Many European countries have an extended railway network that links the bigger ports and industrial regions.

Historically, this transport mode has been of great importance for Belgium, mainly for the connection of the ports and important coal and steel industry. Since the introduction of the truck in the middle of the last century and the changing industrial landscape, the share of freight transported by rail has become significantly lower. Today, rail accounts for only 11% in Belgium. (Source: Eurostat, 2016).

Since the liberalization of rail transport on a European level (2007), a breath of fresh air has been blown through the sector. The breakdown of the national monopolies, the rise of private players, technological advances and new business dynamics have resulted in rail transport once again becoming a viable transport mode.


The infrastructure manager (IM) manages the railway network on the national level. The IM is responsible for the construction and maintenance of the tracks, the electric overhead line, signalling installations, tunnels, bridges, etc. In Europe, almost all rail lines are shared between passenger and freight transport. To use this infrastructure, operators must request a slot, referred to as a rail path, with a corresponding cost. In Belgium, the railway network and the assignment of rail paths are managed by Infrabel.

The Railway Undertaking (RU) is responsible for transport by rail. The Railway Undertaking has the necessary licenses and permissions to enter the public railway network, where there are very strict demands concerning safety and financial capacity. They also own or lease locomotives and employ the train driver and the ground staff to drive the trains and perform shunting and (un)coupling tasks. It is the RU that requests the rail path from the infrastructure manager, based on very efficient planning.

Rotterdam Rail Feeding (RRF) NL
Railtraxx BE
Lineas Group BE
Societé Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) FR
Europorte France SAS FR
Crossrail Benelux BE
DB Schenker Rail Nederland NL
Captrain Belgium BE
Eurostair International Ltd. VK
DB Schenker Euro Cargo Rail FR
CLF Cargo LU
THI Factory (Thalys) BE
HSL Polska BE
RTB Cargo Netherlands NL

The Rail Operator commercializes a rail connection. It buys rail transport services from the Railway Undertaking and arranges slots on the terminals to load and unload the wagons (especially for intermodal connections) and carry out the follow-up. The Operator sells slots on the trains to its customers, the Logistics Services Provider.

The Terminal Operator manages the (intermodal) terminal. It (un)loads the train with portal cranes or reach stackers. It also arranges the pick-up and drop-off for the load carrier (containers, swap boxes,..) by truck and drafts transport documents. It invoices these processes to the Rail Operator. This mostly involves ‘open’ terminals which process trains and cargo from all carriers (providing there is space available).

The logistics service provider arranges transport door-to-door. It provides intermodal loading units, books slots on the rail operator’s train, and, if necessary, arranges additional services such as pre and post transport services (by truck), administrative formalities, etc.

The wagon manager is responsible for the management of the wagons and arranges maintenance, revision and repair in case of damage. Very often, this is an entity within the rail operator which also manages contact with leasing companies.

Leasing companies lease locomotives and wagons (rolling stock). Whereas the former national monopolies used to own wagons and locomotives, it has become much more common to lease them, allowing for greater flexibility in relation to these capital-intensive resources. This is an important evolution, especially for smaller players.

Besides these actors, ‘classic’ parties are also active in rail transportation, e.g. for some bigger flows, rail connections are purchased directly by shipping companies or expeditors.

There is also a certain amount of overlap between these actors. Some RU’s own an operator as a subsidiary or the other way around. It is also common for operators to have their own terminals.

Locomotives can be classified in two types:

  • Electric locomotives are powered via the overhead line. As a result of the extensive electrification in Europe, these locomotives are often used for long distances because of their efficient and eco-friendly use of energy.
  • Diesel locomotives use diesel oil as their source of energy. These locomotives are essential for shunting to terminals and in harbours, where there is no overhead line present because this would obstruct (un)loading. Heavier types are also deployed as line locomotives.


Within Europe, there is huge variety in terms of electrification and safety systems. International locomotives must therefore be specifically equipped to operate in multiple countries. For this reason, on longer routes, it’s still common to change locomotives at border points, even though there is a clear trend towards multi-operable locomotives that can be used in many countries.

A line locomotive Class 66 (diesel) from Crossrail

A  Railtraxx train in the port of Antwerp. These diesel locomotives Type 6400 are often individually deployed for shunting in terminals, but are used in series here to supply more power. Notice the absence of an overhead line.

A line locomotive Type 28 (electric) from Lineas pulls a mixed train.

Wagons come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, depending on the goods transported. This picture shows the most common types of wagon.

Bulk wagon (type Falkns) for the transport of coal, sand, gravel, etc.

Sliding wall wagon (type Habbiins) for the transport of pallet goods or project loads.

Steel wagon (type Shimmns) for the transport of coils.

Flat wagon (Rglns) for all sorts of loads: pipes, plates but also containers.

Car carrier wagon (Laaers) for the transport of finished cars.

Tankwagon (type Zags) for the transport of liquid bulk.

Intermodal wagon (type Sgnss) for the transport of containers, swap bodies, etc.

Source: Greenbrier Europe

An important category is the intermodal wagons, for the transport of intermodal loading units (containers).

For intermodal cargo by rail there are several loading units available;

  • Maritime containers for maritime flows (port-hinterland): 20ft or 40ft containers
  • 45’ containers for continental transport (and by extension: Short Sea Shipping)
  • Swap bodies: equivalent of a trailer, but without undercarriage. Can be loaded on a Chassis.
  • Huckepack trailer: trailer with a strengthened undercarriage that can be lifted with a crane. Easily identifiable by the two yellow marks on the sides. For transporting these trailers, special wagons are necessary, so-called pocket wagons.
  • There are systems which allow standard (non-crane-able) trailers to be transported by rail. This usually requires special terminals and wagons. Cargobeamer (Germany), Modalohr (Luxemburg & France) and Nikrasa (Germany) are examples of such systems.
  • Finally, there is accompanied intermodal transportation when both tractor and trailer are transported by rail. The truck driver travels in the passenger wagon that is also part of the train. An example of such system is the RoLa (Rolling Landstraße) between Freiburg and Novara.


For the transport of each type of loading unit, certain wagon types are more convenient than others. The Rail Operator tries to combine wagon sets to obtain an optimal mix.

A 45’ container is transported by rail. You can see 40’ maritime containers in the background.

A portal crane on the Ambrogio terminal in Muizen loads swap bodies;

The loading of a Huckepack trailer on a pocket wagon. Notice the yellow marks on the side of the trailer.

Loading a standard trailer on special Modalohr wagons.

The NiKraSa system of loading standard trailers uses a crane-able skid, where the trailer is anchored.

A rola train moves through the Alps.

For the use of the rail infrastructure, the infrastructure manager assigns rail paths. These allow railway enterprises to schedule a train on a certain line at a certain time. The train paths that are assigned are based upon train specifications such as total weight (up to 2,500 tons in Belgium), length (up to 700m in Belgium) and maximum size of wagon + load (important to ensure that there is no contact with tunnels or installations, this is called the gabarit).

In view of the fact that the Railway Undertaking aims to deploy resources (locomotives, drivers, wagons) as efficiently as possible, rail connections are usually planned in a fixed schedule, in a round-trip.

For important, regular connections, a standardized yearly plan is set up, with a timetable on a weekly basis. For international rail paths, where the planning of multiple infrastructure managers must be coordinated, this becomes a complex exercise for operators, railway undertakings and infrastructure managers.

For the past few years, Europe has been focussing on Rail Freight Corridors, i.e. collaborations between national infrastructure managers to create efficient end-to-end rail paths on strategic corridors, and streamline ordering procedures (one stop shop).

Rail Freight Corridors in Europe, 2018. http://www.rne.eu/rail-freight-corridors/. Copyright RNE

As well as rail paths in a fixed schedule for the important corridors, ad hoc rail paths can also be requested. These are used to continue running trains after delays, but also for short term contracts or for extra trains requested by Rail Operators. The Railway Undertaking or Infrastructure Managers have closely integrated their systems to make rail path requests as efficient and flexible as possible, and they are always in close contact with one another.

Rail transport starts and ends at a terminal.

A conventional terminal or railway siding can be used for loading different types of industrial goods. These terminals are often located on the sites of big industrial companies (for example a steel manufacturer that loads coils on a train, a chemical company that fills tank wagons) or quays in the port (for example the loading of machines or pipes onto flat wagons after maritime transport).

Intermodal loading units (containers or swap boxes) can be loaded at an intermodal terminal.

  • Loads can move from train to train at a rail terminal (between connections) or from train to truck (and vice versa).
  • A trimodal terminal can also connect to inland shipping.


Combinant NV, a rail terminal in Antwerp.

Antwerp Main Hub, on the right next to the marshalling yard Antwerp-Nord (managed by Infrabel)

Port of Genk, a trimodal terminal.

Intermodal terminals are located both in ports (for maritime transport) and inland (for continental transport).

Reach stackers or portal cranes (or both) are used for loading.

A portal crane on the Hupac Terminal Antwerp.

A reach stacker loads a 45ft container in Zeebrugge.

Intermodal rail terminals in Flanders

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