Misdeclared cargo and the legendary Rock Island Line

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This story was originally published on September 28, 2020.

The National Cargo Bureau (NCB) recently released a white paper with revealing findings on misdeclared cargo as part of the Container Inspection Safety Initiative.

During the initiative, the New York-based NCB inspected 500 containers – both imports and exports – from participating shipping companies. They found that 55% of the containers failed to meet basic loading standards and a further 6.5% contained misdeclared cargo.

Misdeclared cargo has long been a problem for the transportation industry, whether it’s stowed on a ship, rail car or truck trailer. The centuries-old fraudulent 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 gang of prison workers 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 driver who smuggled pig iron through a tollbooth, claiming all he had on board were cattle. You could say the song was about deceiving authority, but really it was just a case of misdeclared cargo.

Fires on container ships caused by misdeclared cargo are difficult to extinguish (Photo: Courtesy of Captain James McNamara)

The texts are:

This is a story about a Rock Island Line

Well, the Rock Island Line takes them down to New Orleans

There’s a big tollbooth down there, and you know it

If you get certain things on board when you go through the tollbooth

Well, you don’t have to pay the man a toll.

Well, a train driver, he pulled up the tollbooth

And a man roared and asked him what he had on board, and said:

I have cattle, I have cattle, I have cows, I have pigs, I have sheep

I have mules, I have all cattle

Well, he said, you’re all right, boy; You don’t have to pay any toll.

You can just go straight on; So he went through the tollbooth

And as he passed, he started picking up a little bit faster

Pick up some steam

He came through, he turned and looked at the man, he said:

Well, I fooled you, I fooled you, I’ve got pig iron, I’ve got pig iron, I’ve got pig iron

Down the Rock Island Line it’s a mighty good road…

The song takes its name from the legendary Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, better known as Rock Island, based in Illinois. The railroad operated an extensive network throughout the Midwest. Contrary to the lyrics, the train did not extend service to New Orleans. Also, contrary to its official name, Rock Island never reached the Pacific.

From its beginnings in the 1850’s, Rock Island has weathered financial adversity and faced larger commercial competitors. In 1980 the railway finally ceased operations. Some of their former routes are now operated by other railways.

Although the above story is a bit humorous, the subject is not. It serves as a demonstration of how common and easy it is to misdeclare cargo.

Various national and international governmental agencies have spent decades tackling the problem of misdeclared cargoes with minimal success. Modern seafarers live in constant fear of what’s really inside those stacks of containers.

If the United Nations Rotterdam Rules, developed in 2008 to replace the US Carriage of Goods by Sea Act (COGSA) and the International Hague Rules and Hague-Visby Rules, were implemented, safety for all modes of transport would be improved .

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