How Did Roll-On Roll-Off Shipping Begin?

Roll-on roll-off shipping (Ro-Ro) is a term used to describe a method of shipping where vehicles are driven straight aboard the vessel, rather than being lifted on and off with a crane. It’s an alternative way of moving automobiles and goods without using standardised shipping containers. Here’s how it got started.

The first Ro-Ro vessels were built to transport trains when the UK rail network was being developed, during the 1830s and 40s. They basically acted as ‘train ferries’ for bodies of water that were too wide to be spanned with a bridge. One well known example is the Leviathan, which was built for rail to cross the Firth of Forth in East Scotland.

During the First World War (1914-1918), the train vessels were adapted to transport heavy war equipment, such as artillery and tanks across the Channel. It saved a lot of time and effort in loading and unloading the materials into containers and pallets.

During World War Two, the method was developed further, with specially designed craft to quickly transport military vehicles. An early example is HMS Boxer, which had the capacity to carry up to 200 troops, 13 tanks, and 27 personnel carriers or armoured cars. Larger ocean-going vessels were constructed as the war went on.

After the war, some of the vessels were repurposed for commercial use, to transport trade vehicles to the continent, and to Ireland. By the 1950s, the Port of Dover opened two purpose-built Ro-Ro berths. This meant than the number of cars being shipped to mainland Europe increased ten-fold, to 100,000.

Today, there are several kinds of Ro-Ro ship. Some are specifically designed to carry passenger cars, and others are for conveying loaded or semi-loaded HGVs. Some can carry a combination of containers and vehicles, and others are designed specifically for military purposes.

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