Freight Container History

A little look back



Freight Container History

Although having its origins in the late 1780s or earlier, the global standardisation of containers and container handling equipment was one of the important innovations in 20th century logistics.
By the 1830s, 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. Originally used for shipping coal on and off barges, 'loose boxes' were used to containerize coal from the late 1780s, on 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.
In the United Kingdom, several railway companies were using similar containers by the beginning of the 20th century and in the 1920s the Railway Clearing House standardised the RCH container. Five or ten foot long, wooden and non-stackable, these early standard containers were a great success but the standard remained UK-specific.
From 1926 to 1947, in the US, 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. In the mid-1930s, the Chicago Great Western Railway and then the New Haven Railroad began "piggy-back" 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 piggy-back trailer service.

Toward the end of World War II, the United States Army began using specialized containers to speed up 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 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, in addition to handling time, by stevedores at the Port of Pusan, proved to 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 CONEX's (containing engineering supplies and spare parts) were shipped 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 cut almost in half. By the time of the Vietnam War the majority of supplies and materials were shipped with the CONEX. After the U.S. Department of Defence standardized an 8' x 8' cross section container in multiples of 10' lengths for military use it was rapidly adopted for shipping purposes. These standards were adopted in the United Kingdom for containers and rapidly displaced the older wooden containers in the 1950s.


Towards standards
During the first twenty years of growth containerization meant using completely different, and incompatible, container sizes and corner fittings from one country to another. There were dozens of incompatible container systems in the U.S. 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 exist now evolved out of a series of compromises among international shipping companies, European railroads, U.S. railroads, and U.S. trucking companies. Four important ISO recommendations standardised containerisation globally

* 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 May 2001, Malcolm P. McLean, the "Father of Containerization", died aged eighty-seven. He used to say that he had the idea of rationalizing goods transport by avoiding the constant loading and unloading from one means of transport to another way back at the end of the 1930s at the port of Hoboken, when still operating as a small-scale hauler. To start with, McLean would load complete trucks onto ships, in order to transport them as close as possible to their destination. The development of standardized containers and trailers, moved by tractors, made it possible to ship just the trailers with the containers, so saving on space and costs. Later, the trailers were also left behind and the ships transported just the containers.
Shipowners were more than a little skeptical about McLean's idea. This prompted him to become a ship-owner himself and he appropriately named his company Sea-Land Inc. At the end of the 1990s, McLean sold his company to the Maersk shipping company, but his company name lives on in the name Maersk Sealand.
In the literature, the "Ideal X" is mentioned as the first container freighter. This ship left Newark on 26th April 1956 carrying fifty-eight containers, which it transported to Houston. The first ship designed to carry only containers is the "Maxton", a converted tanker, which could carry sixty containers as deck cargo. That was in 1956.
Another decade passed before the first container ship moored in Europe. The first container on German soil was set down by the "Fairland" at Bremer Überseehafen on 6th May 1966. The first containers used by SeaLand in Northern Europe were 35' ASA containers, i.e. they were constructed to American standards. In other regions, 27' ASA containers and other ASA dimensions were often used. Ship-owners in Europe and Japan quickly recognized the advantages of the container and also invested in the new transport technology.

Since American standards could only be applied with difficulty to conditions in Europe and other countries, an agreement was eventually reached with the Americans after painstaking negotiations. The resulting ISO standards provided for lengths of 10', 20', 30' and 40'. The width was fixed at 8' and the height at 8' and 8' 6". For land transport within Europe, agreement was reached on a 2.50 m wide inland container, which is mainly used in combined road/rail transport operations.

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 14,500 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU), for example the Emma Mærsk, 396 m long, launched August 2006. It has even 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 in length and 60 m wide (1542 feet by 197 feet).

The widespread use of ISO (International Organization for Standardization) 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.

Dimensions and payloads
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). United States 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. Similarly, the 45-ft (13.7 m) containers are also commonly designated as two TEU, although they are 45 and not 40 feet (12 m) long. Two TEU are equivalent to one forty-foot equivalent unit (FEU).
The use of Imperial measurements to describe container size (TEU, FEU) reflects the fact that US Department of Defence played a major part in the development of containers. The overwhelming need to have a standard size for containers, in order that they fit all ships, cranes, and trucks, and the length of time that the current container sizes have been in use, makes changing to an even metric size impractical.

The maximum gross mass for a 20 ft (6.1 m) dry cargo container is 24,000 kg (today 30,480 kg), and for a 40-ft (including the 2.87 m (9 ft 6 in) high cube container), it is 30,480 kg. Allowing for the tare mass of the container, the maximum payload mass is therefore reduced to approximately 21,600 kg (today 28,310 kg)for 20 ft (6.1 m), and 26,500 kg for 40 ft (12 m) containers.
Since November 2007 48-ft and 53 ft (16 m) containers are used also for international ocean shipments. At the moment (April 2008) the only ocean company who offer such containers is APL[10]. However, APL containers have slightly different sizes and weights than standard 48 ft (15 m) and 53 ft (16 m) containers (that are used in the US by rail and truck services).

Standard containers
The 40 ft (12 m) container is the most popular container worldwide. Longer container types have become more common, especially in North America. Shorter containers (e.g. 10 ft (3.0 m) containers) are rare.

20-ft, "heavy tested" containers are available for heavy goods. These containers allow a maximum weight of 67,200 lb (30,480 kg), an empty weight of 5,290 lb (2,400 kg), and a net load of 61,910 lb (28,080 kg).
The following table shows the weights and dimensions of the three most common types of containers worldwide. The weights and dimensions quoted below are averages, different manufacture series of the same type of container may vary slightly in actual size and weight.


Iso container

(text copied from Wikipedia, shortened and modified)