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.

 
 
 
 

London’s rail and tube map is out of control

Aaaaaargh. Image: Getty.

The geographical limits of London’s official rail maps have always been slightly arbitrary. Far-flung commuter towns like Amersham, Chesham and Epping are all on there, because they have tube stations. Meanwhile, places like Esher or Walton-on-Thames – much closer to the city proper, inside the M25, and a contiguous part of the built up area – aren’t, because they fall outside the Greater London and aren’t served by Transport for London (TfL) services. This is pretty aggravating, but we are where we are.

But then a few years ago, TfL decided to show more non-London services on its combined Tube & Rail Map. It started with a few stations slightly outside the city limits, but where you could you use your Oyster card. Then said card started being accepted at Gatwick Airport station – and so, since how to get to a major airport is a fairly useful piece of information to impart to passengers, TfL’s cartographers added that line too, even though it meant including stations bloody miles away.

And now the latest version seems to have cast all logic to the wind. Look at this:

Oh, no. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

The logic for including the line to Reading is that it’s now served by TfL Rail, a route which will be part of the Elizabeth Line/Crossrail, when they eventually, finally happen. But you can tell something’s gone wrong here from the fact that showing the route, to a town which is well known for being directly west of London, requires an awkward right-angle which makes it look like the line turns north, presumably because otherwise there’d be no way of showing it on the map.

What’s more, this means that a station 36 miles from central London gets to be on the map, while Esher – barely a third of that distance out – doesn’t. Nor does Windsor & Eton Central, because it’s served by a branchline from Slough rather than TfL Rail trains, even though as a fairly major tourist destination it’d probably be the sort of place that at least some users of this map might want to know how to get to.

There’s more. Luton Airport Parkway is now on the map, presumably on the basis that Gatwick is. But that station doesn’t accept Oyster cards yet, so you get this:

Gah. Click to expand. Image: TfL.

There’s a line, incidentally, between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey, which is just down the road from St Albans City. Is that line shown on the map? No it is not.

Also not shown on the map: either Luton itself, just one stop up the line from Luton Airport Parkway, or Stansted Airport, even though it’s an airport and not much further out than places which are on the map. Somewhere that is, however, is Welwyn Garden City, which doesn’t accept Oyster, isn’t served by TfL trains and also – this feels important – isn’t an airport.

And meanwhile a large chunk of Surrey suburbia inside the M25 isn’t shown, even though it must have a greater claim to be a part of London’s rail network than bloody Reading.

The result of all these decisions is that the map covers an entirely baffling area whose shape makes no sense whatsoever. Here’s an extremely rough map:

Just, what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

I mean that’s just ridiculous isn’t it.

While we’re at it: the latest version shows the piers from which you can get boats on the Thames. Except for when it doesn’t because they’re not near a station – for example, Greenland Pier, just across the Thames to the west of the Isle of Dogs, shown here with CityMetric’s usual artistic flair.

Spot the missing pier. You can’t, because it’s missing. Image: TfL/CityMetric.

I’m sure there must be a logic to all of this. It’s just that I fear the logic is “what makes life easier for the TfL cartography team” rather than “what is actually valuable information for London’s rail passengers”.

And don’t even get me started on this monstrosity.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.