Permitting 45ft standard containers

11-09-2006
11-09-2006
Permitting 45ft standard containers

Permitting standard 45ft containers to be used on Europe’s roads would be a backward step 

There is currently discussion as to whether 45ft containers as used by deepsea lines should be given some form of dispensation allowing them to be transported on Europe’s roads after 1 January 2007. Although such containers built since 1996 have not been legal in most European Union (EU) countries for ten years, the relevant laws have not been enforced. Now though, effective next year, the ban will cover all 45ft containers except those fitted with chamfered corner posts and corner castings and it is widely expected that the law will then be enforced quite strictly in several countries including Germany and the Netherlands.

In 1995, the EU revealed its plans for harmonising road vehicle weights and dimensions across the member states. In itself, this was seen as a good idea but one particular proposal relating to the dimensions of a semi-trailer immediately rang alarm bells within the shipping community. To compete with 13.6m trailers able to carry 33 pallets, shortsea lines had begun to invest in 45ft palletwide containers. If the new regulations were to be adopted without change, it would be impossible to transport these containers by road within the EU without infringing the law and the shortsea lines were convinced that much of their business would then be lost to trailer operators.

Two of the largest shortsea operators at that time, Bell Lines and Geest North Sea Line, led a campaign aimed at securing minor changes to the proposed regulations that would allow 45ft containers continued access to the European road network. In addition to conducting lobbying programmes in Brussels and elsewhere, the two companies asked Dunelm to organise a press conference that was staged during a major European intermodal conference and which resulted in substantial trade media coverage. Sadly though, with the notable exception of Maersk, no deepsea shipping line seemed interested in supporting the shortsea lobby. When asked, the other ocean carriers felt that Europe was not a 45ft market; they were only using such boxes in the transpacific trades.

Despite the environmental implications of a shift from shortsea/intermodal to road, the EU was intransigent and EU Directive 96/53/EC came into force in July 1996. All that the shortsea operators were able to secure were ‘grandfather’ rights allowing containers built before that date to be exempt from the regulations for a period of ten years.

Fortunately for the shortsea operators, a solution was found to the problem. By chamfering the front corner castings and corner posts, it proved possible to meet the new regulations without losing cargo capacity. This design was subsequently patented and rights to this patent currently lie with Geest Patents BV, a company headed by Jacob van Geest, the owner of Geest North Sea Line until its sale to Samskip in 2005.

Over the past ten years, shortsea operators have purchased many thousands of 45ft containers fitted with ‘Geest’ corner castings but the deepsea lines have totally ignored the situation. They have continued to build standard 45ft containers and they are daily risking prosecution by using standard 45ft containers built after 1996, ie containers that do not benefit from the grandfather rights, on the roads in Europe. Suddenly though, realising that all 45ft containers fitted with normal corner castings will be outlawed with effect from 1 January 2007, the deepsea lines have at last started their own lobby campaign.

It is not yet clear whether the EU will be prepared to back down. There are some indications that there may be a willingness to extend the grandfather dispensation for another four years but clearly this is not what the deepsea lines are seeking. They want 45ft deepsea boxes to be given full exemption from the rules that apply to all other road vehicles in the EU.

It has to be asked whether it would be acceptable for the EU to back down and give in to the deepsea lines’ demands. After all, 96/53/EC has been in place for ten years, the deepsea lines knew about it and chose to ignore it despite there being a simple solution to the problem, a solution which the shortsea industry has embraced completely.

Whilst not necessarily agreeing with the regulations, shortsea operators have invested heavily in 45ft containers that meet the 96/53/EC directive and which can be transported legally throughout Europe. If the deepsea lines’ lobbying wins the day, it will be seen as a reward for ignoring an EU directive for an entire decade and it will be a kick in the teeth for the shortsea lines. The EU will in effect be saying to them that they have wasted time and money investing in boxes with chamfered corner castings. Whether they will have a case for recompense from the EU will no doubt occupy several firms of lawyers for many months.

It should be added that the European road transport industry has also adapted to 96/53 by designing and building road trailers with chamfered corners to meet the new legislation. Only the deepsea shipping industry seems to have ignored 96/53.

Many believe that European intermodalism owes a great debt to the 45ft palletwide container with its chamfered corner castings. Back in 1996, the industry was facing a situation where intermodal operators were building all sorts of equipment and standardisation was fast disappearing out of the window. 13.6m swapbodies that couldn’t be stacked or even top lifted were causing big problems for rail, barge and terminal operators.

Suddenly though, we had a unit that met virtually the entire needs of the European intermodal industry. Operators say that the additional cost of the chamfered corner castings is really quite negligible and most shortsea observers are at a loss to understand why the deepsea lines haven’t built such containers. Was it arrogance, ineptitude or inertia that made them turn a blind eye to Europe’s laws? The manufacturers who supply palletwide 45s see no problem in meeting the particular requirements of the deepsea lines, for example in providing the higher stacking capabilities that the European intermodal trades don’t need.

Of course, the deepsea lines will claim that their move to legalise standard 45ft containers is in the interests of global standardisation but this is a dubious claim.

There will be no standardisation with North American domestic intermodal units since here you already have 48ft and 53ft units, 8ft 6in wide. The internal capacities of these units are far greater than the volumes offered by 40ft or 45ft deepsea containers. These North American containers cannot be carried on any existing deepsea container vessel and indeed are not designed for the forces they would encounter in a maritime environment.

In Europe, the standard unit, the 45ft palletwide container, also offers much greater effective capacity than an 8ft wide 45footer. Although it is only slightly wider than a deepsea container, taking advantage of the 2.5m width possible on Europe’s roads, it is designed to accommodate packaging that conforms to metric standards. This means they can carry up to 33 Euro pallets, significantly more than can be carried in deepsea boxes. Some deepsea lines are able to carry European 45ft palletwides on their existing vessels but only in limited numbers, their extra width creating significant stowage difficulties on deck. Under deck, the situation is even worse; very few deepsea ships have 45ft bays, only 20ft/40ft bays.

Despite the fact that the deepsea lines are furiously lobbying in favour of 45ft containers being legalised for use on EU roads, very few deepsea container vessels, even the latest post-Panamax giants, are designed to carry 45ft containers in any great number. Before trying to bend the EU countries to their will, perhaps the deepsea lines should take a look at their own outdated shipboard systems that force them to use predominantly 20ft and 40ft long, 8ft wide containers. Since these have less capacity than the ‘domestic’ containers now common in Europe and North America, the landside operations of the deepsea carriers require more truck movements than they would if they optimised the sizes of container they employ. This is hardly an environmentally sustainable situation.

This problem, which is partly a matter of inertia or resistance to change and partly one of ship design, is not insurmountable. European shortsea operators have tackled this successfully and are now building ships that can accommodate both standard ISO containers and 2.5m palletwides. It is about time the deepsea lines took note.

David Chesling, managing director, Dunelm Public Relations

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