Container, semi-trailers, swap bodies, rolling highway, not to confuse...  - factsheet
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On internet, many people talk about ‘intermodal train’, but without to distingue what's is exactly loaded. Is it a container, or a semi-trailer? We can distingue four different intermodal systems by their economy and by their technology.


The containers are clearly a worldwide marine economy. Their origine comes from the military logistic whose the method has been applied to the marine economy and on the harbours. This allows today to load and unload several thousand tonnes to and from a vessel within a few hours. The dimensions were approved by an economic and technical committee of UNO in years 60's and they are today the ISO standard dimensions applied on the 15 millions containers which currently in operation worldwide. On outside the harbour terminal, the containers can be loaded on trains, barges or semi-trailers, which makes the concept of container so 'intermodal'. In Europe, the dimensions are however slightly shorter than a semi-trailer, and this lead the fact that the 'continental transport' is entirely worked by motor carriers and semi-trailers, more large. Storage in container yards can be grounded where containers are stored by stacking them upon one another and are moved by a crane fitted with a spreader which lifts the container by gripping from the roof, as shown the picture below. 

Video : loading at the shipping terminal in Hambourg
Video : container moved by reach stacker
Video : on board of a reach stacker


The semi-trailers, or trucking, is a technology from the road economy, the most used mode for continental freight transport. It is the most serious rival to railways. Since years 50's, a few pioneers of road carriers got the idea to load semi-trailers on trains, by a vertical loading. For many years, the corner hight was the major stumbling block of the intermodal transport. Because of the presence of the wheels, semi-trailers can only be loaded on a special wagon with a recessed pocket to accept the road wheels of the semi-trailer. Today, many ultra low-loader wagons make it possible to transport trucks with a height of 4 meters on some railway lines, such as the Gotthard route. Contrary to the containers, semi-trailers can't not be stacked. Indeed, many semi-trailers are made up with curtains which make them a body no rigid. That's requires special handling equipment with four grapple-arm to lift the semi-trailer from four points located around the floor frame, as shown below.

Video of a loading


That's looks like to semi-trailers, but without their wheels and floor frame. It's also not a container, what we have said above. The benefit is to avoid the dead weight of the floor frame and the wheels, and to load on any kind of wagons, without low-floor. Its disadvantage is clearly on road hand side : contrary to semi-trailers, there are two chassis, one for the truck, a second for the swap body. The loading is similar to a semi-trailer, with four grapple-arm to lift the swap body from four points located around the floor frame, as shown below.

Video : unloading of a swap body by reach stacker

Rolling highway

Rolling highways, in their German’s version, are a rail transport of full-road vehicles and tractors with driver, with the use of low-floor wagons. It's the railway version of the ferry services across the sea. It's an accompanied transport because the truck driver accompanies his road train in a couchette car or a classical coach car. To reach the 4 meter corner hight, the wagon have low-floor along their full length, that’s require wheels of wagon with a little radius, which have more wear. There are no cranes because the loading is made by truck drivers themselves. That's requires that the trucks follow each other for embark by an access ramp at the beginning of the train, similar to embark on a ferry. Rolling highways are not really competitive due to high costs of the eight axles wagons, except the Eurotunnel shuttle.

Video : boarding on a german's "ROLA"
Video : ROLA in Switzerland

The future is horizontal…

In the past few years, new ideas have been launched on the intermodal industry. Firstly with the french company Lohr Industry, which launched it's 'Modalohr' concept in 2003. The system can be compared with the similar rolling highway concept described above, but it uses specialized railroad wagons for carrying road trailers and road tractors, by using of the classical bogies which reduce maintenance of wheels. Another new idea is the Megaswing concept developed by the Swedish firm Kockums Industrier. There use also the classical bogies but provides two additional advantages, by utilization of the Megaswing wagon as an individual unit, and by the fact that the wagon can be loaded/unloaded without any crane. This concept can to interest many factories which don't want to use a specialized intermodal terminal and which want to be free of timetables and of the management of their own loading. The last concept is more revolutionary and comes from Germany. CargoBeamer, that is his name, takes semi-trailers from truck to truck like a passenger. The system can load and unload a train with 36 semi-trailers in just 15 minutes, by dragging the low floor horizontally from the wagon directly on the terminal, as shown his video below.

Video of Modalohr
Video of Cargo Beamer