The National Cargo Bureau (NCB) recently issued a white paper as part of the Container Inspection Safety Initiative with eye-opening results about misdeclared cargo.
During the initiative, the New York-based NCB inspected 500 containers — both imports and exports — from participating ocean carriers. They discovered that 55% of the containers failed to comply with basic loading standards and another 6.5% held misdeclared cargo.
Misdeclared cargo has long been a concern to the carrier industry, whether it is stowed on a ship, a railcar or a truck trailer. The centuries-old deceptive practice even inspired the lyrics for the 1934 American folk classic, “The Rock Island Line.” The song was first recorded by John and Alan Lomax, who reportedly heard the lyrics from a prison work gang in Arkansas. Over the years, the song has been updated and recorded by other famous artists, such as Johnny Cash, Lonnie Donegan, Bobby Darin and John Lennon.
The song tells a humorous story about a train operator who smuggled pig iron through a tollgate by claiming all he had on board was livestock. You could say the song was about deceiving authority, but in actuality it was just a case of misdeclared cargo.
The lyrics go:
Now this here’s a story about a Rock Island Line
Well the Rock Island Line she runs down into New Orleans
There’s a big tollgate down there and you know
If you get certain things on board when you go through the tollgate
Well you don’t have to pay the man no toll.
Well a train driver he pulled up the tollgate
And a man hollered and asked him what all he had on board and said,
I got livestock, I got livestock I got cows I got pigs I got sheep
I got mules I got all livestock
Well, he said, you’re all right boy; you don’t have to pay no toll.
You can just go right on through; so he went through the tollgate
And as he went through he started pickin’ up a little bit of speed
Pickin’ up a little bit of steam
He got on through, he turned and looked back at the man, he said:
Well, I fooled you I fooled you I got pig iron I got pig iron I got pig iron
Down the Rock Island Line she’s a mighty good road …
The song takes its name from the storied Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, better known as the Rock Island, based in Illinois. The railroad operated an extensive network across the Midwest. Contrary to the song’s lyrics, the train did not extend its service all the way to New Orleans. Also, contrary to its official name, the Rock Island never reached the Pacific.
From its start in the 1850s, the Rock Island overcame financial adversity and stood up to larger commercial rivals. The railroad finally went out of business in 1980. Some of its former routes are now operated by other railroads.
Although the above story is a bit humorous, the subject is not. It serves as a demonstration of how common and simple it is to misdeclare cargo.
Various national and international governmental agencies have spent decades with minimum success to address the matter of misdeclared cargoes. Modern-day seafarers live in constant fear of what is really inside those stacks of containers.
If the United Nations’ Rotterdam Rules, which were developed in 2008 to replace the U.S. Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) and the international Hague Rules and Hague-Visby Rules, were implemented, then safety for all transportation modes would be improved.