| Written by Constance Stickler

When it comes to smooth container terminal yard operations, the most crucial question is: where is the container? Nobody wants to play "Where's Waldo?" in a yard with tens of thousands of containers in areas measuring square kilometres. But how and why do containers get lost in the first place, and what can be done about it? 

Container Temrinal Yard Operations

No video selected

Select a video type in the sidebar.

"By tracking each container move, position detection systems can provide actionable insights that help port operators manage their resources more effectively. This leads to reduced congestion and faster turnaround times."

Paul Hebrard, Regional Head Asia & Pacific



Keeping Up with the Container Yard Inventory

Accurate information on the inventory is crucial for efficient container terminal yard operations. The terminal's primary task of handling containers as quickly as possible is only realisable if the containers are optimally positioned and can be located at any time.

But other yard operations are also made easier or accelerated: it allows optimised use of space through efficient stacking. When everything is where it should be, far fewer moves and equipment are required. Inspections and customs clearance are carried out more quickly.

If you know where the container is or should be, you will notice if it is missing sooner. This helps reduce the risk of theft and smuggling. In risk management, accurate data helps to identify and resolve potential problems at an early stage.


What it Means When Containers Go Missing

Considering the world's largest port - Shanghai - with an incredible throughput of 47.3 million TEU in 2022, you can imagine what it would mean if only 1 per thousand of the containers were lost. In Shanghai, that would be 47,300 containers per year.

Even with much smaller numbers, it can be dizzying when you consider the consequences of every single lost container (assuming they are full of valuable cargo that really needs to be found) if done correctly:

Procedure for Lost Containers

  • Verification: Double-check the accuracy of the container tracking and all other records to confirm that the container is indeed missing.
  • Immediate notification: Notify all relevant operational and security personnel of the loss.
  • Physical search: Thoroughly search the yard: the pile where the container should be, neighbouring piles, and other locations where it may have been mistakenly placed.
  • Internal communication: Clear and continuous communication between all employees involved in the search process is essential.
  • External communication: Inform all relevant parties, such as cargo owners, shipping companies and other freight forwarders, as well as customs authorities. Maintain this communication throughout the process and provide regular updates.
  • Security measures: If available, review CCTV footage to identify unusual activity or other possible causes for the container's disappearance.
  • Documentation: Document the datails of the incident, such as container details (e.g. identification number, contents) and the details (time of discovery, action taken, personnel involved).
  • Co-operation with the authorities: If the container cannot be found on the terminal premises, contact the local law enforcement authorities for support. Report the incident as well to the relevant shipping and regulatory authorities if required by local regulations.
  • Legal considerations: If the loss has legal implications or you could potentially be liable, you should consult a legal expert. They will be able to assess the situation more accurately and take appropriate action.
  • Root cause analysis: Conduct an internal investigation to determine the causes of the loss of the container, including human error, system failures and security deficiencies.
  • Post-Incident Review Meeting: Talk to your team about the effectiveness of the measures taken and, if necessary, about improvements.
  • Lessons learnt: Once the investigation is complete, produce a report: document the lessons learnt, using your experience to highlight improvements for future prevention.


Quite an effort that has to be made here! But it has to be operated considering what is at stake: even if the freight costs may not be that high, the contents of the containers are often very valuable and can even run into the millions. But even if this may be covered by insurance, the loss of trust among cargo owners and shipping companies is complicated and sometimes impossible to make up for. And this applies not only to complete loss but also to excessive delays.

So, if knowing the whereabouts of containers is essential and, therefore, a top priority for successful container terminal yard operations, how do containers actually get lost?


Reasons for Lost Containers

The disappearance of containers occurs either without ill intent as a mistake or intentionally as a crime.

One of the main reasons for lost containers in the yard is simply misplacement. Container terminal yard operations are a highly complex process with much potential for error. The sheer volume of containers arriving and departing each day, naturally under time pressure, provides a perfect opportunity for mistakes. The entire responsibility lies with the driver if indication and tracking solutions in place are inefficient or outdated. This means that if one still relies on paperwork and manual verification, the driver may have all the correct details specified, but he still could bring the correct container to the wrong place - or the wrong container to the correct place.

Besides unreliable processes, the possible causes for misplacement are poor visual oversight, insufficient training, miscommunication between ground personnel and equipment operators, working under time pressure, unclear processes or exceptional circumstances such as severe storms.

Another story is robbery and tampering. There have probably been attacks on goods transport since the beginning. The same applies to the stations that this transport of goods passes through. And nothing has changed in modern times. Only the attacks are getting bolder and bolder: In June 2022, 20 containers of gold, silver ore and televisions were taken from the port of Manzanillo, Mexico, in an unprecedented coup.

While it was evident in this event that and which containers were missing, it is less clear when individual containers suddenly become unlocatable. With not yet wholly overcome (COVID-19) and new crises (wars and other dangerous scenarios) and the associated effects, such as weakening of the global economy and inflation, essential goods are becoming the target: food and beverages, spare parts, fuel. The perpetrators target individual containers, and the approach often has no discernible pattern that could help with prevention.


Lost No More: Low-loss Container Terminal Yard Operations

In addition to setting up and strengthening security devices and personnel, a variety of automated functions can ensure that the yard inventory is and remains correct.

Tracking every move

With special on-board controllers (OBC), the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) is monitored for a change in the twistlock pin state. As soon as the pins (un)latch to a container, an event is created, and various data are recorded: the vehicle's designation, the move's type (lift or drop) and the exact location where it happened. The more container handling equipment (CHE) at the terminal is equipped with this technology, the more closely all moves are recorded (see Vehicle Telematics).

Which vehicle currently carries the container?

Another solution records the container's transfer from one CHE to another. While the drivers can concentrate entirely on the handover itself, the solution reports to the terminal operating system (TOS) that the container has moved from the care of a truck to that of a straddle carrier, for example. Handover protocols carried out automatically eliminate errors that can occur when recording by hand.

Controlled twistlocks

This solution is straightforward in its approach: if a driver tries to open the container's twistlocks in any wrong place, he will be refused. Opening the twistlocks is only possible when the slot specified by the TOS is reached (learn more about the Container Inventory Terminal Tracker module).

Know the vehicle's operator

By linking the vehicle and its driver, you know who was responsible for a particular container and when exactly. This helps with a later reconstruction of the path the container took. The driver can then be asked about any extraordinary incidents or whether he noticed anything unusual during the job.

Monitoring vehicles' movements

If the vehicle's whereabouts are monitored, the container's location is also known in real-time - and on a historical map if your solution provides such a function.

Include External Trucks

Another important source of errors is external trucks. Container terminals are large, and their layout is sometimes complicated because they have grown over a long, eventful period of time. The guidance systems are not always sufficient, and there can be misunderstandings, especially on the first visit.

However, suppose external trucks are included in an internal port monitoring system using mobile tags, for example. In that case, it can be tracked in real-time whether the truck completes its task's planned steps and locations (see also the Job Promote Terminal Tracker module).


What to do if a lost container is found again?

If a lost container is found, several steps are taken to ensure its integrity and prevent future problems.

First, the container's identity is verified by comparing its identification number with shipping documents and electronic tracking data. All relevant records must be updated to reflect the container's current location and status.

The container must undergo a thorough inspection. This includes a visual inspection for signs of tampering or damage and possibly an internal inspection to examine the cargo. Depending on the contents and whether there are signs of tampering, it may be necessary to involve security personnel or representatives of the shipping company or cargo owner. If smuggling is suspected, customs officials must also be present.

If no external damage or tampering is found, the container does not necessarily have to be opened. However, if perishable cargo is loaded, an inspection of the interior of the container is essential. If cargo is missing or spoiled, the damage assessment process must begin.



What are the Cargo Theft Trends in 2022?

Top commodities stolen:

  • 16% Food and beverage
  • 12% Electronics
  • 9% Agriculture
  • 9% Automotive
  • 8% Fuel
  • 7% Construction materials
  • 39% Other products


Top countries for cargo theft:

  • India
  • USA
  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • Russia
  • Germany
  • South Africa



Precision is of utmost importance for successful container terminal yard operations. Accurate data ensures optimal processing and accelerates all necessary tasks, such as customs clearance. A quick response to a missing container requires immediate action: inspection, physical search and comprehensive communication. To establish low-loss operations, use a combination of personnel and structural security measures, as well as automated functions and real-time monitoring. Including non-terminal actors such as external trucks increases accuracy. Proactive measures not only protect you and your customers' valuable cargo but also promote trust, an indispensable commodity in the competitive global trading environment.

PDS and Port Automation Whitepaper Full Text online

Delve deeper into one of our core topics: Smart Port

Note: This article was updated on the 23rd of July 2024



Conny Stickler, Marketing Manager Logistics

Constance Stickler holds a master's degree in political science, German language and history. She spent most of her professional career as a project and marketing manager in different industries. Her passion is usability, and she's captivated by the potential of today's digital tools. They seem to unlock endless possibilities, each one more intriguing than the last. Constance writes about automation, sustainability and safety in maritime logistics.

Find here a selection of her articles