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Drive on, drive off

Drive on, drive off: the ro-ro revolution
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Drive on, drive off: the ro-ro revolution

From tanks to trucks

The idea of loading vehicles onto ships by allowing them to be driven on was given great impetus by the building of tank landing vessels during the Second World War.  The idea was that tanks and other military vehicles could be driven over a ramp directly on to the invasion beach.  Avoiding the time-consuming job of lifting them over the ship’s side with derricks was important in wartime, when the enemy would be trying to resist the landing.  

In peacetime, the idea of simply driving cars and trucks on to a ship appealed first to ferry operators, who wanted to speed loading to get in as many trips as possible.  It was also popular with passengers, who would otherwise need to have their cars craned aboard.  Road haulage companies appreciated that a truck loaded in Glasgow, for instance, could now be driven to Genoa without unloading.  Ex-military landing ships were bought and pioneering services operated across the English Channel and the Irish Sea, catering for cars and trucks.

Ro-ro advantages and drawbacks

The roll-on, roll-off (ro-ro) concept quickly spread, a further attraction being that ro-ro ships require relatively simple port facilities, just a quay and a hinged ramp (although in tidal waters with a large rise and fall, this equipment will need to be quite sophisticated).  Services were extended, to the Baltic, the Mediterranean and even across the Atlantic, and vessels got very much bigger.  

Ro-ro ship have a number of drawbacks.  The vehicle deck restricts the height in the engine room below it, and this limits the choice of engine.  The vehicle deck has to be adequately ventilated to remove exhaust fumes from vehicles driving on and off.  When loading and unloading, the ro-ro vessel has to be very firmly moored, to prevent movement when vehicles are driving on and off.  The biggest disadvantage is that cargo space is not well utilised, as the vehicles themselves take up a lot of space, and cannot be packed as closely together as, say, containers.  

The flexibility and speed of loading of ro-ro ships have seen them come to dominate short sea routes (see screen DS6B), but their drawbacks mean they have not seriously challenged pure container ships on longer distance routes. 

Car carriers

Export of cars has become big business.  In the sixties, some bulk carriers were designed to carry cars in their holds, but there were several disadvantages.  Loading them by crane was slow and there was a risk of damaging the cars.  As cars were relatively light for the volume they occupied, utilisation of cargo space was poor.

The answer was the dedicated car carrier, a specialised type of ro-ro.  Car carriers are large vessels rising high out of the water.  They have many decks, each separated by the height of a car.  Cars are simply driven on by a team of drivers, parked and secured by ropes or chains in case of inclement weather.  The car carriers are ungainly with their slab sides but achieve their aim of efficiently carrying a high value item safely and economically from producer to consumer.

Drive on, drive off: the ro-ro revolution
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