Seatrain Lines

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Seatrain Lines, formally the Over-Seas Shipping Company, began container shipping in December 1928 by transporting entire loaded rail cars between the United States and Cuba. The specially designed ship Seatrain, built in England, was followed in 1932 by two larger ships built in the United States and in 1939 by two additional ships. By the outbreak of World War II the company was operating five ships that became important in the war effort and basis for the design of fifty new ships for military use.


Seatrain Lines, the operating name for the Over-Seas Shipping Company, began intermodal container shipping by using entire loaded rail cars between ports in the United States and Havana Cuba with the first shipment in December 1928 aboard a specially designed ship, Seatrain.[1][2] This original ship, built at Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Newcastle and later renamed Seatrain New Orleans, was capable of carrying 95 fully loaded rail cars.[3][4][5] The company built two larger specialized ships in 1932, Seatrain New York and Seatrain Havana with greater rail car capacity.[5] This service was the forerunner of modern container shipping inaugurated in the late 1950s by other shipping companies.[6] Seatrain was initially located in Hoboken, New Jersey, and owned the Hoboken Manufacturers Railroad that connected its facility to other railroads.[citation needed] In 1939 two more ships were under construction at Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Chester, Pennsylvania with hulls 191 and 192 becoming Seatrain Texas and Seatrain New Jersey respectively.[7][8]

In 1944 the five vessels were noted as being unique in the commercial shipping world as described in a decision by the Comptroller General of the United States concerning issues in setting wartime charter rates.[9] The decision noted "these were the only vessels of this type in existence, there was no market for such vessels" and that the "inherent character and design of these vessels which reduces the cost of loading and discharging cargo to a nominal amount per ton, and which by the use of mechanical devices, reduces the time for discharging and reloading to a few hours as compared to a few days" for ordinary ships.[9] Those unique characteristics, though making setting a "market value" difficult, made the ships of particular utility for wartime transport of large, assembled vehicles and machines.[10]

The original 1928 shipment aboard Seatrain caused a labor issue that foretold similar issues later with container ships when Cuban stevedores demanded that they not only unload the rail cars from the ship but unload and repack the rail car contents before turning the cars over to Cuban railways.[11] Seatrain reached agreement with labor but the issue was a precursor to similar labor problems with containers in other ports.[11] In 1951 Seatrain ceased operations to and from Cuba, and renamed its ship Seatrain Havana to Seatrain Savannah to reflect the suspension of service. In 1953 Seatrain sold it's operating authority to trade between the US and Cuba to the West India Fruit and Steamship Company, along with its first ship, the Seatrain New Orleans, which was renamed Sea Level.[12]

In 1958 Seatrain Lines introduced its 27-foot Seamobile intermodal cargo containers, carrying them on rail dollies aboard its ships between Seatrain’s Edgewater terminal on the New Jersey side of New York harbor, and Texas City (Houston). In 1959 Malcom McLean, a pioneer and leader in intermodal marine-rail-highway containerization, attempted to buy competing Seatrain Lines but his offer was rejected.[13] In 1963 Seatrain tried to expand its ship/rail operations with a New York to Puerto Rico run, but this service was severely hampered by the inadequacies of rail transport in Puerto Rico. In addition, Sea-Land Services, Inc. (an unrelated enterprise under Malcom McLean) had introduced containerized service to Puerto Rico in 1958, so to compete Seatrain Lines discontinued the transport of rail cars to Puerto Rico and utilized containers instead.

Transeastern Associates, a firm created in the early 1950s by Joseph Kahn and Howard Pack, bought Seatrain Lines in 1965 for $8.5 million.[14] At the time of their purchase, Seatrain operated between New York and ports in Savannah, Georgia, Texas City, Texas, New Orleans and Puerto Rico.[15] Transeastern was folded into Seatrain in September 1966. At the time, Seatrain had lost more than $500,000 in a four-month period before the merger, while Transeastern's fleet had netted nearly $7 million in a ten-month period.[16]

In 1966 Seatrain began a program to reinvent itself by replacing its aging and obsolete railcar carring ships with a fleet of heavy-lift ships and cellular container ships. All would be heavily rebuilt from surplus World War II era T-2 tankers and C-4 cargo ships. The heavy-lift ships were intended for charter to the U.S. Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) in support of the war in Vietnam, while the container ships would allow Seatrain to containerize its commercial cargo operations.

Ship usage in World War II[edit]

Seatrain New York as USS Kitty Hawk (AKV-1).

The five Seatrain vessels were considered by military planners in 1941 as the need for specialized ships capable of handling fully assembled aircraft, tanks, locomotives, and other vehicles was foreseen.[10] Shortly after the entry of the United States into the war the Army arranged for the construction of fifty C-4 freighters modeled on the Seatrain concept.[17]

The five ships were requisitioned with title passing to the War Shipping Administration (WSA) for two vessels in July 1941, another in February 1942 and the remaining two in May 1942.[18] Under a law effective 24 March 1943 the Administrator of WSA was authorized to return the vessels to the original owners as long as their use satisfies wartime needs.[18] This was done, though there was difficulty in establishing fair rates of charter for unique vessels.[9]

Seatrain Texas and Seatrain New Jersey, after brief service with the Navy as USS Lakehurst, became Army transports specializing in such heavy lift, partly for tanks but also railway locomotives.[19][20] Seatrain New York continued service with the Navy as USS Kitty Hawk until decommissioned and returned to the line 24 January 1946.[21] Seatrain Havana, acquired by Navy on a bareboat basis from the Maritime Commission, was commissioned as USS Hammondsport (APV-2) 11 December 1941 until 7 March 1946.[22]

Lakehurst, formerly Seatrain New Jersey, after discharging medium tanks at Safi North Africa.

The designed capability to handle such large and heavy cargo as loaded rail cars made the ships critical in transport of assembled military equipment. Lakehurst made multiple voyages from United States ports to North Africa with Army cargo and occasionally troops before transfer to the Army to continue in similar service.[20] Seatrain New York as USS Kitty Hawk operated in the Pacific mainly as an aircraft transport.[21] Kitty Hawk rushed the 3d Marine Defense Battalion and planes of Marine Air Groups to Midway Island when intelligence indicated a Japanese attack there.[21] The ship transported aircraft and supplies to support the campaigns in the Southwest Pacific for the remainder of the war.[21] Hammondsport, the former Seatrain Havana, transported PT boats from New York to San Francisco and then remained in the Pacific largely transporting assembled aircraft as in the case of Kitty Hawk.[22]

An early extraordinary demand came when, responding to an urgent British request on July 13, 1942 for tanks and artillery to counter Rommel after the fall of Tobruk, a convoy of six fast freighters was loaded at the New York Port of Embarkation (NYPOE) for Egypt with 300 medium tanks, 100 tank destroyers, and about 13,000 tons of ammunition.[23][24] Fifty-two tanks, eighteen self-propelled guns and other supplies were lost when SS Fairport was sunk and NYPOE located replacement armor and ammunition, loaded and dispatched Seatrain Texas within forty-eight hours to sail unescorted, taking 18 days to Cape Town, until joined by a Free French escort at Durban as escort as far as Somalia.[23][24][25] Seatrain Texas, again sailing unescorted and under the British code name "Treasure Ship," arrived at Port Taufiq on 2 September where the fully assembled tanks were unloaded and operational on 23 October at the Battle of El Alamein.[23][24][25] The ship remained in Army service as USAT Seatrain Texas until redelivered to the line on 23 May 1946.[26]

Seatrain New Orleans, the original Seatrain ship, was transferred to the War Shipping Administration (WSA) on 21 May 1942 and operated until 6 June 1946 by Seatrain Management Corporation as agent for WSA.[3]

Seatrain Shipbuilding[edit]

In 1967, Seatrain Lines announced it would establish a new shipyard inside the former New York Naval Shipyard. Seatrain Lines had no shipbuilding experience but planned to build and charter out 5 VLCC's & 7 container ships for themselves. Seatrain Shipbuilding built 4 VLCC's, 8 barges, 1 Ice Breaker Barge. They started work on the burned out hull of the Sea Witch {Newport News finished} turning it into a chemical tanker.

The Federal Government by way of the Economic Development Administration of the US Department of Commerce advanced Seatrain $5 million in direct loans and guaranteed 90% of $82 million in loans from Chase Manhattan Bank. Seatrain Lines injected $38 million of its own money into the project. The union chosen to represent the shipyard production workers was the United Industrial Workers of North America.[27]

Seatrain built four 220,000-ton Very Large Crude Carriers (supertankers), eight barges, one ice breaker barge and two roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferries. One of the Ro-Ro ferries was never finished and was scrapped. Seatrain Shipbuilding also had a contract to rebuild the burned out hull of the Sea Witch into a chemical tanker.[28] January 20, 1975 Seatrain Shipbuilding started to lay off half of its 3,200 workers for an indefinite period of time. A few days later, the rest of the shipbuilders would receive their layoff notices, as well. The mass layoff was due to President Gerald Ford's pocket veto of the cargo preference bill. Twenty of the largest shipyards in the U.S. would experience similar layoffs.

The cargo preference bill would have required over time 20% of all the oil transported into the U.S. be transported on U.S. Flagged Tankers. President Ford called the bill inflationary. The cost of a gallon of gas would slowly rise by 20 cents over a few years. A few weeks later President Ford called for a $4 per 42-gallon barrel tax on imported oil. This would have increased the cost of gasoline and heating oil derived from imported crude by $0.10 per gallon. New England complained people would no longer be able to afford heating oil. The $4 tax went nowhere![29]


The key to the revolution was standardized containers, which initially could be stacked five high on board ships. Containerization allowed tremendous cost saving versus break bulk cargo where each piece of cargo had to be loaded and unloaded individually. Malcom McLean conceived the concept of containerization while sitting in his truck at the port waiting for a ship to be unloaded. Simply put, his idea was to separate the truck's "box" from its chassis and wheels.

The containers were relatively large since costs tend to be per container and not per tonne, and the dimensions were initially chosen to suit highway limits and rail bridges and tunnels; container sizes have since grown taller which has created problems with some smaller tunnels.


Seatrain filed for protection on February 11, 1981, under Chapter 11 with the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. Seatrain's creditors filed $800 million in claims but the amount was reduced by negotiation. The final figure was in the area of $515 million. Seatrain's largest unsecured creditors were the pension and welfare fund of the New York Shipping Association-International Longshoremen's Association, the US Economic Development Administration, and Union Carbide Corporation.[30]

In popular culture[edit]

In the 1971 Hawaii Five-O episode "For A Million, Why Not?", the means of transport out of Hawaii for a stolen armored truck was a Seatrain container.


  1. ^ Cudahy 2006, p. 73.
  2. ^ Lloyds & 1930 Seatrain.
  3. ^ a b Maritime Administration Seatrain New Orleans.
  4. ^ Popular Mechanics (September 1932), pp. 374—375.
  5. ^ a b Lloyds & 1937 Seatrain.
  6. ^ Cudahy 2006, pp. 72—73.
  7. ^ Pacific Marine Review (December 1939).
  8. ^ Colton 2014.
  9. ^ a b c General Accounting Office (1944), pp. 240—241.
  10. ^ a b Wardlow 1956, pp. 362—363.
  11. ^ a b Cudahy 2006, p. 74.
  12. ^ Hendrickson; Steamboat Bill No.254 2005, pp. 93,100.
  13. ^ Levinson 2006, p. 68.
  14. ^ Hevesi, Dennis. "Howard M. Pack, Shipping Magnate, Dies at 90", The New York Times, December 18, 2008. Accessed December 19, 2008.
  15. ^ Horne, George. "An Innovator Buys Seatrain Lines; Transeastern Begun By a Furrier With a Liberty Ship", The New York Times, May 30, 1965. Accessed December 19, 2008.
  16. ^ Bamberger, Werner. "SEA CARRIER LINES IN CONSOLIDATION; Transeastern Is Absorbed by Seatrain, Ex-Subsidiary", The New York Times, September 9, 1966. Accessed December 19, 2008.
  17. ^ Wardlow 1956, p. 363.
  18. ^ a b General Accounting Office (1944), pp. 239—243.
  19. ^ Wardlow 1956, pp. 368, 370.
  20. ^ a b Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: Lakehurst.
  21. ^ a b c d Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: Kitty Hawk.
  22. ^ a b Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: Hammondsport.
  23. ^ a b c Brooklyn Daily Eagle (December 9, 1945).
  24. ^ a b c Wardlow 1956, p. 335.
  25. ^ a b Zimmerman 2012.
  26. ^ Maritime Administration Seatrain Texas.
  27. ^ Trezza 2007, pp. 12–14.
  28. ^ Trezza 2007, pp. 133, 168.
  29. ^ Trezza 2007, pp. 84–87.
  30. ^ Trezza 2007, p. 161.


External links[edit]