Weekly Photo Challenge: Containers

Let me paint a picture on this one before I present the photo – it is a personal and a simplified view of a major change in the world that has happened almost as a backdrop to our daily lives. And I make no apologies for the occasional jaundiced swipe at certain political figures of the past.

As early as the 1920’s problems in the movement of goods by rail were recognised – though the use of containers predate the railways by at least 50 years! A consignment of parts for farm machinery dispatched to a remote farm could take three or more weeks to arrive. Imports by sea could take days to get from the docks to the wharehouses. The issue was, in modern parlance, too many hand-offs. A ship would berth and the individually packaged goods items would be unloaded onto the quay by crane. They would then be manually loaded onto wagons for movement to a marshalling yard where the wagons would be sorted before being sent on to other marshalling yards around the country. From those marshalling yards they would be sent to goods facilities at stations where they were unloaded ready to be reloaded into lorries or other wagons for the onward journey to the recipient. As you can see – all the unloading, reloading and also shuffling around in large yards where it was all too easy to lose a single wagon amongst the thousands of others present was an issue.

The first steps in the 1930’s were experiments with wooden containers that were around the size of a standard railway box van. The idea was simple enough – flatbed lorry carries the loaded container to the local goods depot. The container is transferred to a flat wagon ( known logically on BR as a Conflat) and hauled by train (still visiting those marshalling yards) to its nearest depot where the container was transferred back to a truck for onward delivery. This was the first major step in this transport revolution in the UK and among the earliest companies who seem to have taken it up were Pickfords Removals, along with Birds Eye frozen products.

In the fifties a number of RoRail schemes were tried in the UK, US and Australia – vehicles that could run on road as a trailer and convert to a wagon for transportation by rail. These proved to be an evolutionary dead end. Meanwhile, the experiment with containers had gone well but the issue of the marshalling yards remained. From a UK point of view two things hastened the changes that result in our system of freight distribution today. The closure of a huge majority of branch lines in the 1960’s by Beeching spelled the end of the railway acting as a common provider of wagon load goods services – from that point all local freight would have to go by road, though wagonload traffic would struggle on into the early 1980’s before it finally died. The other was the expansion of the motorway network by Marples’ policies – these drove the growth in the national transmission of freight by road.

It was also in the 1950’s that the first standardised steel containers of the modern type appeared. These allow easy transportation by ship, road and rail with no on and off loading of goods during the journey. British Railways bought into the idea and launched the Freightliner brand in the late 1960’s but with government policy favouring road transport it was never as successful as it could have been. By the 1980’s just about everything entering the UK was carried in containers and a new wave of public opposition to putting everything on the roads was growing – everybody wants to use their car without sitting in queues of trucks shifting containers from Dover to Glasgow. Actually, the truck companies could see the issue too in longer journey times, increased fuel consumption and the need for more drivers to meet the hours regulations. (and that’s not including the cost to the nation in road repairs!) The sensible way forward was that containers arrive by ship, are transferred to waiting trains which take them to container depots around the country where they are transferred to trucks for onward distribution – and that is the system we largely have today. Unfortunately the standardisation has gone out of the window and the UK rail network is having to adapt to containers built for the more generous European loading gauge (one of the problems in being the inventor of the railways – you find that your loading gauge is a bit small). Perhaps we should route everything up the old Great Central mainline which was built to the European Loading gauge? – Oh! we can’t… Beeching closed that to justify Marples building the M1 and I don’t doubt that loadsamoney was made for those in the fold 😉

By the by.. Container services are now referred to as Intermodal services – gets around any potential legal claims from companies with the word Container in their name. Below is an image of Freightliner class 66, 66590 with the 4L31 Bristol Freightliner Terminal to Felixstowe North Freightliner Terminal service on the climb up to Willesden Junction High Level from Old Oak Junction. The empty wagon in the foreground is a standard container wagon whilst the one with the Maersk container is a pocket wagon designed to handle oversized European gauge containers.


You can read about this Weekly Photo Challenge at http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/containers/



  1. Martin, you would be in container heaven over here what with the extensive intermodal services on the railway lines – they go on for miles! As for Beeching . . .

    • Hi Patti – I’m sure they do! Ours run between passenger services as I know you know. It’s a standing joke that the freight services on the North London Line are held up by the passenger services 😉 There are periods at West hampstead on the North London Line when you have a freight service between each passenger service (one every 10 minutes for the passenger runs and the freight drivers have to adjust their run to allow for the pasenger train stopping at each station.) – that’s a hell of a lot of lorries not on the road. Marples and Beeching… I’ve stepped in things that were more pleasant… Self-serving is the best desciption I could possibly politely come up with. If only they’d looked at a broader picture we could have had this transport system 30 years ago 😦

  2. I’m fascinated, too, with intermodal yards. My husband is a Union Pacific switchman and so we often make stops in towns just to check out the intermodal yards. I am glad to see that we are not alone, Martin! I don’t usually try to push bloggers back to my own posts, but I just added one with some photos from a very small train station in Central California–I was following some boxcar graffiti. 🙂

    • Thanks Debra – I was due to pop over anyway 😉 You’ll gather that we don’t have enough gauge to double-stack like they do in the US! And our block sections are only long enough in most cases for 500m trains.

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