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Shipping containers at a terminal in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey.
Shipping containers at a terminal in Port Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Containerization is a system of intermodal freight transport cargo transport using standard ISO containers (also known as isotainers) that can be loaded and sealed intact onto container ships, railroad cars, planes, and trucks.


Container dimensions

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 and 53 ft (rail and truck). Container capacity is measured in twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU, or sometimes teu). A twenty-foot equivalent unit is a measure of containerized cargo capacity equal to one standard 20 ft (length) × 8 ft (width) × 8 ft 6 in (height) container. In metric units this is 6.10 m (length) × 2.44 m (width) × 2.59 m (height), or approximately 39 m³. These sell at about US$2,500 in China, the biggest manufacturer.[1]

Most containers today are of the 40-ft (12.2 m) variety and are known as 40 foot containers. This is equivalent to 2 TEU. 45 foot (13.7 m) containers are also designated 2 TEU. Two TEU are equivalent to one forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU). High cube containers have a height of 9 ft 6 in (2.9 m), while half-height containers, used for heavy loads, have a height of 4 ft 3 in (1.3 m). When converting containers to TEUs, the height of the containers typically is not considered.


A container ship being loaded by a portainer crane in Copenhagen Harbour
A container ship being loaded by a portainer crane in Copenhagen Harbour
Twistlocks which capture and constrain containers. Forklifts designed to handle containers have similar devices
Twistlocks which capture and constrain containers. Forklifts designed to handle containers have similar devices
A container freight train in Britain
A container freight train in Britain

Containers produced a huge reduction in port handling costs, contributing significantly to lower freight charges and, in turn, boosting trade flows. Almost every manufactured product humans consume spends some time in a container. Containerization is an important element of the innovations in logistics that revolutionized freight handling in the 20th century.

Efforts to ship cargo in containers date to the 19th century. By the 1920s, railroads on several continents were carrying containers that could be transferred to trucks or ships, but these containers were invariably small by today's standards. From 1926 to 1947, the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railway carried motor carrier vehicles and shippers' vehicles loaded on flatcars between Milwaukee and Chicago. Beginning in 1929, Seatrain Lines carried railroad boxcars on its sea vessels to transport goods between New York and Cuba. In the mid-1930s, the Chicago Great Western Railway Company and then the New Haven railroad began piggy-back service limited to their own railroad. By 1953, the CB&Q, the 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 piggy-back trainler service.

The first vessels purpose-built to carry containers began operation in Denmark in 1951. Ships began carrying containers between Seattle and Alaska in 1951. The Clifford J. Rodgers built in Montreal in 1955 and owned by the White Pass & Yukon Route, carried 600 containers between North Vancouver, British Columbia and Skagway, Alaska on November 26, 1955; in Skagway, the containers were put on rail cars for transport to the Yukon, in a forerunner of today's intermodal service.

The growth of the modern container shipping industry, however, dates to 1956, then U.S. trucking entrepreneur Malcom McLean put 58 containers aboard a refitted tanker ship, the "Ideal-X," and sailed them from Newark to Houston. What was new about McLean's innovation was the idea of using large containers that were never opened in transit between shipper and consignee and that were transferable on an intermodal basis, among trucks, ships and railcars. 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 onboard the vessel, known as broken stowage. Instead, he modified his original concept into loading just the containers, not the chassis, onto the ships, hence the designation container ship or "box" ship.[2] See also pantechnicon van and trolley and lift van.

In the United States, at first, containerization grew through cracks in the rigid regulatory structure of the 1960s. But the United States' present fully integrated systems became possible only after the Interstate Commerce Commission's regulatory oversight was cut back (and later abolished in 1995), trucking and rail were deregulated in the 1970s and maritime rates were deregulated (with very little fanfare) in 1984.

Containerization has revolutionized cargo shipping. Today, approximately 90% of non-bulk cargo worldwide moves by containers stacked on transport ships; 26% of all containers originate from China. As of 2005, some 18 million total containers make over 200 million trips per year. There are ships that can carry over 11,000 TEU ("Emma Mærsk", 1,300 feet long, launched August 2006), and designers are working on freighters capable of 14,000 TEU. It has even been predicted that, at some point, container ships will be constrained in size only by the Straits of Malacca, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Such a ship would be as long as one-quarter of a mile (400 m) and 190 feet (58 m) wide.[2]

However, few initially foresaw the extent of the influence containerization would bring to the shipping industry. In the 1950s, Harvard University economist Benjamin Chinitz predicted that containerization would benefit New York by allowing it to ship industrial goods produced there more cheaply to the Southern United States than other areas, but 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 some influence on producers and the extent of trading.[2]

The widespread use of ISO standard containers has driven modifications in other freight-moving standards, gradually forcing removable truck bodies or swap bodies into the 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 and the doors of the containers are generally locked (or rather "sealed") so that tampering is more evident. This has reduced the "falling off the truck" syndrome that long plagued the shipping industry.

Use of the same basic sizes of containers across the globe has lessened the problems caused by incompatible rail gauge sizes in different countries. Most of the trains in the world operate on 1435 mm (4 ft 8½ in) gauge track known as standard gauge but many industrialized countries like Australia, Russia, Finland and Spain use broader gauges while many countries in Africa and South America use narrower gauges on their networks. The use of container trains in all these countries makes trans shipment between different gauge trains easier, with automatic or semi-automatic equipment.

Double-stack containerization

Part of a United States doublestack container train loaded with 53 ft (16.2 m) containers; this equipment operated by Pacer Stacktrain, Concord CA
Part of a United States doublestack container train loaded with 53 ft (16.2 m) containers; this equipment operated by Pacer Stacktrain, Concord CA

The advent of "double-stacked" container transport has changed the entire intermodal freight distribution industry in North America. It has resulted in more cost-effective, secure and reliable freight shipments, and provided domestic intermodal rail capacity that could not otherwise have been possible.

The double-stack rail car's unique design also significantly reduced damage in transit, and provided greater cargo security by cradling the lower containers so their doors cannot be opened. A succession of large, new domestic container sizes was introduced to further enhance shipping productivity for customers.

Origins of double-stack

As early as the 1970s, doublestack designs and equipment were introduced, but the cars were heavy and uneconomical to operate. While always deflecting credit to the many contributors who enabled the introduction of Stacktrain rail service, Pacer International's chief executive officer Donald Orris is widely considered the "Father of Stacktrain Service." He earned that moniker for his role in the early 1980s, as the head of APL's intermodal department, in sponsoring the development and implementation of lightweight, fuel-efficient equipment and the first successful operating network.

With Orris' system, launched in 1984, container trains were finally able to break cost, capacity and service barriers by using specially engineered rail cars that could carry two tiers of containers instead of one -- significantly reducing the locomotive power, track capacity and train crews required by conventional intermodal trains to move a comparable payload.

In 1999, Pacer International acquired the original double-stack network that Orris and his colleagues had helped develop and named it "Pacer Stacktrain." Pacer remains the largest wholesale provider of double-stack rail service in North America (see current double-stack equipment, photo immediately above).

Impact on transportation

For freight intermediaries -- the intermodal marketing companies, ocean carriers, and other third parties that market end-to-end transportation services to businesses that ship product worldwide -- introduction of double-stack changed their business. It was more cost-effective than basic container-on-flat car, piggyback or truck for cross-country moves; also, it significantly reduced cargo damage and claims, helping the intermediaries better sell intermodal services to skeptical prospects.

Pacer Stacktrain now (2006) carries more than one million containers per year and purchases over $1 billion of rail transportation annually. The company accounts for more than 20 percent of all domestic container moves in North America. Overall, the double-stack market has grown more than 100-fold since 1984, and now accounts for about 70 percent of intermodal shipments.

Container types

A railroad car with container loads.
A railroad car with container loads.

Various container types are available for different needs:[3]

  • general purpose "dry van" for boxes, cartons, cases, sacks, bales, pallets, drums in standard, high or half height
  • high cube palletwide containers for europallet compatibility
  • temperature controlled from -25°c to +25°c "reefer (container)"
  • open top "bulktainers" for bulk minerals, heavy machinery
  • open side for loading oversize pallet
  • flushfolding flat-rack containers for heavy and bulky semi-finished goods, out of gauge cargo
  • platform or bolster for barrels and drums, crates, cable drums, out of gauge cargo, machinery, and processed timber
  • ventilated containers for organic products requiring ventilation
  • tank containers for bulk liquids
  • rolling floor for difficult to handle cargo
  • Gas Bottle
  • Generator
  • Collapsible ISO
  • Swapbody

Biggest container companies

Top 10 container shipping companies in order of TEU capacity, first january 2006
Company TEU capacity[4] Market Share Number of ships
A.P. Moller-Maersk Group 1,665,272 18.2% 549
Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A. 784,248 8.6% 299
CMA CGM 507,954 5.6% 256
Evergreen Marine Corporation 477,911 5.2% 153
Hapag-Lloyd 412,344 4.5% 140
China Shipping Container Lines 346,493 3.8% 111
American President Lines 331,437 3.6% 99
Hanjin-Senator 328,794 3.6% 145
COSCO 322,326 3.5% 118
NYK Line 302,213 3.3% 105

Other container systems

In fiction

The containerization system, containers, tracking of containers and moving of containers are extensively made use of in the HBO television series The Wire.

See also


  1. ^ Alexander Jung (2005-11-25). The Box That Makes the World Go Round. Spiegel Online.
  2. ^ a b c Marc Levinson (2006). The Box, How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton Univ. Press.
  3. ^ container fleet. CMA CGM group.
  4. ^ Liner market shares. BRS report for Alphaliner (January 2006).

Further Reading

Rail transport freight equipment
Enclosed equipment: Autorack · Boxcar · Coil car · Container · Covered hopper · Refrigerator car · Roadrailer · Stock car · Tank car
Open equipment: Flatcar · Gondola · Hopper car · Schnabel car
Non-revenue equipment: Caboose
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