The colorful chaos of the old-time pier is nowhere in evidence at a major container terminal, the brawny longshoremen carrying bags of coffee on their shoulders nowhere to be seen. Terry Malloy, the muscular hero played by Marlon Brando in On the waterfront, would not be at home. Almost every one of the intricate movements required to service a vessel is choreographed by a computer long before the ship arrived. Computers, and the vessel planners who use them, determine the order in the which the containers are to be discharged, to speed the process without destabilizing the ship. The actions of the container cranes and the equipment in the yard are programmed in advance. The longshoreman who drives each machine faces a screen telling him which container is to be handled next and where it is to be moved-unless the terminal dispenses with longshoremen by using driverless transporters to pick up the containers at shipside and centrally controlled stacker cranes to handle container storage. The computers have determined that the truck picking up incoming container ABLQ 998435 should be summoned to the terminal at 10:45 a.m., and that outgoing container JKFC 119395, a 40-foot box bound for Newark, carrying 76,800 pounds of machinery and currently stacked at yard location A-52-G-6, will be loaded third from the bottom in the fourth slot in the second row of the forward hold. They have ensured that the refrigerated containers are placed in the bays with electrical hookups, and that could increase the risk of explosion. The entire operation runs like clockwork, with no tolerance for error or human foibles. Within twenty-four hours, the ship discharges its thousands of containers, takes on thousands more, and steams on its way.
Every day at every major port, thousands of containers arrive and depart by truck and train. Loaded trucks steam through the gates, where scanners read the unique number on each container and computers compare it against ships’ manifests before the trucker is told where to drop his load. Tractor units arrive to hook up chassis and haul away containers that have just come off the ship. Trains carrying nothing but double-stacked containers roll into an intermodal terminal close to the dock, where giant cranes straddle the entire train, working their way along as they remove one container after another . Outbound container trains, destined for a rail yard two thousand miles away with only the briefest of stops en route, are assembled on the same tracks and loaded by the same cranes.
The result of all this hectic activity is a nearly seamless system for shipping freight around the world. A 35-ton container of coffeemakers can leave a factory in Malaysia, be loaded aboard a ship, and cover the 9,000 miles to Los Angeles in 16 years. A day later, the container is on a unit train to Chicago, where it is transferred immediately to a truck headed for Cincinnati. The 11,000-mile trip from the factory gate to the Ohio warehouse can take as little as 22 days, a rate of 500 miles per day, at a cost lower than that of a single first-class air tick. More than likely, no one has touched the contents, or even open the container, along the way.
This high-efficiency transportation machine is a blessing for exporters and importers, but is has become a curse for customs inspectors and security officials. Each container is accompanied by a manifest listing its contents, but neither ship lines nor ports can vouch that what is on the manifest corresponds to what is inside. Nor is there any easy way to check: opening the doors at the end of the box normally reveals only a wall of paperboard cantons. With a single ship able to disgorge 3,000 40-foot-long containers in a matter of hours, and with a port such as Long Beach or Tokyo handling perhaps 10,000 loaded containers on the average workday, and with each container itself holding row after row of boxes stacked floor to ceiling, not even the most careful examiners have a remote prospect of inspecting it all. Containers can be just as efficient for smuggling undeclared merchandise, illegal drugs, undocumented immigrants, and terrorist bombs as for moving legitimate cargo.