Every single shipment constitutes a multitude of container movements throughout its journey. These movements range from pick up to repositioning and final delivery. One often overlooked container movement type is shunting, which we will be focusing on in this article. 

Container shunting is defined as moving empty or laden containers between two points, typically within a relatively short distance to a predefined location. Shunting is often practiced for container movements within the port area, moving cargo between the port and an inland depot or within manufacturing plants and warehouse yards.

The primary objective of shunting is to maximize container movements and throughput between two locations, as well as to optimize limited yard space. These movements can happen via road (truck), rail (train) and even sea (barge).

Therefore, container shunting is commonly carried out by shippers and manufacturers, port operators, carriers, and rail network companies. Let’s take a closer look!

Container Shunting vs Truck and Rail Freight

There are far more similarities between container shunting and typical truck or rail freight. All three terms are about moving containers between two or more locations. They are sometimes even used interchangeably, although they shouldn’t.

There are two two main differences that distinguish container shunting from typical freight. These two differences are distance and frequency. Typically, trucking or rail freight entails moving containers from one location to another, as part of a shipment. 

This is often the case for importers or exporters who are intending to move cargo from their factory, warehouse or plant to a customer’s premises. The key here is that this freight is typically arranged, as per requirements of an order. 

On the other hand, shunting is commonly carried out to move a large number of containers frequently between two points. This could be within a manufacturing plant, warehouse yard, within the port or even from the port to an Inland container depot (ICD). 

In summary, the main reason for container freight movements is to get the cargo to the agreed destination at a specific time, whereas container shunting deals more with space optimization or making them available at a different location. Let’s explore these reasons in a little more detail below.

When Are Containers Shunted?

There are several reasons why and when containers are shunted. When practiced efficiently, container shunting not only saves costs, but it’s also able to save time. 

Container Shunting Within the Port

In the majority of sea ports around the world, terminal tractors (also called shunting trucks) are used to move containers within the port areas. These vehicles efficiently move laden and empty containers between container yards.  

This shunting activity allows ports to operate extremely efficiently and reposition containers where they are needed. These moves happen frequently across short distances and are an important part of port operations in the container loading and discharging process. 

Shunting trucks offer maximum maneuverability, are fuel-efficient, and allow for better visibility compared to the usual tractor head. Large fleets can effectively transfer empty and laden containers from the vessel to the container yard, and vice versa. There are some ports that even have autonomous terminal tractors that are unmanned. 

Container Shunting Between the Port and Inland Container Depots (ICD)

The port is not the only location that has yards where containers are stored. Ocean carriers and freight forwarders often partner with rail networks to bring the container close to the customers, where they are able to appoint a trucker to pick the containers up.

In this scenario, containers are shunted by train to an Inland Container Depot that is typically located further inland and is more accessible. Shunting containers to inland depots also reduces the amount of truck traffic around ports (see traffic mitigation fee).

In the United States, container shunting by rail is very common. Once containers are discharged from the vessel they need to be transported further inland. This is typically done by moving containers from the port to an inland depot via rail. 

Truck and driver shortages, road traffic and environmental concerns make container shunting via rail a viable solution, as it not only addresses the above mentioned concerns but it can also help to negate unnecessary port storage and demurrage costs for cargo owners.

A great example for this is the use of the Alameda Corridor connecting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to Downtown Los Angeles through a railway system. This service is provided in exchange for an Alameda Corridor Surcharge (ACS).

Container Shunting Between Main Ports and Inland Ports

There are also scenarios where containers can only be discharged at a main port, only to be shunted via a barge through river systems to an inland port. As these ports are inaccessible to larger ocean vessels, the only way to shunt containers effectively is via a barge. 

This is typical for regions with extensive inland waterways that are narrow. Ocean carriers also use barges to shunt empty and laden containers between ports, as it’s a more cost effective solution compared to trucking, when a rail network is not available.

This type of shunting is more often referred to as barging and is common throughout the world. In some areas like the United States, shunting containers via barges to inland ports can incur an Inland Waterway Tax.

Container Shunting Between Parking Areas and Loading Docks

Not only ports and ocean carriers move large numbers of containers across short distances for optimizing container positioning and space. Exporters, shippers, manufacturers, distribution centers, production plants and warehouses do this as well. 

In many of these locations, a high volume of containers are shunted between multiple locations within a facility to ensure maximum efficiency. These containers are shunted between various docks, plants, parking areas and staging locations to ensure that operations run smoothly at all locations and to avoid congestion. 

For example, once a loading dock becomes available, a shunting truck will pick an empty container from the parking area and deliver it to a designated loading bay. Once loaded, the shunter may either bring the container back to the parking area or a trucker will pick it up and deliver it to the port. 

Shunting is also common between plants where raw materials, components and finished goods are shunted for production, packaging or delivery. In essence, the application for container shunting is very broad and is practiced to ensure that containers are positioned regularly and swiftly, at the same time mitigating yard congestion.

How Are Containers Shunted?

The mechanics of using a tractor head and chassis is no different from the use of a terminal tractor. In the port, several port cranes lift the containers on and off shunting trucks in sequence. Once the container loading is completed, the trucks move the load to a predetermined location (typically a yard). 

In plants, warehouses and other facilities, container shunting is done using regular prime movers or truck cabs. Containers in these locations typically don’t get offloaded from the trailer, making shunting activities faster and easier.

For container shunting that requires the use of a train, port operations typically direct its terminal tractors either to bring it to the rail yard for loading or depending on the port location and configuration, port cranes or stackers are used to load the containers onto the train’s container wagons. 

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Gerrit Poel

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Gerrit is a certified international supply chain management professional with 16 years of industry experience, having worked for one of the largest global freight forwarders.

As the co-founder of freightcourse, he’s committed to his passion for serving as a source of education and information on various supply chain topics.