What’s in the box? 50th anniversary of containerisation in Australia

24 May 2019

The sight of freight containers on ships, trains and trucks is so familiar that we hardly notice them, and yet repurposed shipping containers are popping up everywhere as homes, cafés and even swimming pools.

Photo of a Crane uploading containers onto a ship.
Unloading containers from the ‘Encounter Bay, Fremantle, WA. Image: National Archives of Australia K21217

It’s timely to reflect on the history of the humble shipping container this year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first purpose-built container vessel at an Australian port.

On 28 March 1969, the Encounter Bay sailed into Fremantle laden with shipping containers from the United Kingdom and Europe.

Before containerisation, the price of a traded item in Australia was between 5 and 10 per cent more expensive because of higher handling and maritime transportation costs. The container and the efficiencies that came with it, have seen these costs fall to around 1.5 per cent of the price of a shipped item – meaning cheaper items at the checkout for consumers.

Although the idea of the shipping container is a simple concept, it revolutionized maritime trade in Australia and right around the world. Through the introduction of a standardised shipping container system, products became cheaper and faster to load, and this gave rise to the global intermodal freight transportation system used today.

The intermodal system allows freight to travel seamlessly on various modes of transport (for example, land and water) without further handling.

This in turn inspired many other innovations, including the cold chain logistics industry, which ensures Australia’s world-class food and beverage exports are kept at a controlled temperature throughout their journey.

Benefits of containerisation

  • Lower cost which translated into cheaper prices
  • Improved access to markets allowing our businesses to expand
  • Increased choice of goods for Australian consumers

The World Container Fleet

A new global intermodal freight transport system led to major changes in port infrastructure and fleet conversion. A new unit of measurement, TEU, twenty-foot equivalent units, was created to describe the capacity of container ships and container terminals.

The world container ship fleet, estimated at just 16,000 TEU in 1965, jumped to 140,500 by 1970 and increased to 1,765,868 TEU by 1990. There were an estimated 20 million TEU worldwide in 2016.

Ships grew in capacity as new technologies took hold. The Panamax ship, named to reflect the maximum size that could fit within the locks of the Panama Canal, had capacity of 3,000 to 4,000 TEU in the 1980s.

The Panama Canal expansion, which began commercial operations on 26 June 2016, allowed for larger ships to pass through the canal. New Panamax ships can carry over twice as much cargo, that is, up to 12,500 TEU.

As a result of globalisation and growing demand, Australian trade in goods has increased a staggering 84-fold since 1969. Today, $1.2 billion worth of trade passes through Australian ports every day.

Route taken by the Encounter Bay

A map outlining the  trip between Europe and Australia from Rotterdam 6 March 1969 to Melbourne 10 April 1969, via Fremantle WA 28 March 1969 and Sydney 3 April 1969.

View larger image.

The Encounter Bay departed Rotterdam container terminal on 6 March 1969, travelling via the Cape of Good Hope. It then stopped in three Australian ports: Fremantle on 28 March 1969, Sydney on 3 April, and Melbourne on 10 April. The Encounter Bay returned to Rotterdam via Fremantle and the Cape of Good Hope.

The long trip between Europe and Australia was extended by the prolonged closure of the Suez Canal from 1967 to 1975. Vessels like the Encounter Bay had to travel a longer route around the Cape of Good Hope.

Photo of a Crane uploading containers onto a ship.
Cranes prepare to lift containers from deck of the ‘Encounter Bay’. Image: National Archives of Australia L80798

Last Updated: 14 May 2019
Photo of a Crane lowering two containers onto a truck.
Two containers lowered from the ‘Encounter Bay’. Image: National Archives of Australia L80796