What are rail motorways?

A rail motorway is defined as a combined transport system in which road vehicles (lorries) are transported by rail in shuttle services using specially upgraded rolling stock and terminals.

Depending on the type of rail motorway the transport can be accompanied or unaccompanied. In the first case, the lorry driver makes the journey in the same train that transports his vehicle in a car provided for this purpose, while in the case of unaccompanied transport, only the semi-trailer is loaded and, therefore, the lorry driver does not travel in the train.

An example of the latter would be the railway motorway connecting the terminal of Alonso Group , of which Stock Logistic forms part, of Can Tunis, in Barcelona, with Bettembourg (Luxembourg). The line began operating recently and links the Iberian Peninsula with Central Europe. It is the first railway motorway in Spain and loads P400 semi-trailers.

Main types of railway motorways

Depending on the type of technology we find the following cases:

  • System of small wheeled wagons (ROLA). This system is characterized by the use of low-floor platforms with continuously arranged bogies consisting of small wheels. In this way, the train is constituted as a large linear, continuous and flat platform on which there is a car, located behind the locomotive, in which the drivers travel. The trucks enter the train, together with their tractor head, by placing a ramp set up for this purpose at the rear end of the train.
  • Modalohr System. It is characterized because the trucks access the wagons horizontally, with their tractor head and without the use of cranes or load handling equipment. It allows the possibility of transporting both accompanied by the driver, in which case there would be a car conditioned for this service on the train, and unaccompanied. Unlike the ROLA system, this system offers the possibility of making stops at intermediate stations, as the desired number of semi-trailers can be unloaded without affecting the rest.
  • “Poche” wagons. It requires the use of gantry cranes or “reachstacker” with which to move the semitrailers vertically to be placed on the wagons in platforms with lowered boxes arranged between the bogies. This is an unaccompanied transport system.

Other systems today

Other technologies designed to provide rail motorway services also exist today. An example would be the Eurotunnel or Channel Tunnel which offers freight shuttle trains using a specific system of rail motorways. Launched in 1994, this motorway transports lorries, cars and also passengers.

Location of rail motorways

Railway motorways must be located close to major road axes or at concentration points. This is better than being located in highly industrialised areas. It is also necessary to take into account whether the service will be accompanied or not (depending on the needs of the companies requesting the services) and also to study aspects such as environmental sustainability, availability or the cost of land.

Advantages over the road

According to calculations that both European institutions (the case of the European Commission) and private sector actors handle, the use of rail motorways means that up to 350 trucks a day can get off the road, with the significant energy and environmental savings that this entails. It also has other advantages, such as decongesting roads. In short, rail motorways are a genuine alternative to road freight transport in Europe, and they also have another key concept in mind in logistics: intermodality.

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