Australian Container Ports: A Brief History

Looking back at Australia’s pre-colonial history, soon after the first fleet first arrived in Sydney in 1788, it became apparent that Australian container ports and the importation and exportation of goods were imperative to support the growing population and the country’s economic development. As highlighted in our previous post The History of Shipping Containers, it was only around 1955 that the humble shipping container was first created. Therefore in the hundred or so years between these events, goods were brought in and out of a very few number of ports and loaded by hand. Since 1916, the population of Australia has increased 5-fold from 4.9 million to 24 million as of 2016. In turn, the volume of Australia’s trade is subsequently 70 times greater than it was back then with the bulk of goods arriving in shipping containers of various types including flat racks, open top, refrigerated and dangerous goods containers.

Australian Container Ports

Source: Ports Australia

Due to Australia’s unique, remote geographic location as an island nation and its heavy reliance on imported goods, it didn’t take long for more ports to pop up around the country as a result of the increasing demand. Today, Australia now has more than 70 ports located around the country, with the four major cargo centres being Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle respectively.

Container Ports Australian

Port of Melbourne

First opening in 1989, Port of Melbourne is now Australasia’s busiest and largest port for containerised automotive and general cargo with over 2.64 TEU (twenty-foot equivalent) handled annually.

In 1965 the area now known as Swanson dock was transformed from marshland into a modern container terminal to prepare for the boom of container trading. Railway sidings allow shipping containers to be brought right to dockside, where they are taken on and off ships, using powerful, specially designed shipping container cranes.

Container Ports Australian

Port Botany (Sydney)

Port Botany is a deepwater port located in Sydney and is Australia’s second busiest port dominated by containerised manufactured products including machinery, telecommunications equipment and computers, and bulk liquid imports of petroleum, oil and natural gas.

Prior to the 1960’s, the international shipping facilities were located in Port Jackson, with docks at Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay. It was only after the advent of containers in the 50’s that the new container facilities were required to be built in Port Botany to cater for these new types of cargo.

History Australian Container Ports

Port of Brisbane

Located at the mouth of the Brisbane River in Queensland, the Port of Brisbane is considered Australia’s third largest container port and Queensland’s largest container port.  

As the closest port to Australia’s Asia Pacific partners, key commodities traded out of Brisbane include oil, coal exports, motor vehicle imports, and is also Australia’s largest exporter of cotton and meat.

Fremantle Harbour

Across the desert on the other side of the country, Fremantle Harbour is the biggest general cargo port in Western Australia and Australia’s fourth largest container port. It meets the needs of exportation and importation by operating on commercial principles.

While Australian Ports seemingly operated somewhat efficiently prior to the 1960’s, the shipping container inevitably changed all that. Not only did it allow for easier transportation of goods, but also helped change operation processes resulting in altered locations and facilities over time.