Delft University of Technology
Faculty Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering
Transport Technology

E.B.P. Jansen A short history of Container Transport
Literature survey, Report 2006.TL.7066, Transport Engineering and Logistics.

On April 26 in 1956, a little more then 50 years ago, the Ideal X set of from Newark, New Jersey for a trip to Houston, Texas. On the deck of the ship, Malcolm McLean had placed 58 trailer bodies. Instead of loading the contents of the trailers onboard the ship, only to be unloaded and placed in other trailers again at the destination, McLean came up with the idea to use detachable trailer bodies and place them on the deck of a ship. It was the beginning of a revolution in transportation history. Not only did the container decrease labour costs, it also protected the enclosed goods from bad weather and pilferage. Therefore, transportation costs decimated in the decades that followed, allowing goods to be manufactured everywhere on the world and brought to the customers by enormous container vessels sailing between container terminals all over the world.

In the past 50 years, many different patents have been filed related to containerization. By analyzing these patents an historic overview is given about the development of various equipments. Despite the many developments in the equipment, the container box itself has not changed much over the years. There have been some disputes over the dimensions that had to be used for a container, but these have been settled resulting in worldwide standards for dimensions. This has resulted in more then 98% of the container fleet confirming to these specifications and allows worldwide terminal operators to use the same standardized handling equipment so that operations run smooth and fast.

With the success of containerization, new companies have emerged and grown out to large corporations with fleets of container vessels sailing to all major ports and providing facilities to connect these terminals to the hinterland by train, truck or barge. To protect their market, operators have formed conferences to set standard rates on various routes. Lately, there has been even more consolidation in the market by various takeovers and mergers, resulting in fewer but much larger companies then before.

With the increase of the transportation demand, ship sizes have increased drastically. The first ships could only carry about 200 TEU. Their size increased, until a limitation was reached that was set by the lock sizes of the Panama Canal. Because ship had to be able to operate in all regions of the world, this limit held for a long time. In 1988, American President Lines braked the barrier by introducing the first post Panamax ships. Sizes and capacities increased again, reaching up to 13,000 TEU for a ship that Maersk will launch in 2006. Even larger ships are currently under design.

Terminals will have to keep pace with the increasing ship size. Because ships only cost money when they lie still while being loaded and unloaded, turnaround times are kept to a minimum. To facilitate this process, modern terminals rely heavily upon automation.

Automation can be seen in the facilitating of paperwork surrounding international transport but also in other areas like the control of terminal equipment. A good example of the latter is the ECT in Rotterdam, where containers are moved over the terminal with the use of automated guided vehicles and gantry cranes. The cost of such equipment is large, but can save the terminal operator a lot in labour costs.

Because container transport is a door-to-door concept, good connections to and from the hinterland are important. This can be done either by road, rail or inland waterways. Most of this transportation is done by trucking, because of their ability to come almost everywhere. With their relative high costs per ton/mile and the great environmental impact alternatives and improvements to trucking are under investigation to increase door-to-door delivery effectiveness.

The impact that containerization has, is visible every day. Because of the low costs now associated with transportation, manufacturers can produce goods anywhere around the world where production is cheap. It has paved the road for countries like China and Taiwan to become the production centres of the world.

Reports on Transport Engineering and Logistics (in Dutch)
Modified: 2006.12.12; , TU Delft / 3mE / TT / LT.