To standardise international shipping procedures, various systems have been introduced on a global scale.

In the shipping context, the term intermodal freight transport applies to the movement of containers via a number of types of transportation (train, ship, and/or truck), without any handling of the freight itself when changing from one type of transport to another. The container is lifted onto a train in Johannesburg and is taken off the train in Cape Town and loaded onto the ship that will move it to Europe. Although several forms of transport or even several transport contractors (e.g. truck companies, feeder ships, railways, etc) are involved in its shipment from one place to another, the cargo itself is not handled from the time it leaves the shipper’s premises until it arrives at the premises of the consignee in Germany.

The diagram below shows the routing and types of transport involved in a typical shipment such as a container in which cartons of canned fruit have been stowed.


  • The fruit was canned at the Boland Fruit Cannery (the shipper or consignor) in the Western Cape, placed in cartons at the cannery, and the cartons are loaded into the container which is then locked and sealed.
  • It is then taken by truck to the Cape Town Container Terminal where it is kept in the container stack, awaiting the ship’s arrival.
  • It is loaded aboard a ship operated by ABC Shipping Line (the carrier).
  • The ship carries the container to London’s Gateway Container Terminal where it is offloaded.
  • Customs clearing follows. (This involves the customs officials checking that the cargo may be imported to the country, that all customs duties or other costs have been paid.)
  • The container is moved by truck to the warehouse of UK Supermarkets (the consignee) where the cartons are removed from the container.

The diagram above shows the movement of a typical container cargo from the shipper’s premises (e.g. the cannery in the Western Cape) to the warehouse of the consignee (e.g. a supermarket warehouse in Britain.) Variations of the flow may occur; for example the cargo may be discharged into a river barge for transport upriver from the import port (e.g. cargo may be discharged in Rotterdam, at the mouth of the Rhine, and sent by river barge to Dusseldorf which is in Germany, further upstream along the Rhine.

At each point of the transport chain (marked with a star) the container is checked for damage, the container’s seal is checked, and the container number is entered into the global container system so that the container can be tracked at any time.


The diagram above shows how the atmospheric conditions (temperature and humidity) inside a container can be monitored by a shipping company’s office via satellite. The ship can be informed of any faulty containers (e.g. where the temperature has dropped below or gone above the required level.   Maersk Line

Documentation used during this process includes the following :

Bill of Lading

Bills of Lading are the most important documents in international trade. Because they represent the cargo, payment can be made against them. How can the exporter (e.g. the Ashton cannery) be sure that it will be paid for the goods and how can the importer (Sainsbury’s Supermarket) be sure that it will receive the goods for which it has paid? Bills of lading will create certainty for both the cannery and the supermarket. The importer deposits the price of the goods with his bank that will compile a letter of credit with its associate bank, usually in the exporter’s country. The letter of credit represents payment guaranteed by the bank, not by the importer. The exporter will present the bills of lading showing that the goods have been loaded on board the vessel. The exporter gets paid for the goods, the bill of lading is sent to the importer who can either sell the bill of lading or take delivery of the goods at the port of discharge.

On the front of the bill of lading are the following details :

  • The name of the shipper (consignor), carrier and consignee
  • The port and date of loading
  • The port and date of discharge
  • Details of the cargo

An example of a Bill of Lading.

There are several types of bills of lading, depending on their use.

  • Through Transport Bill of Lading – This is used when the carrier (the shipping company that moves the cargo from one port to another) takes responsibility for only the ocean leg of the transport chain, i.e. from one port to the other, and not for any land-based transport service.
  • Combined Bill of Lading – This is used when the carrier (the shipping company that moves the cargo from one port to another) takes responsibility for the ocean leg of the transport chain, i.e. from one port to the other, and for land-based transport services.
  • Straight Bill of Lading – This is used in the liner trades where the consignee will not change, i.e. the cargo will not be redirected to another consignee during the voyage.
  • Negotiable Bill of Lading – This is used when the cargo (and therefore the bill of lading) can be sold and bought during the sea passage. The final holder of the bill of lading has the right to take delivery of the cargo at the port of discharge. This system is often used with oil cargoes, whose value and ownership may