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Whether by ship, train, airplane, or truck:

Nothing works without containers anymore

(WTH/mud) – Thousands upon thousands of containers are transported around the globe every day. Without them, the global flow of goods would hardly be as smooth. Container giants have completely replaced break-bulk ships. Thanks to these “transport boxes,” goods can now be transported in unimaginable quantities to any location in the world in the shortest amount of time. Moreover, they can be delivered to their destinations by ship, airplane, train, or truck without the need for unloading and reloading. The assertion that they have revolutionized the transportation industry is by no means an exaggeration.

Goods are ready packed into a sea-container. Photo: WTH

By the end of the 1960s, container ships gained such immense significance in international trade that they displaced traditional break-bulk ships. On May 31, 1968, the American full-container ship “American Lancer” docked at Burchardkai in Hamburg. This ship had a capacity of just 1200 units of the then relatively new metal cargo containers. Today, giant container ships over 400 meters in length and 60 meters in width, with space for more than 24,000 containers (such as the “MSC Irena”), navigate the world’s oceans.

While initially containers shaped international sea freight starting from North America, today container ports in Asia dominate the global market. Among the top 10 container ports in the world, only Los Angeles/USA stands as the sole container port outside of Asia, with no European port. The total implementation of containers in international trade became possible through globalization.

At point of dispatsch containers usually are sealed by dispatcher. Photo: WTH

However, it’s not only ship sizes, port structures, and cargo flows that have changed since the 1960s. The “transport boxes,” commonly referred to as containers, have also undergone development. A variety of container types and sizes are now in use. Below, the most common versions and their dimensions are described. Since the container’s global journey began in the USA, all sizes are specified in feet and inches, not metric measurements.

Containership at the container-port in Hamburg. Photo M. Dreyling.

An intermodal container, often referred to as a shipping container, is a large standardized shipping container designed and built for intermodal freight transport. This means that these containers can be used across different modes of transportation – from ships or airplanes to trains and trucks – without unloading and reloading their cargo.

Upon arrival at destination seals are controlled and container opened. Photo M. Dreyling.

Intermodal containers come in many different types and standardized sizes, but ninety percent of the global container fleet consists of so-called “dry cargo” or “general-purpose” containers – robust closed rectangular boxes made of corrosion-resistant steel.

Almost all of them are 8 feet wide and either 20 or 40 feet long, as defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in the ISO 668:2020 standard. The globally standardized heights are 8 feet 6 inches and 9 feet 6 inches – the latter being referred to as High Cube or Hi-Cube (HC/HQ) containers.

Customsofficer at destination checks containercontent and documents. Photo M. Dreyling.

Forty-eight-foot and fifty-three-foot containers are not included in the latest edition of the ISO 668 standard from 2020.

ISO (worldwide) standard containers:

  • 20-foot standard container
  • 40-foot standard container
  • 40-foot high cube container
  • 45-foot high cube container

Common North American containers:

  • 48-foot high cube container
  • 53-foot high cube container

External dimensions:

  • Length: 20 feet (19 feet 10.5 inches), 40 feet (40 feet), 45 feet (45 feet), 48 feet (48 feet), 53 feet (53 feet)
  • Width: 20/40/45 feet (8 feet), 48/53 feet (8 feet 6 inches)
  • Height: Standard (8 feet 6 inches), High Cube (9 feet 6 inches)

Uncommon seizes:

  • European “Pallet Wide” (PW) containers are slightly wider and have flat side walls to provide just enough interior width for common European Euro pallets. The 45-foot Pallet Wide High Cube container has gained significant acceptance as it can replace the 13.6-meter (44 feet 7+3/8 inches) swap bodies often used for truck transport in Europe.
  • B. Australian RACE containers are also slightly wider to accommodate Australian standard pallets, or they are 41 feet long and 8 feet 2 inches wide to accommodate up to 40 pallets.
  • C. In Japan’s domestic rail freight, most containers have a length of 12 feet to accommodate unique Japanese standard pallet dimensions.
  • D. 60-foot containers – In May 2017, Canadian Tire and Canadian Pacific Railway announced the introduction of the first 60-foot intermodal containers in North America. The containers allow Canadian Tire to increase the volume of goods shipped per container by 13%.

The ISO 668 standard has not yet standardized 10-foot containers to have the same height as “standard height” 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 m), 20- and 40-foot containers. According to the ISO standard, 10-foot boxes (and previously 5-foot and 6 1/2-foot boxes) are unnamed and have a height of 8 feet (2.44 m). However, the industry often produces 10-foot units with a height of 8 feet 6 inches (2.59 m) to better integrate (and stack) within a fleet of longer 8’6″ (2.59 m) high containers.



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