How shipping containers changed the world – and your day-to-day life

We know this is all very exciting, but try to contain yourself, lads. (I'm so sorry.) Image: Getty.

Shipping containers, it almost goes without saying, do not make good conversation starters. Bring them up at parties and you’ll likely receive a few glazed looks before someone with better social skills awkwardly tries to change the subject.

My advice would be to keep the container chit-chat to yourself, while quietly relishing the fact that most of the things in the room would have likely spent part of their life in one. The European beer and olives, the South American wine and out of season fruit, you name it, it all reached this country in a shipping container.

In essence they are large steel boxes, designed with enough strength to be filled with heavy goods and lugged around by massive cranes. But the significance of containers lies in what they facilitate: international trade. By making this significantly easier, they've aided globalisation and changed our day to day lives.

It was post-World War Two when shipping containers really started to dominate trade. Thanks to recommendations issued in the late 1960s by the International Organisation for Standardisation, a Chinese container full of clothes can be lifted straight from a ship onto an American train, from which it can be transported to the shopping malls of Midwest.

Previously the norm was a system known as break bulk cargo, in which each item was separately loaded onto a cargo ship. It was a labour intensive process that required lengthy packing and then unpacking in ports, during which time theft and damage were more likely.


Once the use of containers had become widespread, known as the process of containerisation, the international supply chain was much smoother, and foreign goods flooded our markets. As container technology developed allowing for refrigeration, fresh goods could be taken anywhere in the world. We can now eat Indian mangos, Caribbean bananas, and Brazilian steak all year round.

The global supply chain also developed, as ease of transport meant that companies could build components of the final product in completely different countries. As economists Edward Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase argue about modern-day trading, “it is better to assume that moving goods is essentially costless”. And it is us lucky consumers who end up benefiting from far cheaper products.

But where consumers reaped the benefit, workers suffered.

As the old break bulk cargo methods were superseded by shipping containers, which could be managed with far less labour, unemployment in dock cities skyrocketed.

Liverpool was a prime example of this, as not only did the dockland jobs disappear, but the companies the docks served moved abroad. The city was sent into a spiral of decline, with its population shrinking by 18.8 percent in the four decades after 1971.

The seismic change of containerisation made its mark elsewhere across the nation as well, being the death-knell for a number of inland ports. Having weathered over a thousand years of history and everything the Luftwaffe could throw at it, it was containerisation that finished off London as a great port city. The new method required new ships, which were too large to navigate upriver to the capital. Such was also the case in Manchester and Gloucester. 

For good and ill, containers are everywhere. They’re even sneaking into the housing market. In trendy parts of towns, containers are becoming ultra-fashionable work spaces for start-ups, bars, restaurants, and shops alike. As the UK’s ongoing housing crisis deepens, shipping container “towns” are even popping up for homeless people to live in.

It really can’t be overstated how much these fairly unassuming metal boxes have changed the world. They gave globalisation a triple espresso and in doing so changed everything from macroeconomics to what you eat for breakfast. From the clothes on your back to the fabric of our cities. Still not the topic of great conversations though.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.