The use of containerised bulk handling systems continues to expand


In selected trading corridors, containers are successfully and increasingly transporting dry bulk cargoes, such as grain, soybeans, mineral ores, and even coal.

The use of containerised bulk handling systems continues to expand

Recent years have seen a steady progression of new and revised designs of rotating spreaders and self-discharging containers as companies such as Container Rotation Systems Pty Ltd (CRS), RAM Spreaders, Intermodal Solutions Group Pty Ltd KOTTA, and Bleste SIA have sought to improve productivity, reliability levels, and help develop turnkey solutions for their customers.

CRS Rotorcon

CRS, an Australia-based company, has been particularly active, launching Rotorcon, a heavy-duty rotatable container, during the summer of 2023, and Multilid in December. The latter is described by CRS as “a unique, multifaceted lid-lifting system to cater for any type or design of container lid and locking system on one container rotator at the flick of a switch.”

According to CRS, Rotorcon was developed to spearhead the company’s entry into Australia’s rare earths mining industry and to fill gaps in the market that were not being satisfied by existing equipment.

“Off-the-shelf open top containers were not meeting the high gross weights permissible on some Australian outback roads and often did not comply with engineering dynamics when loading bulk carriers with the newest, high-speed, ship-to-shore cranes,” said CRS. “We decided to produce our own range of bulk ore containers. It means our customers have a single point of contact for their complete containerized bulk handling requirements.”

Broadly speaking, Rotorcon’s design is based on that of a standard open top container, but with many unique features, including its whalebone rib design, which provides extra strength and flexibility, tapered sides which help prevent ‘carry back’ when the product being carried has a high moisture content, and a high center of gravity. This reduces the cost of each rotation, controls the speed with which cargo is discharged, and therefore, the incidents of pollution from dust.

Meanwhile, specially designed corner gussets and the use of low friction coatings on the interior walls assist the flow of cargo when loading/discharging, and tapered main rails allow for thorough decontamination when the container is being cleaned. Finally, the container features a self-cleaning U-shaped bottom tub and heavy-duty replaceable twist lock pockets. The Rotorcon units are fitted with hard flat lids and a spring-applied lid-locking system which has a manual override.

The container, which has a gross capacity of 38.4t, can be rotated 360 degrees in any direction using the top four twist lock pockets of the container. It can be built in heights of between 1,450mm and 2,900mm. The past six months or so have seen the group secure orders for several of its container rotators, including to an undisclosed port that wants to install the spreader on a high-speed STS crane to handle low-value products, including wood chips.

CRS is supplying the port with its latest electric/hydraulic Eurospec MH4240-360 spreader which features its new heavy-duty slew ring drive system for 360-degree operations. It is capable of handling 40ft high cube containers weighing up to 42t. Currently, the spreader is being fabricated at the company’s factory in New South Wales, and it will be fully tested before being disassembled and shipped to the port later this year.

The use of containerised bulk handling systems continues to expand

Turnkey deal

In other developments, CRS recently announced that it had completed a contract with Lynas Rare Earths for its mine in Mt Weld, Western Australia. This was a turnkey deal in that CRS has supplied the company with a fleet of heavy-duty Rotorcon containers, a Eurospec 38RS spreader for use on a reach stacker that works at the end of the mine, ‘Lidgripper’ for the removal and replacement of container lids in the marshalling area of the mining complex and a customized 12m high, fully automated, twin container lid-lifting assembly for the processing shed. Also included in the deal was the supply of a Eurospec 360PC specifically designed for bridge and/or portal crane applications.

The low profile encompasses a single beam, modulated construction with 360-degree rotation and multi-direction heavy-duty, electronically managed, slew ring drive system. The spreader is also connected to a handheld module that connects to 240v mains outlets and houses all the electronic management including CRS’s Rotainer Remote Monitoring system.

With the completion of this deal, CRS is confident that it has “a complete, standardised, ‘plug and play’ container handling system specifically formulated to cater to the emerging rare earths and minerals industry”.


While most containerised bulk handling systems involve the use of rotating spreaders, Bleste SIA, based in Latvia, has taken a different approach and designed a self-discharging container (SDC) which can be used with any crane fitted with a spreader.

Its ‘GRAVITI’ units, which are based on the design of a 20ft high-cube container but come in versions able to load between 30 m3 and 50 m3 of cargo, feature bottom-mounted shutters that are opened by hydraulic cylinders. The cylinders are powered by an onboard battery system that can sustain approximately 500 cycles between charges. According to Bleste, the bigger SDC is capable of processing up to 1,000t of cargo an hour with a single crane.

The ‘GRAVITI’ container was launched in 2021 and is being used in several ports, including at Poti and Batumi in Georgia, and Riga in Latvia. Riga Central Terminal (RCT) had leased two SDC 30 units for two years and, being highly satisfied with the results, placed an order for six containers, with options for a further six units, in 2023.

Interestingly, RCT opted for Bleste’s larger GRAVITI SDC 40 model. They are able to discharge the cargo in just 30 seconds which, according to RCT, is 1.5 times more productive than regular methods of loading and can save up to 35% of the cost of loading, making them a highly cost-effective solution.

KOTTA Container, based in Russia, also has a range of bottom discharge bulk containers on the market, including its latest model that has a SWL of 37t, a 5t increase on its earlier version. To ensure safe lifting, the box features an improved corrosion-resistant metal skeleton and bottom doors, as well as a reinforced spreader. KOTTA is planning to build its ISO-certified bottom discharge bulk containers in China and is in collaborative talks with Jingjiang Asian-Pacific Group (JJAP).

“It is more cost-effective to build containers in China than in Russia,” commented KOTTA’s executive director Olga Cherednikova. “The Russian Register has already given a green light to JJAP for serial manufacturing of our equipment, following examination and testing of the first experimental batch of containers.”

The designs have been patented in China and Russia and a Chinese affiliate, KOTTA Container Shanghai, was set up last summer. The containers attract zero duty when imported into Russia. This is in line with the decision of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Commission to encourage imports to address supply shortages after most shipping lines pulled out of the Russian market after it attacked Ukraine in February 2022.

Russian roulette

In Russia, containers are increasingly being used to move bulk cargoes. In December 2023, PJSC TransContainer, which is part of the Delo Group, concluded a new and longer-term service agreement, extending to 2028, with PhosAgro Group. It replaces a system of annual agreement that had been in place since the two parties started working together in 2017.

The use of containerised bulk handling systems continues to expand

The move reflects the significant increase in PhosAgro Group’s mineral fertilisers being moved in its specialised bulk containers on TransContainers’ rolling stock. In 2023, this traffic amounted to approximately 12,300 TEU a month, but this is being increased to 18,800 TEU a month. The main routes served connect rail stations located in Cherepovets, Nelazskoye, Suda and Volkhovstroy with terminals operated by Delo, through its container terminal operating arm, Global Ports, in the port of St Petersburg.

EuroChem, which also produces and exports fertilisers, has seen its use of containers and intermodal rail services increase. It also works closely with Global Ports, signing an agreement in April 2023 to use special bulk containers that the terminal operator was buying.

Since August, EuroChem has been loading fertilisers from its plants in Phosphorit (Leningrad Region), Nevinnomysskiy Azot (Stavropolski Krai) and Novomoskovskiy Azot (Tulskaya oblast) into these containers which are then railed (by TransContainer) to Global Ports’ Petrolesport and First Container Terminals in St Petersburg. The fertilisers are then discharged from the containers into bulk ships with the containers then returned to the production sites.

By the end of 2023, 130,000t of cargo had been loaded and transported this way with EuroChem planning to increase this volume to 1Mt this year.

“We continue to develop new products meeting market demands and the changing cargo flows at “The Baltic basin, with Global Ports’ comprehensive service for containerizing bulk cargo, allows our customers to optimize their cargo operations at the production facilities and in the port, reducing costs,” stressed Albert Likholet, CEO of Global Ports.

Coal containers

Meanwhile, TransContainer and the coal mining company Vostsibdobycha LLC are collaborating to transport coal from an open-cast mine at Kharanutsky in the Irkutsk region of Russia to China. Twenty-foot open-top containers are loaded with coal at the mine, transported by truck to railyards at Sortirovochny and Batareinaya, and then to the China/Russia border crossing at Zabaikalsk-Manzhouli and on to Heilongjiang Province.

It is envisioned that volumes will increase to 10 block trains a month, equivalent to 1,240 containers. The use of containers to transport Russian export coal to China is more efficient as they eliminate the need to tranship bulk cargo (loose) into narrower gauge wagons, which takes more time.

Also, during the very cold winters in the region, coal can freeze in the rolling stock, meaning that transfers cannot take place, extending transit times and potentially slowing down border crossings by leading to congestion in the yards.

New contracts

Elsewhere, Ukrainian Railways (Ukrzaliznytsia) is currently taking delivery of 1,000 x 20ft containers, comprising 500 open-top units which the company intends to use for the transport of iron ore and 500 special bulk containers for the shipment of grain.

The move reflects both the change in supply chains as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of the country, which has meant more of the country’s bulk cargo being moved by train to ports on the Baltic Sea, and the planned expansion of the company’s intermodal traffic arm.

Ukrzaliznytsia moved 201,300 TEU in 2023, and while this was up more than 30% on the previous year, it was still down on 2021’s volumes and well short of the company’s objective of transporting 1M TEU by 2031. In 2023, over 65% of cargoes moved intermodally comprised grain and ferrous metals, and so further orders for containers are to be expected.

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