Terminal Basics

Intermodal Terminals – European experiences

Intermodal terminals enable the transshipment of intermodal loading units between road and rail, inland waterways or short sea shipping and are therefore contributing to the modal shift of cargoes off the road for the main haulage.

In most European countries the intermodal terminals differentiate between the ownership of the terminal infrastructure- and superstructure on the one hand and the operation and management of the facility on the other hand. The ownership corresponds to the ownership of the land itself, typical infrastructures such as the rail tracks and superstructures such as Rail-mounted Gantry Cranes or Reach stackers. The management is dealing with the daily operation of the terminal which might be done by the owner or a dedicated operational company. However, the common understanding of intermodal terminals is based on the following principles:

  • Principle of non-discriminative access to terminals;
  • Rail-side access for all licensed railway undertakings;
  • Road-side access for all operators;
  • Transparent capacity allocation and pricing;
  • Bundling of different cargoes (maritime container, continental cargoes), and market segments (international and domestic relations) and thus improved capacity utilisation.

This type of terminal is an own entity in the transport chain. It is described irrespectively of the legal, corporate or financial relations that may exist between the terminal operating company, the terminal owner, the infrastructure manager, the railway undertakings and the intermodal operators that have led to a variety of owner/operator models in Europe. Thus we are focusing on improving the operational functions and services and thereby the capacity of intermodal terminals.

The capacity of an intermodal terminal is determined by a couple of factors, which can only partly be influenced by the local terminal manager. The primary influences are the position of the terminal within the rail and road network, the size and shape of the real estate, the length of the handling tracks, and the number and capabilities of the handling equipment. In recent years a modular shape of terminals has been developed which is made of:

  • one – or better double-sided rail access, where
  • signalling allows for entry with momentum and direct departure of the train by the main line traction unit,
  • three to five “train long” (length can vary between countries) handling or transhipment tracks, with
  • rail-mounted gantry cranes (RMG),
  • three to five interim storage or buffer lanes,
  • one loading and one driving lane,
  • road side access with
  • check-in / check-out area (gate) and sufficient parking space.

One typical module of that kind should be able to handle about 120-150.000 loading units p.a. (rail-in and rail-out handlings). While a doubling or even trebling could improve the capacity accordingly.

Source: KombiConsult based on a BASF photography

It goes without saying that also video gates at road and rail access as well as a variety of sensors and installations linking the different technical equipment inside the terminal and providing interfaces to suppliers and customers are needed and available in terminals: terminal management or terminal operating systems (TOS). These rae constantly improved and updated in the process of digitalisation. 

Since its origin on the late 1960s intermodal transport was subject to certain types of technical innovations also with respect to terminal layout, equipment and processes. In a comprehensive study KombiConsult has analysed the systems which are available in the market at the end of 2022. The by far majority of terminals is equipped with standard equipment as described above. Other technologies with a high use are Rolling Motorways (“Rollende Landstraße RoLa”) for accompanied intermodal transport and Modalohr/Lohr system used by VIIA and CFL Multimodal on certain trade lanes as well as Cargobeamer. The latter systems are basically characterized by their possibility to load/unload semi-trailers in particular and their compatibility to vertical lifting in standard terminals. Pure handling of a smaller quantity of loading units – in particular swap bodies – can also be performed by technologies such as Mobiler or Innovatrain/Container Mover.

Basic functions and additional services of intermodal terminals

Intermodal terminals are fulfilling an interface position in the intermodal supply chain. The next shows both the so-called basic functions, which are related to the pure rail/road transhipment and any intermodal terminal is required to match, and additional services, which a terminal operator may or may not offer depending on the local demand for them. There is a smooth transition between the different functions and whether they are required from the intermodal terminal operator or whether they are offered from other parties in the supply chain (e.g. Intermodal operators, trucking companies, or other).

Source: KombiConsult analysis

Legally the intermodal terminals are characterized as “service facilities” which are providing access to the rail infrastructure and which are obliged to create and publish conditions of use. These conditions of use have to describe the service facility, its capacity allocation principles, the services offered and their pricing. Details can be found in Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2017/2177 of 22 November 2017 on access to service facilities and rail-related services. It is directed to the managing companies of rail related service facilities including workshops and intermodal terminals. Intermodal terminal managers are obliged to this regulation because they are proving rail access and irrespectively of their private of public financing.