Throughout human history, cargo has been transported across the seas to trade exotic goods with far off lands. The same is still true today. As a historically seafaring island nation, it seems fitting that most of the UK’s imports and exports still pass through our ports today – over 95% to be exact. iPhones from China, avocados from Mexico, wine from Australia and coffee from Ethiopia. We are indebted to our ports for helping us get all the foods and products that we love from across the globe to our doorstep. But before all this cargo can be loaded onto a transport vessel or delivered to the customer, it has to be stored somewhere. And that’s where container depots come in.
There is a subtle difference between inland container depots and container freight stations. Container freight stations are normally extensions of a port, airport or land customs station to help with decongestion. On the other hand, an inland container depot is normally situated on a different site to a port, and are where imported and exported goods can be stored and potentially kept before clearance by HM Customs. This helps to save time and money as they are often closer to importers and exporters. A container terminal, however, is where the containers are initially loaded or offloaded before they are transported directly to the client or are sent to a depot for stock.
Plumbing systems have been around since before Roman times. The electric lightbulb was invented in 1879. Yet it wasn’t that long ago that shipping goods were still being loaded by hand. Up until the 1960s, cargo was still being loaded and unloaded onto ships by longshoremen using wooden pallets and slings. This was hard, tiring and dangerous work. Then someone came up with the genius idea of putting all this cargo into large, sturdy boxes and moving these instead.
Figures such as Malcolm McLean helped to put containerisation into action by seeing the early potential for containers to revolutionise shipping. From the 1960s onwards, containerisation helped to steer the way towards a tremendous growth in world trade by making loading and transporting goods quicker, safer and cheaper. It wasn’t long before containers became the new and most popular way to transport goods, but this caused issues for traditional city docks.
The traditional shipping operations of city docklands were not designed to accommodate this new way of transporting and storing cargo. Before containerisation, city ports were made up of storage sheds that kept goods safe from the elements, as well as lots of space for loading and unloading.
Containerisation completely changed how ports operated and were designed, as well as causing new ports to be created specifically to accommodate container ships coming in. For example, McLean encouraged the New York’s Port Authority to designate the New Jersey side of the harbour as the centre for shipping containers, which helped to kick start the container industry on American soil. This naturally brought about the creation of an intermodal system of moving cargo from the ships to the container terminals. From here goods would be moved to the container depots and eventually to the customer.
Shipping containers caused an influx of new trade by making transporting, unloading and loading goods more effective and cheaper, but this caused a growth in congestion in the ports. Container depots quickly emerged as a means of making better use of inland infrastructure and relieving container terminals.
From the 1960s onwards, the number of inland container depots in the UK dramatically increased as the benefits of having inland spaces close to centres of production and consumption became obvious. Container depots were set up by private companies, often an extension of an existing business such as warehousing and international trading. This was made possible by the privatisation of the ports in the 1980s, which increased the competition for container depots and subsequently the efficiency of port operations.
However, the rise of container depots dwindled towards the end of the 1990s and the 2000s because of the economic downturn. When once there were over 10 container depots in London, now there are only a few large depots left such as Bullman Marine due to limited space. While a few smaller ones remain around Lakeside, run by companies such as 1st Containers and S Jones. This is because companies stopped buying and selling new containers and instead used up existing stock in these depots. Gradually, the depots emptied and became increasingly less profitable, leading to them closing one by one.
The good news is, container depots are back on the rise, which has largely been helped by a variety of options becoming available of how to store units. As experts on all things shipping containers, we expect to see container depots to continue to make a further comeback. We predict that over the next few years, there will be an increase of container depots due to the new congestion charging zones in London. We wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of haulage companies close down and reduce in number if they cannot adjust their trucks to meet new environmental standards. As a result, more open land would become available for more affordable prices, allowing larger container depots to open once again. Anyone with hard standing open space will find themselves in high demand from the cargo industry when this happens.