the Port of Port of Spain (PPOS), which is wholly owned by the government with an area of 142 ha and a capacity of around 700,000 TEUs; and the Port of Point Lisas (PPL), which is jointly owned by the government and the Point Lisas Industrial Port Development Corporation (PLIPDECO), each holding a 51% and 49% share, respectively.

Neither ports have the draft required to accept the canal’s larger vessels. “We see those ships passing every day, but they no longer stop here,” Rhett Chee Ping, managing director of shipping firm Gordon, Grant & Co, told OBG. “The government has not put a strategy in place to meet this demand.”

Canal Expansion 

The opening of the Panama Canal extension has had major repercussions for the Caribbean shipping market. A number of ports began planning for the canal’s expansion in advance by implementing their own expansion projects, often through injections of private capital.

In Colón, Panama, where the canal enters the Caribbean, the Port of Manzanillo underwent a $270m expansion project involving dredging, the addition of 695 metres of new dock space and the deployment of automatic stacking cranes. In Jamaica, a consortium led by French container transportation and shipping company CMA CGM took over the previously under-performing Kingston Container Terminal in July 2016 with a 30-year concession. In August 2016 the port, now known as the Kingston Freeport Terminal, handled its first New Panamax vessel, a 9288-TEU ship run by CMA CGM, while a major expansion plan to increase capacity to 3.2m TEUs, deepen the draft to 14.7 metres and add 1.2 km of new quay wall is already under way. The Dominican Republic’s Port of Caucedo, run by Dubai-based DP World, has been operational since 2002. Cuba’s Muriel container terminal was opened in January 2014 and has since grown rapidly with the expectation that it could become a major feeder terminal to ports on the east coast of the US. “Cuba is the sleeping giant of the Caribbean shipping industry, contingent on the economy opening up,” Chee Ping told OBG. With so many new upgraded terminals coming online in recent years, the competition for shipping clients is expected to be fierce, with ports competing with each other in terms of location, infrastructure and turnaround times. “In light of Jamaica’s first-mover advantage, T&T needs to consider how to best position its maritime sector to benefit from the Panama Canal expansion,” John Powell, managing director of Intercontinental Shipping, told OBG.

Off Track 

Previously, T&T was a significant trans-shipping hub. The original Panamax vessels, which had a capacity of 5000 TEUs, would call at the PPOS and unload cargo for smaller vessels to take to Venezuela, Guyana and other Caribbean markets. Such vessels still pass through the canal, but they are fewer in number. Trans-shipment volumes at the PPOS for 2016 were around half of the figure for 2015 at 100,000 TEUs. Not only did the port lose a number of key clients, the PPOS has also seen a decline in throughput due to increased competition from the PPL. In 2009 the PPOS handled 401,264 TEUs but this had dropped to 298,969 TEUs in 2015. “Imports to T&T declined slightly, however exports remained steady country wide but with a 17% increase at our port,” Ricardo Gonzales, divisional operations manager for the PPOS, told OBG. The outlook for the country’s other main port, the PPL, has been mixed. Although the port has recorded steady growth over the years, it saw a 25% decrease in the volume of cargo moved in 2016, down from a record 221,000 TEUs in 2015. Speaking at a PLIPDECO’s function, Chairman Ian Atherly told local media that the drop in trade had been particularly prominent in the first six months of 2016 before an improvement in the second half of the year; and 2017 is anticipated to be another challenging year of weaker volumes. “PLIPDECO, through a programme of prudent fiscal management and cost control, has managed to maintain profitability despite the considerable challenges being in place with the local economy and trade,” he added.


Despite the current climate of intensified port competition, in 2016 PPOS showed encouraging signs that it was finding solutions to longstanding labour and efficiency issues. The port registered a rate of 26.3 moves per hour in 2016, up from an average of 21.7 in 2015 and far ahead of 2014’s rate of 17.7. “In 2015 and 2016 the PPOS was forced to cut its budget, but we learned how to be more efficient as a result,” Gonzales told OBG. “Working closely with shipping agents, we achieved our objective of increasing productivity with faster vessel turnaround which translated to lower operating costs.” Labour costs were an obvious area for cutbacks. “We operated an outdated system of institutional overtime on weekends and holidays. We worked with the agents to service their ships during the working week, with less need for manpower at the weekend. With reduced vessel arrivals, we were able to schedule work to make the best use of the equipment and infrastructure, allowing productivity to improve,” he added. “An employee engagement programme was started to foster greater collaboration and communication with the workforce. Together with improvements in equipment availability we realised increased levels of productivity. We have also been sensitising the employees on the challenges faced by the Port and globally in terms of reduction in volumes due to a downturn in international trade and revenue losses, and what is required from all of us at this time to ensure that everyone remains employed and that we attract more business,” Gonzales said. Moving forward, the focus is on training and creating a multi-skilled workforce. “We need to have more manpower utilisation. Instead of having a team of 12 men, with each one dedicated to a particular skill such as tying, unlashing or removing containers, we want to have a team of six men who are capable of performing all the functions,” he added.

Unclear Future 

While management at both ports insist that the downturn has proved a valuable opportunity to streamline their practices, a tough decision may be needed if macroeconomic conditions do not improve in the near future. At present, a long-term marine strategy has yet to be developed. “Between its two ports, T&T receives around 500,000 TEUs per year, and that is unlikely to grow significantly,” said Chee Ping. “We are not going to attract new shipping lines until we make significant progress in developing a coherent strategy.” The PPL is in the middle of an ambitious, 10-year expansion programme with the ultimate goal of reaching capacity of 1m TEU.

Additionally, it is entirely possible to make the PPOS navigable for New Panamax vessels, but the harbour would need to be dredged to reach a depth of 15 metres from its current 12 metres. A 2014 report on the rationalisation of the T&T ports segment by US economic consultants Nathan Associates, forecast growth scenarios for the T&T shipping industry through to the year 2025. Under the high-growth scenario, the country would process 460,000 domestic and 660,000 trans-shipment TEUs, and under a low-growth scenario, it would process 400,000 domestic and 220,000 trans-shipment TEUs.

However, under any growth scenario the report states that the “T&T traffic forecast can justify only one modern container terminal capable of serving Post-II [Panamax and New Panamax] ships”.

Another factor to consider is the proposal to move the PPOS in order to free up valuable water front real estate. One such suggestion would see the port gradually relocated to the marshy Sea Lots area, to the south of Port of Spain. The Urban Development Corporation of T&T has proposed a conceptual project in which the existing port would be relocated offshore to create a port city complex, including Customs offices, hotels, and commercial and retail spaces.


Whatever maritime strategy T&T settles on, the involvement of the private sector is considered to be essential. “The government should be open to consider entering into a partnership with a proven multinational port management company. In addition to providing their expertise, port management companies can provide a fresh injection of capital, which could be used to expand and enhance the port and its facilities,” Brian Philips, managing director at the Mediterranean Shipping Company, told OBG. “While terminal operations are of course a source of revenue, more emphasis should be placed on them being a smooth and efficient facilitator of trade.”


Fortunately there are other options available to the T&T maritime sector located outside of the Caribbean region. The Nathan Associates report suggests that the government should investigate the viability of creating a ship repair centre for Post-Panamax vessels given that no viable competition exists in the Americas. It also proposes that there are opportunities to expand the yachting and marina sector in light of current underinvestment in the sector and T&T’s recent growth as a tourist destination. In November 2016 Tracy Davidson-Celestine, T&T’s former secretary of tourism, culture and transportation, said a total of 12 ocean liners called at Tobago’s Port of Charlotteville during the 2016/17 tourist season.

With existing port terminals likely to satisfy demand for east-west shipments between Asia and Europe, T&T’s maritime strategy would be best served by focusing on trans-shipment from north-south trade from Brazil to China. “There is a huge bulk cargo market, including bauxite, iron ore and oil, that moves between Brazil and China,” Chee Ping told OBG. “T&T, with its sheltered port, would be the natural location for ship-to-ship transfer of these products. Outside of the harbour we could take cargo from four smaller ships and load up one Post-Panamax ship bound for China. However, T&T´s regulations for this kind of business need to be relaxed, or the business will relocate to St. Lucia or somewhere else,” he added. In addition, T&T’s ports offer avenues for processing and value-added manufacturing. “Many imported products come near completely processed from manufacturing hubs like China and India, but by improving compliance with the rules-of-origin, and bringing in less complete inputs, T&T has a huge opportunity to add greater value locally to non-energy sector products. Qualified goods can benefit from preferential treatment in export markets,” Reynold Baldeosingh, former managing director of T&T Postal Corporation, told OBG.

Hydrocarbons Heavyweight 

There are other avenues for T&T. The discovery of major offshore oil reserves off the coast of Guyana, together with continued exploration efforts in neighbouring Suriname, are putting the Caribbean on the hydrocarbons map once again. The expectation of commodities maintaining reasonable prices gives T&T the opportunity to stand out as a hub for the sector at the regional level. “The opportunities for supplying logistics to projects in Guyana and Suriname from Trinidad are massive,” Shaun Rampersad, CEO of Ramps Logistics, told OBG. The local firm signed a deal in December 2015 to provide ExxonMobil with Offshore logistics and shore base management for its Liza-2 offshore project, and is currently planning a significant investment in a shore base for international offshore oil projects. “At present T&T has the capacity to support offshore exploration, particularly in shallow waters, where the majority of the country’s gas fields are located,” he added. “However, significant investment is required to support deepwater producing assets, and that is where the opportunity lies in the next five years.” The location of the shore base will be announced in mid-2017, and will include a 400-metre concrete bulk pier with an 11-metre draft. It will also occupy around 1.5 km of shoreline, allowing for the introduction of the CARICOM’s first spoolbase to be used to facilitate pipe laying for offshore oil and gas production.

The Guyana Move 

The discovery by ExxonMobil and a consortium of other partners in the Liza Field, in neighbouring Guyana, led to a plan that foresees oil production to come on-line by 2020. The government of Guyana is set to invest US$500m to construct the onshore facility on Crab Island in 2017.

The proposed facility will include maintenance, fabrication, warehousing, spares, housing and spares handling among others. In 2016 Raphael Trotman, Guyana’s minister of natural resources, told local media that the project would initially be housed onshore, but would potentially shift offshore as the country’s oil exploration programme progressed.

In the medium term, the project will require services that T&T could provide as the early development work in Guyana will have to be staged out of Trinidad, using the latter’s port and transport infrastructure, as well as the support that could be offered by a range of experienced Trinidad-based oil and gas service companies. This and other regional developments should therefore deliver important diversification opportunities to domestic industry. As a major producer of natural gas, T&T’s shipping infrastructure is equipped to export gas production around the globe.

Local Content 

Efforts to develop T&T as a key supplier to Guyanese and Surinamese oil projects will have to be approached with caution, however. The host nations have local content requirements for the development of their projects. As a member of CARICOM, T&T should be able to apply for contracts on equal terms with Guyanese firms, but while T&T seems well-equipped, the contracts are not necessarily guaranteed. Tenders for work are judged on four criteria: health and safety standards, sustainable local content, execution certainty and a competitive bid price. “The execution certainty criteria suggests that the oil operators require tried and tested solutions, which we have been providing in T&T for decades,” Rampersad told OBG. “We have developed a partnership with a Guyanese firm, Muneshwers, working out of Water Street in Georgetown, to help provide sustainable local content,” he added.

Airport Upgrades 

Foreign arrivals to the country’s two international airports were forecast to hit 2.1m in 2016, up from 2m in 2015, according to the Airports Authority of T&T (AATT). Around 95% of all arrivals enter through Piarco International Airport (PIA) located 25 km east of Port of Spain. Commissioned in 2001, the airport’s north terminal features 14 second-level aircraft gates with jet bridges for international flights, two ground-level domestic gates and 82 ticket counter positions. PIA is the third largest airport by passenger numbers in the English-speaking Caribbean. With capacity assured to meet a gradual increase in visitor numbers for the medium term, the focus has shifted towards continued development of the Piarco AeroPark – the first airport city in the Caribbean – which is aimed at attracting additional passengers as well as capitalising on the strategic proximity to the airport. The first phase of the project will encompass almost 700,000 sq metres and include multiple zones allocated for retail, office space, hotels, conference centres, and indoor and outdoor entertaining areas. “As part of an overarching strategy to develop new revenue streams, T&T is in ongoing discussions with investors to develop a maintenance, repair and overhaul hub within the Piarco AeroPark,” Hayden Newton, AATT’s general manager, told OBG. Improvements to PIA also include upgrades to the existing infrastructure and passenger services.

In terms of customer experience, according to AATT chairman Nigel Ferguson, the 2015 introduction of 12 self-check-in kiosks reduced the average check-in times at PIA. Over 2016 additional improvements included upgraded restroom facilities, new signage and better car parking facilities. In July 2016 the airport’s two security checkpoints were merged to create a more efficient and streamlined system. Located 11 km from Tobago’s capital, the Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson International Airport (ANRRIA) also completed important upgrade work in 2016. In June workers completed a two-year project to rehabilitate the airport’s roof and tackle long-standing leakage and structural issues in the main building. In the same month an expansive internal modification project was also completed, optimising the indoor spaces of the terminal building and leading to a 35% increase overall in operational space.

New Routes 

Airport overhauls are part of a government push to increase T&T’s connectivity to tourists, business travellers and Trinbagonians living abroad. In December 2016 Air Canada Rouge flight AC 1880 from Toronto landed at PIA, resuming a service that ended in 2008. The twice-weekly flights will provide a new direct connection for the 68,000 Trinbagonians currently residing in Canada. “Over 50% of Canadian visitors come to T&T to visit friends and relatives, followed by approximately 20% who come for leisure,” Shamfa Cudjoe, minister of tourism, told local media. “The typical Canadian visitor stays for approximately two weeks and spends upwards of TT$6500 ($971) per trip, generating around TT$340m ($50.8m) in foreign direct revenue.” Tobago’s tourism figures are also set to be given a boost by the introduction of two new routes to ANRRIA. In November 2016 the UK-based Thomas Cook Airlines and German airline Condor Flugdienst landed their first flights from Manchester and Munich, respectively. Both airlines will operate a joint Tobago-Barbados route with Condor Flugdienst running weekly and Thomas Cook bi-weekly.

National Pride 

While charter flights to new UK and German cities are a welcome addition to T&T´s route map, the entrance of Air Canada Rouge represents increased competition for national carrier Caribbean Airlines (CAL), which also runs a PIA to Toronto route with 12 weekly flights, along with Canadian airline WestJet, which flies five times week.

In recent years the incursion of low-cost operators into the Caribbean market, particularly on North American routes, has put pressure on CAL’s bottom line. In 2014, the last year statistics were published, the carrier registered losses of $60m.

Nevertheless, on the carriers 10-year anniversary in 2016, CAL, which is jointly owned by the government of T&T (84%) and the government of Jamaica (16%), managed to regain market share for key routes following a cost-cutting and rationalisation programme. From 2014 to 2016 CAL cut its fleet size from 23 to 17, ended its unprofitable Gatwick flights in January 2016 and jettisoned the two Boeing 767s that operated them. Three narrow-body Boeing 737s were also dropped from the roster meaning that by January 2017, CAL’s fleet consisted of 12 Boeing 737s for regional flights and five ATR 72s, which operate the T&T air-bridge. Overall, the carrier’s total system capacity dropped from 4.1m in 2014 to 3.2m in 2016.

Despite these cutbacks, the carrier remains the dominant player for flights out of PIA. According to data from CAPA-Centre for Aviation, in May 2016 CAL accounted for 69.5% of total seat capacity at PIA, well ahead of American Airlines (6.4%), Antigua and Barbuda-based LIAT (5.9%) and JetBlue (5.3%). On the busiest national route, PIA to New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport, CAL managed to increase its share of bookings from 64% in August 2015 to 74% in May 2016, with JetBlue holding the remainder. With a strong position in the local market, the next move for CAL will be to focus on returning to profitability and to further establishing itself as a major player in the region.

At the same time as CAL was reorganising, US operators were adding routes. In May 2016 JetBlue, United Airlines and Delta Airlines all posted double-digit growth in seating capacity to the region, year-on-year. CAL holds just 4% of seat share for US flights to the Caribbean, leaving a lot of room for growth if the company is to become a major player. Speaking at an event to mark the first decade anniversary of the flagship airline, CAL’s acting CEO, Jagmohan Singh, told local media. “2016 has been a year of transformation, as we focused on enhancing the travel experience of all our valued customers. A new strategic plan is approved to achieve sustained profitability through becoming the preferred airline serving the Caribbean.” By December 2016 the carrier had completed the first phase of its network review, with the second stage due for completion in June 2017. As well as investigating the viability of new routes to St Vincent and Guyana, the firm’s pricing structure will also come under revision, and in September 2016, Allen Michael Chastanet, the prime minister of St Lucia, said his government was considering making CAL its national carrier.

Island Hopping 

Having achieved an on-time departure rate of 87% in 2015, CAL’s figures dropped slightly to 81% in 2016, primarily due to maintenance issues affecting the five ATR aircraft, which were purchased in 2013 for $200m and fly the PIA-ANRRIA route. Trinbagonians have long benefitted from a generous deal with regards to air travel between the two islands, which is viewed as a public good. Return tickets can be purchased at the set price of TT$600 ($89.65) with unlimited changes to the itinerary permitted at no cost. The government subsidises each ticket to the tune of TT$50 ($7.5), but even so the route has yet to turn a profit for CAL. Demand for travel spikes at the weekend and recurrent technical issues with the ATR aircraft caused long delays and queues in the country’s airports over 2016.

Air Freight

With a large domestic market by Caribbean standards and proximity to other key Caribbean markets, T&T has established itself as a regional transport hub for air freight with a number of international firms establishing operations in the country. US-based Amerijet International is the largest in the country, accounting for just over half of all airfreight in and out of T&T. “Prior to last year the T&T air freight segment grew at a steady rate of 6-8%,” Simon Pantin, director of global network development for Amerijet told OBG. “As you would expect, we have seen a strong drop off in freight services for parts and equipment from the oil segment, but we continue to see strong growth in the retail and yachting industry.” The growth in popularity of online shopping especially has contributed to the retail segment. In T&T over 35 private courier firms offer Skyox services, allowing Trinbagonians to shop online and have products sent to either a US or UK address, whereby the company forwards it on to the country and handles Customs.

Chopper Central 

With significant experience built up working in the oil and gas industry, four helicopter firms are located in T&T, creating potential for the country to become a forward hub for spares and inventory if challenges can be overcome. “The fall in oil prices has squeezed margins and encouraged helicopter companies to streamline their operations, focusing on their workforce and procedures,” Paul Doxey, area manager for Bristow Caribbean, an aviation service provider, told OBG. “At present local aviation suppliers are heavily dependent on the US and UK for helicopter maintenance. I would like to see the operators work together to bring in spare parts on a grander scale and provide targeted training for local engineers.” Such a move will require a significant investment of capital and trust on the part of the operators who are usually in competition. Another factor holding large scale investment back is the common three to five-year timeframe of many contracts with the oil firms. “We’re starting to see ten-year contracts for aviation services in the oil industry, but until that becomes the norm, it will be tough to make major bricks-and-mortar investments” says Doxey.

Public Transport 

In the April 2016 budget review, the government announced that it would put its plans to develop a major mass-transit system on hold. For several years the government was working with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to identify options for underground and elevated rail projects, and new tram and bus systems. However, with the economic slowdown, Colm Imbert, minister of finance, put a temporary hold on the project.

As a result, an increased focus will be put on the Public Transport Service Corporation (PTSC) to expand and improve its services. At present the PTSC operates 160 routes, primarily intercity, with maxi taxis, a private shared minibus system, providing competition for both major routes and innercity transport. “We are looking to reengineer our core business,” Ronald Jagessar, manager of service planning, scheduling and research at the PTSC, told OBG. “From 2005 to 2017 our fleet has grown from under 100 buses to over 370, but processes and procedures have not kept pace with this growth. We are now procuring buses, planning routes and improving maintenance systems in order to provide a more complete and scalable transport system that can be integrated with other modes.”

The organisation will have to overcome some pressing challenges. An audit into the PTSC’s performance from 2010 to 2014 found that passenger numbers had declined from 12.6m to 7.6m, while personnel increased from 1111 to 1959, boosting the annual wage bill to TT$800m ($119.5m). The next biggest expense was maintenance, which in 2015 hit TT$118m ($17.6m). “At present around 70% of the fleet is operational,” said Jagessar. “At present we have 27 different models of buses, creating challenges for upkeep and maintenance. We need to streamline and rationalise our procurement process for the coming years to ensure reliability in the near to medium term.”

Road Works 

With no rail system on the horizon, greater attention will need to be placed on alleviating the congestion on T&T’s roads. The two islands count for over 8320 km of roads of which around half, or 4252 km, are paved. Many of the country’s 800,000 motor vehicles are concentrated in the Port of Spain region. The east-west corridor, a major urban area that spreads east from Port of Spain alongside the Eastern Main Road and the parallel Priority Bus Route, suffers from serious congestion problems.

The 2017 budget allocation for improvements on the corridor was increased from TT$17m ($2.5m) to TT$85m ($12.7m) in 2016, although details on where the money would be spent were unavailable. Outside the capital, several major road projects are due to begin construction in 2017. Work on the delayed Point Fortin Highway project is set to resume with new tenders for local contractors scheduled for early 2017. A new first class road from Valencia to Toco on the north-east coast was also in the design stage at the time of the 2017 budget announcement.

Maintenance of existing roads will also be a priority for 2017 with the La Brea highway due for major repair works and a new division of 100 contractors hired to fill in the country’s potholes with a targeted response and repair time of 48 hours. T&T has a great opportunity to become the infrastructure hub for the region’s oil and gas industry.


In every subsector, whether maritime, aviation or public transport, there is a need for increased productivity and competitiveness, and a clear vision of how the islands can exploit their strategic position. With the government forced to tighten its fiscal belt, the hope is that the private sector will play a greater role in developing solutions to current challenges.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

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