A short history of Container Transport
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
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)
, TU Delft