What is a Container Terminal?

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  • Written By: Lori Kilchermann
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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A container terminal is a location where shipping containers are stockpiled and placed on the appropriate vehicle or vessel to complete the delivery. There is a wide variety of container designs and styles that goods are shipped in, however, the common container holds as much cargo as a semi-truck's box-type trailer. The container terminal uses special overhead cranes to stack and arrange the containers as well as load them onto trucks, trains and ships. Most container terminal locations are adjacent to both a railroad as well as a highway, while some maritime terminals are also close to a major body of water.

A shipping container resembles a semi-truck's box trailer. The container is attached to a trailer at each corner and can be unfastened and lifted off of the trailer to be stacked on top of another container or be placed on a train car or a ship's deck. The busy container terminal will have many trucks jockeying the numerous containers into position for the overhead crane to place them onto the proper mode of transportation. Some major manufacturing plants are able to eliminate the truck from the shipping equation. By loading the containers on a rail car at the manufacturing site, the goods can be transported to a seaside container terminal and placed on a ship, having never been loaded onto a semi-truck.


Some very specialized container terminal locations are positioned at major airports around the world. Airborne shipping using containers is not common and is reserved for the most time-critical shipping due to its higher cost. Rail container terminal sites are often called intermodals. An inland container terminal is where shipment of containers between train and truck are directed. Terminals that include ship transport are referred to as maritime terminals.

Both loaded and empty containers are stored at a terminal, with the loaded containers being shipped out to meet contractual time lines. Empty containers are stored in stacks and can occupy space in a terminal for lengthy periods of time. Larger terminals include repair facilities where damaged containers are brought back to industry standards. Refrigerated containers have fuel tanks and refrigerated cooling units known as "reefers" that maintain cold temperatures inside of the container. These units can be refueled and maintained at the repair facility.

Maritime terminals are typically equipped with large stationary gantry cranes. Many intermodals have mobile overhead cranes. This type of container terminal can pick up a container at one end of the terminal and carry it across the terminal to load it onto a train at the other side.


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