The cost and time to move goods around the country and the world would be far higher were it not for a simple invention - a standardised box.
Shipping containers have transformed how all trade is managed and keeps getting better. Automation is saving time and lowering costs. You will find an intermodal container (their actual name) in every city on earth, but they are less than a hundred years old.
The idea may have been suggested for a long time, but with so many ports, ships, trucks and trade bodies all doing their own thing, getting everyone to switch proved very difficult.
A similar situation arose with rail transport in the 1970s. Speed and comfort levels had reached a peak, and it was doubtful that the use of metal wheels on a track would allow for any advance. Getting rid of the wheels and using first air then magnets to levitate the train offered significant speed and comfort improvements. Tracks would be less complex and made from concrete, not metal. Derailments would be less likely. Everything on paper made sense, but the concept failed.
There was just too much rail already laid and the effort to change it all proved too big an obstacle. An economic slump assured the end of the line for the radical new idea and efforts switched to improvements to conventional trains.
Shipping containers did change everything thanks to something no-one would otherwise want. War. The US war, first in Korea then Vietnam required lots of military equipment to be shipped, by loading it in containers the consignments could be more easily moved and tracked.
After the military use showed its value, the willingness to switch became easier, but it also took the efforts of people like Malcolm McLean to invest in the means to do it commercially. He was the first to refit a ship to handle the containers and then set about getting the rest to follow. Ships, ports, trucks and trains were all finally converted to handle processing.
It was not all plain sailing, containerisation would change dock work forever. The job losses were considerable, but cost saving, security improvements and speed all made it worthwhile.
Shipping is now so efficient that some products need not factor the shipping into its costs.
The WARR Hyperloop prototype by the Technical University of Munich won the 2018 SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition reaching 467km/h.
Back to the trains. Elon Musk proposed a new transport option, the Hyperloop. Rather than a train on tracks, there would be a vehicle in a tube with the air pressure reduced to almost a vacuum.
The lowered air pressure would reduce the resistance, using a closed tube would decrease noise too and allow for theoretical speeds over 1 000 km/h.
The tube to be built above would be used as an alternative to aircraft and trains for long distance high-speed continental travel.
The attraction for being able to travel from the centre of a city to another in a fraction of the time in comfort and at low cost makes it a very tempting offer.
It also opens up the prospect of allowing outlying towns to benefit from the jobs in the main city while enjoying the cost saving of living in a cheaper city.
The various test tracks and companies formed to advance the concept include the Virgin Group's Hyperloop One while Dubai is studying the viability to be the first to build one. The speed improvements are encouraging
Once the loops begin to be connected the options for getting anywhere fast might make you wonder why is only be considered now.
It isn’t. The fundamentals of this form of transport have been around awhile, but a similar spike in interest for a major innovation in rail transport in the 70’s may both explain why there is still a lot the Hyperloop will have to get right and assuming it could be done, why the entire project may still fail.
In the early 1970s, the challenge of creating a faster train was the wheels. They were not designed for speed, so the idea was to remove them. Have a train float on air like a hovercraft or on magnets.
The magnets turned out to be a better option allowing the train to not only float but also use a linear motor, a new innovation for the time.
The train would not need tracks but rather a guide rail, and it could be constructed out of concrete rather than steel.
All the tests looked favourable, and there was interest in building the new networks in Europe and the US. But it failed, for two reasons and neither was related to the technology.
Switching to the new tracks meant there would be a lot of old track to remove, the cost and disruption along with the new build efforts made planners think twice.
There was also an economic crisis which reduced the interest in speculative new projects.
It did not die, but rather than create new networks formed the basis for how to improve the current networks by improving the train wheels and tracks to approach the speeds and efficiency of the wheel-free option.
Those same issues are likely to apply to the Hyperloop. It has significant engineering challenges to overcome. So significant that some believe it is doomed to fail. But in the effort to build it will come new options for improving the current system. The vacuum tube option may be a bridge too far, but it may allow the upgrade of existing tracks to use magnetic levitation and linear motors in the way designers hoped for in the 70s.
It would not be a train that reaches supersonic speeds, but it would compete with domestic air travel and offer to move goods and people in greater volumes and numbers with less environmental impact. That sounds like a great innovation.
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This article first appeared on 702 : It took a war to change shipping. What will it take to change transport?