Intermodal Politics – The Cargo Container as a Soapbox

Is the intermodal container the new political soapbox?In my lobbying practice I have represented many infrastructure and transportation clients. As a former campaign advance man I’ve dealt with the logistics of moving a candidate using cars, buses, trains, planes, and even the occasional watercraft. Transportation has received short shrift in Congress and on the campaign trail and this is remarkable given the key role that transportation plays in getting elected.

Photograph of President Reagan on the "Whistle Stop Tour" through Ohio, 12 Oct. 1984 (
Photograph of President Reagan on the “Whistle Stop Tour” through Ohio, 12 Oct. 1984 (

American presidential campaigns use their own campaign versions of Air Force One to jet from one rally to another.   Campaigns for state-wide office regularly feature “bus tours” and general aviation resources to transport candidates. Railroad “whistle-stop” tours have been a part of the American political consciousness since the 1800s. 

The Graves for Governor campaign in Kansas in 1994 used semi-trailers branded in the campaign’s logo to dominate parades in the county seats. When Bill Graves followed up with an 18 wheeler, there was little doubt whose was bigger in that parade.

“Intermodalism” has used in federal transportation politics and policy for decades by those who believe a healthy transportation policy requires more than just pavement. The ubiquitous cargo container is the pinnacle of intermodalism: a truck leaves a loading dock in Germany to a port, across the ocean by steamship to an American port, via railroad to suburban Kansas City, and via truck to its final destination, all in the same container.

“Forget the soapbox – the must-have accessory for the modern politician in Pakistan seems to be the shipping container. Even Imran Khan is said to have spent more than $120,000 (£70,000) on one, reports Fahad Desmukh.” – BBC

The BBC reported last week that the dawn of the “intermodal campaign” may have risen in Pakistan. Cargo containers have played a central role in the protest movements of Imran Khan and Tahir ul-Qadri, and have also been used by the Sharif government to confound protesters.

The containers have been customized into the ultimate portable “soapboxes” by Pakistani political movements. Ul-Qadri has lived in his campaign container “fitted with heating and a bathroom” and Khan’s party reportedly “had a container converted at a cost of some 12.5 [million] Pakistani rupees ($124,000)… [and] it is equipped with meeting facilities, a bathroom, and a nifty spiral staircase leading to the roof – and is supposedly bomb-proof.” Check out the BBC article for some “Cribs” photos.

The Sharif government is in on the budding intermodal political trend too. The Guardian tells how the Pakistani government has used containers as portable roadblocks along protest routes. Ul-Qadri’s supporters have one-upped the government by bringing cranes to rallies to remove government containers.

A public transit variety of these tactics was employed by the Capitol Police and Secret Service using WMATA buses to block roads, but I have not seen containers used that way in the U.S. and I am unaware of an active use of containers in American campaigns. If your campaign has an intermodal container in its toolbox, let me know!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *