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What is a Flat Rack Container and When To Use It For Transport

Updated: 5/9/24

A flat rack container is a piece of equipment used for international shipping when the cargo is too large for a conventional container. A flat rack has no walls or support posts in the middle, allowing goods to be loaded from the top and/or sides. Flat rack container transport is most common among international heavy equipment shipments.

Enclosed wooden crates transported on a flat rack container.

How Does a Flat Rack Container Operate?

Once the cargo has been put into a flat rack, lashing straps fasten it to various securement points on the flat rack. The procedure of securing cargo is comparable to securing cargo to a flatbed trailer. Once it has been secured, it is then put onto a vessel using lift-on/lift-off (Lo/Lo) service. Similar to ordinary containers, flat racks may be stacked onto one another.

When Are Flat Rack Containers Used for Transport

Flat racks typically transport out-of-gauge (OOG) freight or material too large to fit in ordinary 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers.

However, flat racks may be used to transport cargo that would fit inside a container but are simpler to load onto a flat rack. Consider items such as bundled pipe.

As previously said, flat racks cross the ocean in a container vessel. Because container ships are highly common, they are simpler to find.

Instead of using break-bulk shipping or roll-on/roll-off (Ro/Ro) shipping to transport your goods, you may use a flat rack to increase your sailing options. That might result in time and cost savings.

Beyond sailing options, there is now a global scarcity of containers, making them more difficult to obtain than usual. If your goods don’t have to be shielded from the weather, a flat rack may be a better option than a container.

That said, it is important to note that many international freight forwarders use similar logic, causing a ripple effect that reduces the number of available flat racks. When exporting internationally, keeping your options open is a good idea.

Crated freight transported on a flat rack container.

Circumstances Under Which You May Not Want to Use a Flat Rack Container

Flat racks are useful in many situations, but in others, an alternative mode of transportation may be preferable. Knowing when to use or not use a flat rack container can save you time and money when shipping your freight. The more knowledge you have about flat rack containers, the more likely you are to benefit from them.

Cost of Shipping With a Flat Rack Container

Like any other transport, the cost of shipping with a flat rack varies depending on several factors. The main thing to consider is that many more standard shipping containers are in circulation, making them more affordable than flat rack container transport. If your cargo can fit into a 20—or 40-foot shipping container, this may be the better and more affordable option.

Efficiency of Shipping With a Flat Rack Container

Because of the widespread use of standard containers, many ports can accept them in the most effective manner. At least one container crane — known as a gantry or ship-to-shore crane — is present at every major port.

These cranes facilitate the loading and unloading of containers between a rail line and a container vessel and vice versa.

Using a specialized crane to load and unload a flat rack for international transport may be necessary. This will incur additional expenses to station the crane and hire a crane operator at a port when needed.

Convenience and Flexibility of Shipping With a Flat Rack Container

While traveling on the highway, you have often seen containers towed behind semi-tractors. As a result, several container carriers permit shippers to load and unload containers by transporting them straight to the shipping facility.
In contrast, flat racks are usually stationed in ports. Occasionally, you may see a flat rack moving to a neighboring facility if the city is near a port, like in Long Beach, California. But you will never see a flat rack traveling long distances.

Risks of Shipping With a Flat Rack Container

Think about what has been said about flexibility. Suppose you can load a container at your shipping facility and unload it at its final destination using the same container. In that case, your cargo was never transferred to separate equipment. The absence of cargo transfers decreases the chance of damage and even of it falling into the wrong hands.

Because flat racks only have walls or stability posts at their ends, you risk being exposed to the elements of the ocean. That said, similar to transporting on a flatbed trailer, your stuff can be covered with a tarp. If you’ve ever transported using a tarp, it does not entirely seal your stuff as a container or dry van trailer would.

When is a Flat Rack Container Best for Transport?

Flat rack container shipping is right for you if you are accustomed to transporting domestic freight utilizing a flatbed or other sorts of open-deck trailer. You would probably utilize an open-deck trailer to transport your cargo to the port, which would be loaded onto a flat rack. This is particularly true if you are shipping over-dimensional (OD) freight.

While flat rack containers may cost more for shipping, at times, they are the better option. Knowing when and when not to use flat rack containers is essential to smooth transport.

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