Histories of interoperability

Pointer from: Port of Oakland Harbor tour (highlight recommend!)
Place digested: Lazying about
Time digested: Sept 29, 2018


To realize intermodal cargo transport, all areas of the transport chain had to been integrated. It was not simply a question of putting cargo in containers. The ships, port terminals, trucks and trains had to been adapted to handle the containers.

The Containership

On 26 April 1956, Malcom McLean's converted World War II tanker, the Ideal X, made its maiden voyage from Port Newark to Houston in the USA. It had a reinforced deck carrying 58 metal container boxes as well as 15,000 tons of bulk petroleum. By the time the container ship docked at the Port of Houston six days later the company was already taking orders to ship goods back to Port Newark in containers. McLean's enterprise later became known as Sea-Land Services, a company whose ships carried cargo-laden truck trailers between Northern and Southern ports in the USA.

Other companies soon turned to this approach. Two years later, Matson Navigation Company's ship Hawaiian Merchant began container shipping in the Pacific, carrying 20 containers from Alameda to Honolulu. In 1960, Matson Navigation Company completed construction of the Hawaiian Citizen, the Pacific's first full container ship. Meanwhile, the first ship specifically designed for transporting containers, Sea-Land's Gateway City, made its maiden voyage on 4 October 1957 from Port Newark to Miami, starting a regular journey between Port Newark, Miami, Houston and Tampa. It required only two gangs of dockworkers to load and unload, and could move cargo at the rate of 264 tons an hour. Shortly afterwards, the Santa Eliana, operated by Grace Line, became the first fully containerized ship to enter foreign trade when she set sail for Venezuela in January 1960.

The Container

It was a logical next step that container sizes could be standardized so that they could be most efficiently stacked and so that ships, trains, trucks and cranes at the port could be specially fitted or built to a single size specification. This standardization would eventually apply across the global industry.

As early as 1960, international groups already recognizing the potential of container shipping began discussing what the standard container sizes should be. In 1961, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) set standard sizes. The two most important, and most commonly used sizes even today, are the 20-foot and 40-foot lengths. The 20-foot container, referred to as a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) became the industry standard reference with cargo volume and vessel capacity now measured in TEUs. The 40-foot length container - literally 2 TEUs - became known as the Forty-foot Equivalent Unit (FEU) and is the most frequently used container today.

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 (7.32 m) containers, while Sea-Land Service, Inc used 35-foot (10.67 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:[37]

    • January 1968: ISO 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.

Based on these standards, the first TEU container ship was the Japanese de:Hakone Maru from shipowner NYK, who started sailing in 1968 and could carry 752 TEU 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.

Double-stacked rail transport, where containers are stacked two high on railway cars, was introduced in the United States. The concept was developed by Sea-Land and the Southern Pacific railroad. The first standalone double-stack container car (or single-unit 40-ft COFC well car) was delivered in July 1977. The 5-unit well car, the industry standard, appeared for the first time in 1981. Initially, these double-stack railway cars were deployed in regular train service. Ever since American President Lines initiated in 1984 a dedicated double-stack container train service between Los Angeles and Chicago, transport volumes increased rapidly.