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Thursday, February 25, 2010

HAZARDS OF TRANSPORTING CONTAINERS AND THE FAMOUS NORTH SOUTH DIVIDE

Every day as you travel, you see huge boxes – the containers carrying cargo. These have changed the way goods are transported. If you are in Chennai, and move towards Royapuram (the place from where the first train in South India originated), you would be overwhelmed by movement of loaded container vehicles from Chennai port plying to various CFS. The roads are already dirty flowing with heavy traffic. Quite often a hue is raised of this area being neglected whilst those in southern part of the city glow.

The North South divide is actually a socio economic and political division that exists between the wealthy developed countries, collectively known as ‘the North’ and the poor developing countries (another euphemism) of the South with the notable exception of Australia and Newzealand. The Dravidian parties used to refer to the State’s dependence on Central that ‘North is growing and South is weaning” ( வடக்கு வாழ்கிறது ; தெற்கு தேய்கிறது ) Taking a leaf out, some political leaders inside Tamilnadu started telling that the areas down south – Madurai, Ramnad and other districts are not growing. Actually, inside Chennai it is converse as North Madras is not so well developed as compared to South Chennai. Well this article has nothing to do with politics.

The heavy movement of containers in North Madras brings alongside many problems for the common man. The movement of loaded container vehicles have caused many mishaps, fatal accidents. Lorry drivers are themselves indisciplined and rash – added is the incidence (albeit very rarely) of falling containers from their groove on the vehicles - they pose not only the danger of impedence but imagine a 24 tonnes object falling down with force. You might be surprised that the actual weight in fact is much more than what one could think of.
The idea of shipping containers is a relatively simple idea that has revolutionized the transport industry. The man behind this is Malcolm Mclean. The first ship to carry containers plied between Port Newark and Houston in the USA in 1956. The first international voyage of a container ship was in 1966 between Port Elizabeth, USA and Rotterdam, Netherlands. The biggest advantage of these is saving in space and ease in handling as they come in standard size of 8 ft width, 8.6 ft / 9.6 ft height and lengths of 20 / 40 ft. Containerisation has reduced the costs and time of unloading the cargo besides protecting the valuable cargo from damage in handling and theft during the transit. The reduced time enables movement of the ship faster as they have to wait in port for lesser time. Besides the conventional dry ISO containers there are many hues such as – Insulated or thermal; Reefers; flat rack platforms, open top, tankers – to name a few.

One problem that has been plaguing the industry is the under declaration of weight resulting in overloading of the vessels. A standard TEU would have a tare weight of 2229 kgs and max cargo weight of 21727 kgs – i.e., 24000 kgs in all. The load of cargo is more of volume based and depending upon the material, the weight would vary. Some times shippers deliberately under declare the weight which at times places and ship and crew at risk. The container shipping is sector where the weight of cargo that they carry is not known to the carrier themselves. Understand that there is no requirement for containers to be weighed at a European Port before they get loaded onto a ship. The pay load weights is left to packers and consignors whose declaration is trusted and sometimes this is abused.

There have been some container shipping accidents which have resulted in Authorities considering mandatory weighing of all containers at the port of embarkation, which would reduce the risk of on deck container stack collapse enabling correction of stability and would also reduce the stress on ship’s hull.


The equipments that handle the containers are also at risk when the weight is not accurately known. It is reported that the financial losses involved through dishonest container weight declaration is staggering. In a major loss involving vessel MSC Napoli beached on Devon coast it was reported that no less than 20% of all the deck containers were over 3 tonnes heavier than their declared weights. This may partly be attributed to the absence of facility of weighing the containers inside the premises of packers and shippers but more to do with the dishonest propensity as well. The safety aspect is compromised by the over riding desire to maintain schedules and optimizing turn around time at Ports.


During Jan 2007 at English channel, the 4419 TEU encountered heavy seas and vessel was abandoned. Following the distress call, the crew went on lifeboat and were recovered by Royal Navy helicopters. Most of the containers stowed below deck had been submerged due to internal flooding within the holds and weights therefore differed significantly from those mentioned in manifest. The weight causes stress on ships hull and keel and in a trough could cause the middle of the ship to bend slightly. About 660 containers stowed on deck, which remained dry were also weighed. 137 of these were more than 3 tonnes different variant from their declared weights with the largest single difference being 20 tonnes.
For close to accurate weighments there is talk of load sensing technology developed by Lemantec Intertnational. It has the capability to assist in identifying misdeclared containers and show load eccentricity – that may also indicate improper cargo stowage. It confirms whether all twistlocks are engaged, and will detect if the container is snagged in the cell guides or still secured on a road or rail chassis, among other things. All in all, this could be analogous to the seat belt safety advance in road vehicles and may become standard within the next decade.


The standard SLAC clause would immune the carriers against knowing what is carried inside the container but it is perplexing that they seem reluctant to know the weighment as well. They are not putting themselves on risk but also endangering others arising out of possible accident, instability or derailment. Even if accuracy may not be possible, the consequences should be anticipated going by the type of cargo carried at least.


Read that in Australia, Queensland implemented a legislation way back in 2009 expanding the Chain of responsibility legislative provision introducing a new ‘container weight declaration; which must be completed whenever container transportation is by road. The ultimate objective of the legislation is to reduce the number of trucks carrying overweight containers. This CWD is a declaration that purports to state the weight of the freight container alongwith its contents.


Though we think that this sophisticated line of business is ethical and well regulated, it seems that there are gaping holes. Thanks for many of the inputs in this article to the TT Club & IFW – for some of the articles which are the thread to this piece of writing of mine


With regards – S Sampathkumar.

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