TT Talk - Vigilance in container maintenance

Freight containers are remarkably simple in concept - a structure whose strength is fundamentally retained in the framework and the capability of corner fittings to enable a designated gross mass to be lifted or held in place. Some of the components are defined as 'structurally sensitive', while others may be more relevant to the protection of cargo. All require attention to ensure that the supply chain process is successful and safe.

The freight container has proved for a generation to be both strong and weak. The original architects of the ISO standards set out strength criteria and testing regimes that have served us well. As the industry has mushroomed from tens of thousands to tens of millions of containers, the essential requirements have remained little changed. The current review being undertaken by ISO will bring about modification, but the essential scheme will remain.

At the same time, TT Club frequently reminds packers that the container is simply a glorified packing case and the cargo needs to be properly packed and secured within the unit to maximise the probability that everything reaches destination in good condition. A prime purpose of such reminders is to alert users to the rigours of intermodal transportation and take full account of the nature of the cargo being packed so as not to place inappropriate reliance on the strength of sidewalls or lashing points.

Do not rely on inspections

As explained in a

parallel article

, the inspection regimes put in place under the International Convention for Safe Containers (CSC) require many in the industry to act in good faith. While 'stop' notices are issued by authorised officers, the vast majority of units rightly rely on everyone playing their part to check and maintain the condition of the container or CTU (cargo transport unit). This calls for awareness and vigilance.

While a CTU operator remains responsible for providing equipment to packers that is fit for the purpose defined by the shipper, in compliance with both 'international structural integrity requirements' (ie. CSC) and also 'international or national safety regulations', the reality is that much of the activity to ensure that this is done is contracted to other, principally container depots. And, of course, others involved in the operational movement of containers bear some inherent level of responsibility to be satisfied that the CTU is in appropriate condition.

Repair standards

It is, therefore, concerning that stories of substandard repairs and materials have recurred. While clearly the container owner and/or operator, whether directly or through local agents, has every interest in ensuring that repair costs are appropriately controlled, there is - as ever - a proper price for a proper job. Use of substandard materials, such as mild steel product, will almost certainly have a clear cost differential. It has been reported that some major suppliers of container parts and steel products are now selling under diameter or specification cross members and corner posts. Indeed, some are allegedly selling 3.5mm cross members as 4mm Corten cross members, and also undersized mild steel corner posts rather than 6mm Corten corner posts. In the nature of things, there are two ends to any such supply transaction and overbearing concentration on cost alone will place undue pressure on suppliers and repairers to compromise. The consequence could be far more than an improper repair or early deterioration in the condition of the asset.

"Where any customer demands prices below what is reasonable, the only way a supplier can achieve the price point being demanded is to employ short cuts".

Container owners and operators - as key players in the 'customer' chain - should take note and take action to ensure that the units remain consistently within standards and perform adequately.

Logistical realities

The risks involved in maintaining standards are more complex where there is less interchange through depots. Given the nature of containerised logistics it is not uncommon for the unit to be moved directly from one consignee to the next packer, without passing through any formal depot routine. As a consequence, there is greater onus on the packer to '[ensure] that the CTU is checked before packing and that the condition of the CTU is suitable for the cargo to be transported' (as stated in the now approved CTU Code). Some of the checks a packer can make are simple and purely visual - such as a light test to ensure that there are no holes in the walls or roof or reviewing the details of the CSC approval plate. Others may require greater scrutiny or understanding of the nature of the cargo and intended transport.

As with all elements of the international supply chain, consistent success relies on trust between all parties. It needs to be recognised that all have a personal responsibility to gather an increasing awareness of the entirety of the supply chain process, rather than (where it happens) just the immediate task in hand. The condition of the CTU is as fundamental to the packer and shipper as to the container owner or operator; it is also important to any modal carrier or handling facility and, indeed, any innocent bystander.

We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox

Risk Management Director, TT Club

Staff Author

TT Club