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Container (cargo)

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Container (cargo)

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Containerization is a system of intermodal freight transport using intermodal containers (also called shipping containers and ISO containers) made of weathering steel. The containers have standardized dimensions. They can be loaded and unloaded, stacked, transported efficiently over long distances, and transferred from one mode of transport to another—container ships, rail transport flatcars, and semi-trailer trucks—without being opened. The system, developed after World War II, reduced transport costs, supported the post-war boom in international trade, and was an element in globalization.



Containerization has its origins in early coal mining regions in England beginning in the late 18th century. In 1795, Benjamin Outran opened the Little Eaton Gangway, upon which coal was carried in wagons built at his Butterley Ironwork. The horse-drawn wheeled wagons on the gangway took the form of containers, which, loaded with coal, could be transshipped from canal barges on the Derby Canal, which Outram had also promoted.[1]

By the 1830s, railroads on several continents were carrying containers that could be transferred to other modes of transport. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway in the United Kingdom was one of these. "Simple rectangular timber boxes, four to a wagon, they were used to convey coal from the Lancashire collieries to Liverpool, where they were transferred to horse-drawn carts by crane."[2] Originally used for moving coal on and off barges, "loose boxes" were used to containerize coal from the late 1780s, at places like the Bridgewater Canal. By the 1840s, iron boxes were in use as well as wooden ones. The early 1900s saw the adoption of closed container boxes designed for movement between road and rail.

From 1926 to 1947 in the United States, the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railway carried motor carrier vehicles and shippers' vehicles loaded on flatcars between Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Illinois. Beginning in 1929, Seatrain Lines carried railroad boxcars on its sea vessels to transport goods between New York and Cuba.[3] In the mid-1930s, the Chicago Great Western Railway and then the New Haven Railroad began "piggyback" service (transporting highway freight trailers on flatcars) limited to their own railroads. By 1953, the CB&Q, the Chicago and Eastern Illinois, and the Southern Pacific railroads had joined the innovation. Most cars were surplus flatcars equipped with new decks. By 1955, an additional 25 railroads had begun some form of piggyback trailer service.

During World War II, the Australian Army used containers to help overcome the various breaks of gauge. These non-stackable containers were about the size of the later 20-foot ISO container and perhaps made mainly of wood.[4][full citation needed][need quotation to verify]

Toward the end of World War II, the US Army used specialized containers to speed the loading and unloading of transport ships. The army used the term "transporters" to identify the containers, for shipping household goods of officers in the field. A transporter was a reusable container, 8.5 feet (2.6 m) long, 6.25 feet (1.91 m) wide, and 6.83 feet (2.08 m) high, made of rigid steel and with a carrying capacity of 9,000 pounds. During the Korean War the transporter was evaluated for handling sensitive military equipment and, proving effective, was approved for broader use. Theft of material and damage to wooden crates convinced the army that steel containers were needed. In 1952 the army began using the term CONEX, short for "container express". The first major shipment of CONEXes, containing engineering supplies and spare parts, was made by rail from the Columbus General Depot in Georgia to the Port of San Francisco, then by ship to Yokohama, Japan, and then to Korea, in late 1952; shipment times were almost halved. By the time of the Vietnam War the majority of supplies and materials were shipped by CONEX. After the US Department of Defense standardized an 8-foot by 8-foot cross section container in multiples of 10-foot lengths for military use, it was rapidly adopted for shipping purposes.[5][6]

The railways of the USSR had their own small containers.[7]

In 1955, former trucking company owner Malcom McLean worked with engineer Keith Tantlinger to develop the modern intermodal container. The challenge was to design a shipping container that could efficiently be loaded onto ships and would hold securely on long sea voyages. The result was a 8 feet (2.4 m) tall by 8 ft (2.4 m) wide box in 10 ft (3.0 m)-long units constructed from 2.5 mm (0.098 in) thick corrugated steel. The design incorporated a twistlock mechanism atop each of the four corners, allowing the container to be easily secured and lifted using cranes. After helping McLean make the successful design, Tantlinger convinced him to give the patented designs to industry; this began international standardization of shipping containers.[8]

Purpose-built ships

Main article: Container ship

The first vessels purpose-built to carry containers began operation in Denmark in 1951.[9]:31 In the United States, ships began carrying containers in 1951, between Seattle and Alaska.[10] However, none of these services was particularly successful. Firstly, the containers were rather small, with 52% of them having a volume of less than 3 cubic metres (110 cu ft). Almost all the European ones were made of wood and used canvas lids. Furthermore, they required additional loading into rail or truck bodies.[9]:31–32

The world's first purpose-built container ship was the Clifford J. Rodgers, built in Montreal in 1955 and owned by the White Pass and Yukon Route. Its first trip carried 600 containers between North Vancouver, British Columbia, and Skagway, Alaska, on November 26, 1955; in Skagway, the containers were unloaded to purpose-built railroad cars for transport north to the Yukon, in the first intermodal service using trucks, ships, and railroad cars.[11] Southbound containers were loaded by shippers in the Yukon and moved by rail, ship, and truck to their consignees without opening. This first intermodal system operated from November 1955 until 1982.[12]

The first truly successful container shipping company dates to April 26, 1956, when American trucking entrepreneur McLean put 58 containers aboard a refitted tanker ship, the SS Ideal X, and sailed them from Newark to Houston.[9]:1 Independently of the events in Canada, McLean had the idea of using large containers that never opened in transit and that were transferable on an intermodal basis, among trucks, ships, and railroad cars. McLean had initially favored the construction of "trailerships"—taking trailers from large trucks and stowing them in a ship’s cargo hold. This method of stowage, referred to as roll-on/roll-off, was not adopted because of the large waste in potential cargo space on board the vessel, known as broken stowage. Instead, McLean modified his original concept into loading just the containers, not the chassis, onto the ship; hence the designation "container ship" or "box" ship.[13][14] (See also pantechnicon van and trolley and lift van.)

Toward standards

During the first 20 years of containerization, many container sizes and corner fittings were used; there were dozens of incompatible container systems in the United States alone. Among the biggest operators, the Matson Navigation Company had a fleet of 24-foot (7.3 m) containers, while Sea-Land Service, Inc used 35-foot (11 m) containers. The standard sizes and fitting and reinforcement norms that now exist evolved out of a series of compromises among international shipping companies, European railroads, US railroads, and US trucking companies. Four important ISO (International Organization for Standardization) recommendations standardized containerization globally:[15]

  • January 1968: R-668 defined the terminology, dimensions and ratings.
  • July 1968: R-790 defined the identification markings.
  • January 1970: R-1161 made recommendations about corner fittings.
  • October 1970: R-1897 set out the minimum internal dimensions of general purpose freight containers.

In the United States, containerization and other advances in shipping were impeded by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which was created in 1887 to keep railroads from using monopolist pricing and rate discrimination but fell victim to regulatory capture. By the 1960s, ICC approval was required before any shipper could carry different items in the same vehicle or change rates. The fully integrated systems in the United States today became possible only after the ICC's regulatory oversight was cut back (and abolished in 1995); trucking and rail were deregulated in the 1970s and maritime rates were deregulated in 1984.[16]

Double-stacked rail transport, where containers are stacked two high on railway cars, was introduced in 1984, with the first use in the United States.


Containerization greatly reduced the expense of international trade and increased its speed, especially of consumer goods and commodities. It also dramatically changed the character of port cities worldwide. Prior to highly mechanized container transfers, crews of 20–22 longshoremen would pack individual cargoes into the hold of a ship. After containerization, large crews of longshoremen were no longer necessary at port facilities, and the profession changed drastically.

Meanwhile, the port facilities needed to support containerization changed. One effect was the decline of some ports and the rise of others. At the Port of San Francisco, the former piers used for loading and unloading were no longer required, but there was little room to build the vast holding lots needed for container transport. As a result, the Port of San Francisco virtually ceased to function as a major commercial port, but the neighboring port of Oakland emerged as the second largest on the US West Coast. A similar fate met the relation between the ports of Manhattan and New Jersey. In the United Kingdom, the Port of London and Port of Liverpool declined in importance. Meanwhile, Britain's Port of Felixstowe and Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands emerged as major ports. In general, inland ports on waterways incapable of deep-draft ship traffic also declined from containerization in favor of seaports. With intermodal containers, the job of sorting and packing containers could be performed far from the point of embarking.

Twenty-first century

As of 2009, approximately 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide is moved by containers stacked on transport ships;[17] 26% of all container transhipment is carried out in China.[18] For example, in 2009 there were 105,976,701 transshipments in China (both international and coastal, excluding Hong Kong), 21,040,096 in Hong Kong (which is listed separately), and only 34,299,572 in the United States. In 2005, some 18 million containers made over 200 million trips per year. Some ships can carry over 14,500 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), such as the Emma Mærsk, 396 m long, launched in August 2006. It has been predicted that, at some point, container ships will be constrained in size only by the depth of the Straits of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, linking the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This so-called Malaccamax size constrains a ship to dimensions of 470 m (1,540 ft) in length and 60 m (200 ft) wide.[14]

However, few initially foresaw the extent of the influence of containerization on the shipping industry. In the 1950s, Harvard University economist Benjamin Chinitz predicted that containerization would benefit New York by allowing it to ship its industrial goods more cheaply to the Southern United States than other areas, but he did not anticipate that containerization might make it cheaper to import such goods from abroad. Most economic studies of containerization merely assumed that shipping companies would begin to replace older forms of transportation with containerization, but did not predict that the process of containerization itself would have a more direct influence on the choice of producers and increase the total volume of trade.[14]

The widespread use of ISO standard containers has driven modifications in other freight-moving standards, gradually forcing removable truck bodies or swap bodies into standard sizes and shapes (though without the strength needed to be stacked), and changing completely the worldwide use of freight pallets that fit into ISO containers or into commercial vehicles.

Improved cargo security is also an important benefit of containerization. The cargo is not visible to the casual viewer and thus is less likely to be stolen; the doors of the containers are usually sealed so that tampering is more evident. Some containers are fitted with electronic monitoring devices and can be remotely monitored for changes in air pressure, which happens when the doors are opened. This reduced the thefts that had long plagued the shipping industry. Recent developments have focused on the use of intelligent logistics optimization to further enhance security.

The use of the same basic sizes of containers across the globe has lessened the problems caused by incompatible rail gauge sizes in different countries. The majority of the rail networks in the world operate on a gauge track known as standard gauge, but many countries (such as Russia, India, Finland, and Lithuania) use broader gauges, while many others in Africa and South America use narrower gauges on their networks. The use of container trains in all these countries makes transshipment between different trains of different gauges easier.

Containers have become a popular way to ship private cars and other vehicles overseas using 20- or 40-foot containers. Unlike roll-on/roll-off vehicle shipping, personal effects can be loaded into the container with the vehicle, allowing for easy international relocation.

Container standards

ISO standard

Main article: Intermodal container

There are five common standard lengths: 20-ft (6.1 m), 40-ft (12.2 m), 45-ft (13.7 m), 48-ft (14.6 m), and 53-ft (16.2 m). US domestic standard containers are generally 48 ft (15 m) and 53-ft (rail and truck). Container capacity is often expressed in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU, or sometimes teu). An equivalent unit is a measure of containerized cargo capacity equal to one standard 20 ft (length) × 8 ft (width) container. As this is an approximate measure, the height of the box is not considered. For instance, the 9 ft 6 in (2.9 m) high cube and the 4-ft 3-in (1.3 m) half height 20 ft (6.1 m) containers are also called one TEU.

The maximum gross mass for a 20 ft (6.1 m) dry cargo container is 24,000 kg, and for a 40-ft container (including the 2.87 m (9 ft 6 in) high cube) it is 30,480 kg. Allowing for the tare mass of the container, the maximum payload mass is therefore reduced to approximately 22,000 kg for 20 ft (6.1 m), and 27,000 kg for 40 ft (12 m) containers.[19]

The original choice of 8-foot (2.4 m) height for ISO containers was made in part to suit a large proportion of railway tunnels, though some had to be modified. With the arrival of even taller containers, further enlargement is proving necessary.[20]

Air freight containers

Main article: Unit load device

While major airlines use containers that are custom designed for their aircraft and associated ground handling equipment the IATA has created a set of standard aluminium container sizes of up to 11.52 m3 (407 cu ft) in volume.

Other container system standards

Some other container systems (in date order) are:

  • Haus-zu-Haus (house to house; Germany)
  • ARKAS -
  • (1922) NYC container[21]
  • Japanese railway containers: Containers used by the Japan Freight Railway Company
  • (1925) Mack[22]
  • (1927) English Railway container[23][24][25]
  • (1928) Victorian Railways - refrigerated container[26]
  • (1929) International Competition[27]
  • (1930) GWR Container [28]
  • (1931) International Chamber of Commerce [29]
  • (1933) International Container Bureau[30]
  • (1936) SAR Wolseley break of gauge[31]
  • (1946) Queensland Railways milk container, 2000 gallons, road-rail[32]
  • (1978) RACE (Australia) - slightly wider than ISO containers to fit slightly wide Australian Standard Pallets
  • (1994) ACTS roller containers for intermodal transport by rail and road (Central Europe)
  • (1998) PODS
  • (2005?) SECU (Sweden, Finland, UK) - big 95 t container.
  • Pallet-wide containers are used in Europe and have length (40' or 20') and height like ISO-containers, but they are 2.484 m wide externally and 2.420 m internally to fit EUR-pallet better.[33] They are meant for transport inside Europe and are often accepted in ships.

Container loading

Full container load

A full container load (FCL) is an ISO standard container that is loaded and unloaded under the risk and account of one shipper and only one consignee. In practice, it means that the whole container is intended for one consignee. FCL container shipment tends to have lower freight rates than an equivalent weight of cargo in bulk. FCL is intended to designate a container loaded to its allowable maximum weight or volume, but FCL in practice on ocean freight does not always mean a full payload or capacity.

Less-than-container load

Less-than-container load (LCL) is a shipment that is not large enough to fill a standard cargo container. The abbreviation LCL formerly applied to "less than (railway) car load" for quantities of material from different shippers or for delivery to different destinations carried in a single railway car for efficiency. LCL freight was often sorted and redistributed into different railway cars at intermediate railway terminals en route to the final destination.[34]

LCL is "a quantity of cargo less than that required for the application of a carload rate. A quantity of cargo less than that fills the visible or rated capacity of an inter-modal container." It can also be defined as "a consignment of cargo which is inefficient to fill a shipping container. It is grouped with other consignments for the same destination in a container at a container freight station".[35]



Containers have been used to smuggle contraband. The vast majority of containers are never subjected to scrutiny due to the large number of containers in use. In recent years there have been increased concerns that containers might be used to transport terrorists or terrorist materials into a country undetected. The US government has advanced the Container Security Initiative (CSI), intended to ensure that high-risk cargo is examined or scanned, preferably at the port of departure.

Empty containers

Containers are intended to be used constantly, being loaded with new cargo for a new destination soon after having been emptied of previous cargo. This is not always possible, and in some cases, the cost of transporting an empty container to a place where it can be used is considered to be higher than the worth of the used container. Shipping lines and container leasing companies have become expert at repositioning empty containers from areas of low or no demand, such as the US West Coast, to areas of high demand, such as China. Repositioning within the port hinterland has also been the focus of recent logistics optimization work. However, damaged or retired containers may also be recycled in the form of shipping container architecture, or the steel content salvaged. In the summer of 2010, a worldwide shortage of containers developed as shipping increased after the recession, while new container production had largely ceased.[36]

Loss at sea

Containers occasionally fall from ships, usually during storms; according to media sources, between 2,000[37] and 10,000 containers are lost at sea each year.[38] The World Shipping Council states in a survey among freight companies that this claim is grossly excessive and calculated an average of 350 containers to be lost at sea each year, or 675 if including catastrophic events.[39] For instance, on November 30, 2006, a container washed ashore[40] on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, along with thousands of bags of its cargo of Doritos Chips. Containers lost in rough waters are smashed by cargo and waves, and often sink quickly.[37] Although not all containers sink, they seldom float very high out of the water, making them a shipping hazard that is difficult to detect. Freight from lost containers has provided oceanographers with unexpected opportunities to track global ocean currents, notably a cargo of Friendly Floatees.[41]

In 2007 the International Chamber of Shipping and the World Shipping Council began work on a code of practice for container storage, including crew training on parametric rolling, safer stacking, the marking of containers, and security for above-deck cargo in heavy swell.[42][43]

In 2011, the MV Rena ran aground off the coast of New Zealand. As the ship listed, some containers were lost, while others were held on board at a precarious angle.

Trade union challenges

Some of the biggest battles in the container revolution were waged in Washington, DC. Intermodal shipping got a huge boost in the early 1970s, when carriers won permission to quote combined rail-ocean rates. Later, non-vessel-operating common carriers won a long court battle with a US Supreme Court decision against contracts that attempted to require that union labor be used for stuffing and stripping containers at off-pier locations.[44]

Other uses for containers

Shipping container architecture is the use of containers as the basis for housing and other functional buildings for people, either as temporary or permanent housing, and either as a main building or as a cabin or workshop. Containers can also be used as sheds or storage areas in industry and commerce.

Containers are also beginning to be used to house computer data centers, although these are normally specialized containers.

There is now a high demand for containers to be converted in the domestic market to serve specific purposes. As a result, a number of container-specific accessories have become available for a variety of applications, such as racking for archiving, lining/heating/lighting/powerpoints to create purpose-built secure offices, canteens and drying rooms, condensation control for furniture storage, and ramps for storage of heavier objects. Containers are also converted to provide equipment enclosures, pop-up cafes, exhibition stands, security huts, and more.

Public containerised transport [45] is the concept, not yet implemented, of modifying motor vehicles to serve as personal containers in non-road passenger transport.

The ACTS roller container standards have become the basis of containerized firefighting equipment throughout Europe.

BBC tracking project

On September 5, 2008, the BBC embarked on a year-long project to study international trade and globalization by tracking a shipping container on its journey around the world.[46][47]

See also


Further reading

  • – Novel set in U.S., wherein mystery surrounding a containerized shipment serves as the MacGuffin
  • – How Container Ships Changed the World
  • – Containerization from the 1950s to the Present
  • ASTM D 5728 Standard Practice for Securement of Cargo in Intermodal and Unimodal Surface Transport
  • – types, inspection, climate, stowage, securing, capacity
  • – a guidebook for first responders during the initial phase of a dangerous goods/hazardous materials incident
  • - A good pictorial introduction to containers
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