High Cube Container Transport Developments


The South African ports handled over four million containers for the first time in 2009 with approximately 2.4 million TEUs through Durban and a large increase to 1.3 million TEUs through Cape Town.

Approximately one million of the boxes were transhipped for onward consignment to other destinations and remained in the ports. The others were transported by road and rail to destinations all over Southern Africa.

Of the four million TEUs, about 50% were 12 metres and 50% were 6 metre boxes with varying proportions landed and shipped at the different ports. Of the 12 metre boxes, approximately 80% are now High Cube containers (HCCs) with the proportion of high cubes growing each year as the older containers are replaced. This trend to high cube dimensions is also now evident  in the construction of new 6 metre containers.

The advent of the high cube container took place about 12 years ago and there was a slow but steady increase in the numbers until the recent world economic boom when the numbers of containers increased very dramatically worldwide due to the need to move manufactured goods from the Far East to the industrialised nations of the west. South Africa caught this contagion and there are now about 20,000 to 25,000 high cube boxes per month being transported around Southern Africa by road and rail.(this is a very conservative estimate in view of the fact that all container movements include some road haulage).

The height of the HCC at 2.9 metres makes it illegal to transport on road (and in fact on rail, in terms of the permissible rail gauge), but in practice the transport of these boxes has become so commonplace that they excite no comment or curiosity on the road or rail systems.

In Southern Africa, as in most other parts of the world, the design of trucktractors and trailer equipment for road freight has followed more or less similar design evolution driven by the main international suppliers. The fifth wheel coupling on typical trucktractors is about 1.25 metres from the ground, with the result that flatdeck trailers on 20 or 22 inch wheels are built with deck height of about 1.55 metres.

As the result of this “standard design” arrangement, loading docks are generally constructed  to match the 1.55 metres deck height and all freight carrying vehicles are designed to those approximate height dimensions. Dock levellers are then used to absorb the changes due to spring deflection and permit easy access for forklifts.

There is however a legal problem in South Africa, due to the fact that that a 2.9 metre box on a flatdeck trailer with a 1.55 metre deck height, gives an overall height of 4.45 metres and the National Road Traffic Act only permits a height of 4.3 metres.

The problem has been known for at least 10 years and much debate has taken place about the issue. The problem is of course common to every country in the worlds as the HCC  is not a local phenomenon, and most countries have adjusted their road legislation to suit, in the same way as quay depths are changing for larger ships and runways for wide belly jet freighters. Countries such as Zimbabwe, UK, Brazil, Australia and Ireland have simply raised the height limit to accommodate the inevitable growth of the high cube container movements.

South Africa has now had a 12 year “experimental “period of transporting the HC boxes to every corner of the country and region and the owners of the containers, the shipping lines, who would be the first to react to any damage to their property, report that they have no records of damage due to roll-overs or impacts with overhead structures that can be attributed specifically to the additional height of the HCC boxes, from several million movements. In the face of the overwhelming evidence provided by the real experience of transporting the HCCs, it would seem that any further deliberations regarding stability and safety are irrelevant.

The dimensions of the problem were set out in a report for the Kwa Zulu Department of Transport (funded by the Durban Harbour Carriers Association) in 2005, and submitted to the Department of Transport with a request to change the legislation. This has been subjected to ongoing vacillation by the authorities.

A suggested alternative, that the entire industry should reduce trailer deck heights (and by implication, every load dock in the country) to 1.25 metres, would have very widespread implications for inter-cargo flexibility; back haul rates, and the current efficiency of an integrated system.

It must be recognised that load dock reconstruction costs are only part of the problem as all current freight vehicles are built to same loading height. Any attempt at standardising on a lower height will affect all trailers, rigids, interlinks and non-container carrying vehicle combinations such as reefers, curtain-siders and box vans as well.

It is to be hoped that the current round of discussions will result in a speedy resolution of the issue as there are serious potential insurance implications for carriers that can be shown to be operating “illegally”, and there is no current method by which prosecutions can be appealed.

It must also be recognised that failure to resolve the legality of transporting the HCCs to inland destinations on standard semitrailers is likely to promote the development of double handling of boxes from the docks on “container trailers” to warehouses and depots. This will lead to further increases in the proportions of containers destuffed in the port cities for reloading of sorted goods as break bulk onto interlinks for long haul transport.

In the longer term, obstruction of container traffic on the South African road corridors is likely to promote industrial relocation to the coast and the development of alternative routes for the region, such as Maputo, Beira and Walvis Bay.

A further development in the world of container transport that has been pointed out by Kevin Martin, Chairman of the Durban Harbour Carriers Association, is the fact that reefer containers are getting heavier, with the newer designs of 12 metre boxes coming off the dock weighing 34 tons, which is beyond the legal carrying capacity of most 6×4 trucktractor and 14 metre tridem semitrailer combinations. If this trend continues (and export boxes may be getting even heavier) this will have further implications for the ongoing debate about Legal Axle Massload (LAM) within the SADC region.

It is also significant that nine out of ten of the heaviest overloads of the 188,000 loads weighed, in Kwa Zulu Natal in 2008, were ISO containers, all apprehended at Mkondeni in Pietermaritzburg.


Nick Porée –(14-07-2010) SAFTI Durban  : safti@safti.co.za