Shipping Container Foundation: How To Support Your Shipping Container Using Railroad Ties

One of the most common questions people have about shipping containers is what type of surface it can sit on. Some things to consider are whether or not the ground is level or will the container be moved at a later date? If you are not setting your container on concrete or asphalt but rather on what we call “soft ground” such as dirt, grass, gravel etc., it’s important to lift it off the ground to limit moisture underneath the container as well as to prevent it from sinking into the ground over time. Excessive exposure to moisture to the bottom of the container can lead to rust, damage and corrosion. Also, If the container slowly sinks into the ground over time this may eventually lead to difficulty in opening and closing the container doors because it may no longer be level. This is especially true if the container is stored in a wet or snowy climate.

Using railroad ties to support the shipping container above the ground is a cost-effective 

Solution. They are pressure treated to withstand the elements over time and come in 8’ lengths, perfect for the width of a shipping container.  And, you only need two — one at each end of the container underneath the corner castings.  

Tip: You can pick up railroad ties at most hardware retailers. Prices usually start at about $28. 

The railroad tie should sit underneath the four corner castings

Why Use Railroad Ties To Support A Shipping Container? ​

There are several reasons why railroad ties are the best option for supporting a container. First, railroad ties are heavy and meant to withstand a tremendous amount of weight. Most weigh around 200lbs and measure 8’6” long, 9” wide, and 7” thick. This size and weight make them an excellent foundation for containers. Because they are heavy, you will need at least 2 people to move them into the right position. 

Second, railroad ties are treated with creosote (tar) which protects the wood from termites and moisture. They’ll hold up even in the most extreme environment.  If you use untreated wood, it will eventually rot and won’t last long.  They are also a better alternative to concrete blocks which may crush under the heavy weight of the container. In order to avoid this problem you would need to fill the blocks with cement to make them solid. Railroad ties can be used as is with no modifications necessary. They are cheap and easy to use and best of all, very effective.

Tip: As part of your preparation for the delivery, we recommend that you cut the railroad ties in half so that you have four pieces. This will make them lighter and easier to handle. It will also allow for a gap underneath the doors in case you need to lift the container with a bottle jack.

The gap between the railroad ties is sufficient for a bottle jack to adjust the doors.

Watch the video below to see how to prepare railroad ties for the delivery of your shipping container. Refer to the actual steps listed after the videos on this page.

WatchHow to Prepare Railroad Ties for Storage Container 

The video below gives an overview of the process from delivery to the installation of a 40-foot

shipping container.  Note, 40-foot containers have 4 sets of corner castings: 2 sets in the front and 2 at the back.

WatchShipping Container on Railroad Ties 

This video covers expert information from Gregg Schoenborn, Founder of Onsite Storage Solutions. The container in the video is a 20-foot container.

Follow the steps below to prepare the surface and railroad ties for your delivery. 

Note: Shipping containers are extremely heavy and require specialized equipment. The truck and the trailer weigh over 45,000 lbs. It’s important that you make sure that the ground and site is level and hard to prevent the truck from getting stuck. 

Step 1 - Create A Flat Surface For The Railroad Ties, In The Front And Back End Of The Container

Use a shovel to create a flat hard surface for the railroad ties in the front and back.

It’s important that you place the railroad ties on a flat, hard surface so that all the railroad ties are level. This will ensure that all the corners are the same height and that the container floor is level. This will make it easier to open and close the container doors.

Step 2 - Place The Front And Back Railroad Ties In Position To Measure The Distance Between Them (Prior To Delivery).

Place the front railroad tie in position

Before your container arrives measure the distance between the front and back railroad ties to make sure that you have the correct placement. For larger containers, measure from the second corner casting in front. (see picture below for reference).

The second set of corner castings in the front of larger containers

Step 3 - Remove The Front Railroad Tie But Leave The Back One In Place (Prior To Delivery). ​

Place the back railroad tie in place

Once you’ve measured the distance between railroad ties, remove the front railroad tie before the truck delivers. The delivery truck usually reverses to off-load the shipping container. The truck cannot drive over the railroad tie so if the front railroad tie is still in place, the truck will get stuck which is why it’s important to remove it once you’ve measured out the site.  

Step 4 - Reverse The Truck Until The Back Corner Castings Are Over The Rear Railroad Tie

The red circle indicates the end corner casting

For larger containers, use the end set of corner castings, the ones on the very edge of the container.

Step 5 - Lower The Back End Of The Shipping Container Onto The Rear Railroad Tie

The tilt-bed lifts the trailer up to deliver it onto the ground.
The last set of corner castings rest on the railroad ties.

Step 6 - The truck Moves Forward

The truck will drive forward allowing the container to gently lower to the ground. The truck should stop just before the front corner castings are loaded off the trailer in order to set the front railroad ties into position.

Step 7 - Insert The Front Railroad Ties Back Into Position

Just before the driver drops the front end of the container, reposition the front railroad tie so that it lies directly below the front corner castings. Slide the railroad tie into place pushing it from one end of the container to the other. For larger containers, position in the railroad tie underneath the second set of corner castings (the ones furthest from the doors). 

Step 8 - The Truck Moves Forward And Lowers The Front End Of The Shipping Container

Before the truck drops the front end of the container onto the railroad tie it is important to follow proper safety precautions so that no one gets injured. Ensure that everyone stands clear of the container and truck while the container is being lowered and the truck is in motion. These containers can weigh up to 10,000 pounds and can be dangerous if tipped over. 

After reading this guide, you have all the information on how to place your container on railroad ties. Keep in mind that some drivers cannot assist in placing railroad ties so plan accordingly. If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us at (888) 405-8772.


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