Rail Terminals

Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Brian Slack

1. Location Dynamics

The use of the capacity offered by rail transportation requires purposely designed terminals where passengers can embark and disembark and where freight can be transferred. Rail terminals, while not quite as space-extensive as airports and ports, suffer less from site constraints. This involves two major issues:

  • Location. An important distinction concerns passengers and freight rail terminals, which commonly involve very different locations. Many rail terminals were established in the 19th century during the heyday of rail development. While sites may have been on the edge of urban areas at the time, decades of urban development, including residential and industrial areas, have surrounded older rail terminals, leaving limited opportunities for expansion. Passenger terminals tend to occupy central locations and are commonly the defining element of urban centrality while freight terminals have seen a growing separation from central locations, with new facilities often built in an exurban location, particularly for high speed train stations.
  • Setting. Because of the linear characteristic of the mode they serve, rail terminals are dominantly rectangular shaped facilities. Their capacity is a function of the number of track spurs available, which is a characteristic difficult to change once the terminal has been built. Individually rail terminals may not be as extensive as airports or ports, but cumulatively the area of all the rail sites in a city may exceed those of the other modes. For example, in Chicago the combined area of rail freight yards exceeds that of the airports.

Rail terminals have a unique characteristic related to shunting (or switching), which requires separate yard facilities often adjacent to the terminal and at times independent facilities. The wagons composing a train often need to be assembled or broken down in classification yards. This is particularly the case for freight trains that need to be assembled at their origin, switched at intermediary locations (if long distance hauling is concerned) and broken down at their destination. While this is less of an issue for passenger rail, as trains tend to remain assembled the way they are, shunting remains fundamental to rail operations.

Rail terminals have significant structuring and agglomeration effects that had an impact in urban land markets since their introduction. This implied related activities, such as retail, restaurants and hotels for passenger terminals or distribution centers for freight terminals. This is in part due to the accessibility they provide and in part because of the traffic they generate. Before the prominence of the automobile and trucking, economic activities tended to cluster around their respective rail terminals. Whole urban districts emerged around rail terminals. However, as the trucking industry matured and highway infrastructure was expanded and improved, rail terminals lost a great deal of their primacy. Even if rail transportation is generally more fuel-efficient than other modes, the mobility of passengers and freight quickly responded to the availability of the ubiquitous highway infrastructure.

Rail terminals were initially developed to complement the shortcomings of other modes, particularly to service gaps in fluvial (canal) and maritime transportation. In the second half of the 20th century, as rail passenger traffic declined, the need for many rail stations diminished, particularly in North America. A rationalization has resulted in the conversion of many stations to other uses, sometimes with striking effects, such as the Musee D’Orsay in Paris and Windsor Station in Montreal. Rail yard conversion has been less spectacular, partly because the sites are less interesting from an architectural standpoint, but nonetheless important. Many former downtown freight facilities have been completely redeveloped in residential developments or commercially. Indeed, the CN Tower-Skydome complexes in Toronto are on former rail land. In other cases, yards can be converted to related activities such as warehouses or even urban logistics centers.

The current setting of rail systems underlines an almost complete separation between rail passenger and freight terminals. Although they can share access to the same rail network they service completely different mobility requirements. Any proximity between passengers and freight terminals tends to be coincidental.

2. Passengers Terminals

Passenger rail terminals tend to be functionally simple facilities and in their most basic form, they include a quay for passengers to embark or disembark and a common area for ticket purchase, waiting, and for activities servicing large volumes of passengers (e.g. retail and restoration). While some are along a line that requires a stop of a few minutes so that passengers can embark or disembark, others are terminal locations at the head of an intercity corridor. Like any other terminal facility, rail terminals have a size and complexity directly related to the amount of passengers they service. There is a hierarchy of the importance of passenger rail terminals which is illustrated in the rail network structure. It ranges from simple stops with only a platform available for passengers to embark or disembark to central rail stations composed of enclosed facilities with multiple piers and amenities.

Central railway stations are typically in the heart of downtown cores and primary elements of national or regional passenger rail systems. At one time their sites may have been on the edge of the pre-industrial city, as is the case for London and Paris urban growth and the shift of commercial and business activity have conferred many with an important central function. These stations are typically imposing buildings reflecting the power and importance represented by the railway in the 19th and 20th centuries. For many cities, railway stations are the key elements of urban centrality and activity and represent an impressive architectural achievement unmatched in any other type of transportation terminal and occupying a large amount of real estate. Notable examples include the Grand Central Station in New York, St. Pancras station in London, the Gare de Lyon in Paris, or the Shinjuku train station in Tokyo, which is the world’s busiest with more that 3.5 million people per day. Since many central rail stations handle large amounts of commuters, that also tend to be the nexus of public transit systems as subway stations are directly connected to the terminal facility. Even if in several cases, particularly in North America, the long distance function has subsided, the imprint of passenger rail terminals on the structure of urban transit systems has endured.

Still, the development of high speed rail systems has offered new opportunities for rail terminals with the renovation of existing facilities, many of which central railway stations, or the construction of new facilities in suburban areas. The centrality of rail stations became a positive factor in the development of high speed rail systems as it confers a direct accessibility to core business activities. In many cases the high speed rail station has become a new nexus of activity with co-located real estate development such as office buildings, retail stores, hotels and parking facilities. The development of activities near high speed rail stations is often more driven by the availability of land and parking space, particularly in suburban stations, than the actual connectivity that the high speed rail network offers.

An additional level of integration concerns the design of airport terminals with high speed train stations, such as the case of Charles de Gaulle (Paris), Schiphol (Amsterdam) and Pudong (Shanghai), which enables to connect long distance air travel with regional accessibility. Over specific corridors in France, Spain, Germany, China and Japan, high speed rail stations are effectively competing with national air services, substituting the airport for the rail station. Some air carriers such as Air France and Lufthansa are starting to offer services that include a rail segment, implying that the train station becomes a proxy for the airport. In some instances, such as Hong Kong, a centrally located public transit station servicing an airport terminal with a rail connection (light or heavy rail) and offer ticket and luggage check-in services. A better integration between passenger rail and air transportation therefore enables substitution of air travel and the possibility to use satellite airport terminals. This is linked with new forms of airport competitiveness.

3. Freight Terminals

Unlike passenger terminals, rail freight yards did not have to be quite so centrally located, and because they required a great deal of space for multiple tracks for marshaling they were more likely located on entirely greenfield sites than passenger terminals. However, rail yards tended to attract manufacturing activities able to use the distribution capabilities of rail, and thus became important industrial zones. When dealing with bulk commodities, rail terminals will locate in proximity of the source as they are the main mean for these commodities to be shipped to markets. They also vary in complexity because of the different freight markets they service (e.g. grain, coal, cars, containers) which requires specialized loading/unloading facilities and equipment. Rail freight terminals perform four major functions:

  • Bulk. These rail terminals are linked with extractive industries such as agriculture, mining and wood products. Terminals are generally designed to be commodity specific. For instance, grain elevators are bulk terminals commonly used to store, mix and load grain into railcars. Another important characteristic of bulk rail terminals is their unidirectional flows, implying that they are designed specifically to either load or unload bulk. Rail terminals doing both are uncommon. This is reflective of the nature of bulk trades.
  • Roll on / roll off. Used to transport vehicles such as cars, trucks or construction equipment where the vehicles are rolled in a railcar using a ramp. Such terminals commonly require a large amount of parking space to store vehicles, particularly if they concern cars bound for retail outlets and many serve as storage facilities supplying regional markets.
  • Break bulk. Involves the handling of various cargoes that can be bagged, in drums, rolls or crates. They are commonly related to a specific activity such as a manufacturing plant or a warehouse handling break-bulk cargo and serviced by dedicated rail spurs. Containerization has reduced the need for break bulk terminals.
  • Intermodal. The function of loading and unloading unitized freight from railcars. Containerization has greatly expanded the intermodal productivity of rail terminals since it permits quick loading and unloading sequences, but at the expense of more trackside space available. Depending on the type of operation, specific intermodal equipment will be used. Intermodal terminal can be part of a port facility (on-dock or near-dock facilities) or being a stand alone inland terminal.
  • Shunting. The function of assembling, sorting and breaking of freight trains. Since trains can be composed of up to about 100 railcars (even more in North America), often of various nature, origin and destination, shunting can be a complex task performed on several occasions. Comparatively, unit trains which carry the same commodity, such as coal, cars or containers, require little shunting. Bailey yard in North Platte Nebraska, operated by Union Pacific, is the largest classification yard in the world and handles 10,000 railcars per day. Shunting also takes place for passenger trains, but less common since once a passenger train has been assembled, it will remain as such a period of time.

The first forms of intermodal application to rail appeared in the late 19th century with practices dubbed “circus trains” because lorries were rolled in on flatcars using a ramp, a practice that was pioneered by circuses (Barnum in 1872). This simple ramp-based technique enabled many rail terminals to become “intermodal” by offering “piggy back” services. By the end of the 20th century many of the industries around rail freight yards had relocated or disappeared, and in many cities these former industrial parks have been targets of urban revitalization. At the same time, new intermodal practices emerged, notably lifting trailers or containers directly onto a flatcar. However, this required capital investments in intermodal equipment as well as paved terminal surfaces for storage. Only terminals with sufficient size and volume could be profitable. This has been accompanied by closure of some of the rail yards, either because they were too small for contemporary operating activities, or because a reduction of the local traffic base. In spite of a growth of intermodal traffic, the number of intermodal terminals declined, each covering an extensive market area of about one day of trucking. This led to an extensive network of large intermodal terminals.

In North America and Europe many older rail freight yards have been converted into intermodal facilities because of the burgeoning traffic involving containers and road trailers, a process which started in the 1960s. The ideal configuration for these terminals is different from the typical general freight facility with their need for multiple spurs to permit the assembling of wagons to form train blocks. The loading and unloading of wagons tended to be a manual process, often taking days, tying up terminal rail capacity. Retrofitting conventional rail yards for contemporary intermodal operations proved problematic. Intermodal trains tend to serve a more limited number of cities and are more likely to be dedicated to one destination. They offer the notable advantage of being able to be quickly loaded or unloaded, thus tying up less terminal rail capacity. They however  need fewer but longer rail spurs. The configuration typically requires a site over three kilometers in length and over 100 hectares in area. In addition, good access to the highway system is a requisite as well as a degree of automation to handle the transshipment demands of modern intermodal rail operations.

One of the important growth factor of rail transportation has been its closer integration with maritime shipping. This is particularly the case at port terminals with new on-dock container rail facilities. The term “on-dock” can itself be a misleading since a direct ship-to-rail transshipment actually rarely takes place. A dray carries the container from alongside the ship to alongside the rail track (and vice versa), but frequently the containers are brought back and forth from a stack. Transloading, the practice of transferring loads between truck and rail transportation, has also experienced a remarkable growth in recent years. Various forms of bundling are possible, from the usage of direct trains (terminal to terminal) to a hub and spoke distribution requiring intermediary terminals. As long distance trucking is getting increasingly expensive due to growing energy costs, congestion and labor availability, many shippers see the advantages of using rail transportation to a location in the vicinity of their markets. At this location, freight loads are broken down into LTL and then shipped by short distance trucks to their final destinations.

Former rail terminals and port sites have been among the most important redevelopment areas in most major urban centers. The redevelopment of old port sites, because of their scale (very large), location (adjacent to downtown), and sites (waterfront), have been at the forefront of the process. Their renovation has had a major influence on the surrounding regions. Many cities have experienced significant benefits from waterfront redevelopment in downtown revitalization and economic revival. Similar experiences have occurred in the United States (Boston, New York, Baltimore, San Francisco, Seattle), and Europe (London, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Rotterdam).

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