6.4 – Rail Terminals

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

Rail terminals are facilities used for the transfer of passengers and freight to other modes of transportation.

1. Location Dynamics

When rail transportation systems emerged in the second half of the 19th century, the importance of rail terminals, including their location, became apparent. Using 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, are less prone to 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 expansion opportunities. Passenger terminals are more compact and tend to occupy central locations, commonly the defining element of urban centrality. Freight terminals have seen a growing separation from central locations, with new facilities often built in an exurban location, including high-speed train stations.
  • Setting. Because of the linear characteristic of their mode, 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. Still, cumulatively the area occupied by all the rail sites in a metropolitan area 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 must be assembled at their origin, switched at intermediary locations (if long-distance hauling is concerned), and broken down at their destination. This is less of an issue for passenger rail, where shunting yards are needed to store, maintain, and assemble passenger rail cars. Shunting remains fundamental to rail operations.

Rail terminals have significant structuring and agglomeration effects that impacted urban land markets since their introduction. This includes related activities, such as retail, restaurants, and hotels for passenger terminals or warehousing and 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 clustered around their respective rail terminals. Entire urban districts emerged around rail terminals as part of emerging urban transit and commuter systems. However, as the trucking industry matured and highway infrastructure expanded and improved, rail terminals lost much 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. As rail passenger traffic declined in the second half of the 20th century, the need for many rail stations diminished, particularly in North America. A rationalization 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. Railyard conversion has been less spectacular, partly because the sites are less interesting from an architectural standpoint. Many former downtown freight facilities have been redeveloped into residential or commercial developments. 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 urban logistics centers.

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

2. Passenger Terminals

Passenger rail terminals tend to be functionally simple facilities. In their most basic form, they include a quay for passengers to embark or disembark and a common area for ticket purchases, waiting, and activities servicing 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 number of passengers they serve. 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 to central rail stations with enclosed facilities with multiple piers and amenities.

Central railway stations are typically in the heart of downtown cores and are 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. The commercial and business activity shift has conferred many with a prominent 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 represent an impressive architectural achievement unmatched by any other type of transportation terminal and occupy a large footprint. While many passenger terminals used to be privately owned by the railways that built and operated them, a large share was transferred into public trusts such as transit agencies.

Notable landmarks include the Grand Central Station in New York, St. Pancras Station in London, the Gare de Lyon in Paris, and the Shinjuku train station in Tokyo, the world’s busiest, with more than 3.5 million people per day. Since many central rail stations handle large amounts of commuters, they 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, the long-distance function has subsided, the imprint of passenger rail terminals on the structure of urban transit systems has endured.

The development of high-speed rail systems has offered new opportunities for rail terminals with the renovation of existing facilities, many of which are central railway stations, or the construction of new facilities in suburban areas. The centrality of rail stations became a positive factor in developing high-speed rail systems as it confers direct accessibility to core business activities. In many cases, the high-speed rail station has become a new nexus of activity with co-located developments 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 connectivity of the high-speed rail network.

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 connect long-distance air travel with regional accessibility. Over specific corridors in France, Spain, Germany, China, South Korea, and Japan, high-speed rail stations effectively compete with national air services, substituting the airport for the rail station. Where high-speed rail services are available, and for destinations of less than 2 hours, an airline can lose up to 90% of its market share. To adapt, air carriers such as Air France and Lufthansa 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) offers ticket and luggage check-in services. Therefore, better integration between passenger rail and air transportation enables the substitution of air travel and the possibility of using 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 centrally located, and because they required a great deal of space for multiple tracks for marshaling, they were more likely located on greenfield sites. Sites adjacent to rail yards attracted manufacturing activities relying on rail distribution capabilities, and many adjacent areas became important industrial zones. When dealing with bulk commodities, rail terminals, and spurs will be close to the source as they are the main means for these commodities to be shipped to markets. They also vary in complexity because of the different freight markets they service (grain, coal, cars, containers), each requiring 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, which reflects the nature of bulk trades.
  • Roll-on / roll-off. Used to transport vehicles such as cars, trucks, or construction equipment where 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. Many serve as storage facilities supplying regional markets.
  • Breakbulk. Involves handling 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 breakbulk terminals.
  • Intermodal. The function of loading and unloading unitized freight from railcars. Containerization has dramatically 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 a stand-alone inland terminal.
  • Shunting. The function of assembling, sorting, and breaking freight trains. Since trains can be composed of up to about 100 railcars (even more in North America), often of various nature, origins, and destinations, shunting can be a complex task performed on several occasions. Comparatively, unit trains that 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 it is less common since once a passenger train has been assembled, it will remain as such for 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 that became widely available in the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century, many industries around rail freight yards had relocated or disappeared. 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 the closure of some rail yards, either because they were too small for contemporary operating activities, or because of a reduction of the local traffic base. As intermodal traffic grew, 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 that 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 assemble 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 challenging. Intermodal trains serve a more limited number of cities and are more likely to be dedicated to one destination. They offer the notable advantage of being 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 long and an area of over 100 hectares. Besides, good access to the highway system is a requisite, as well as a degree of automation to handle the transshipment demands of intermodal rail operations.

One of the important growth factors 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 be misleading since a direct ship-to-rail transshipment rarely occurs. A dray carries the container from alongside the ship to alongside the rail track (and vice versa), but frequently, containers are brought back and forth from a stack. Transloading, the practice of transferring loads between truck and rail transportation, has also experienced remarkable growth. 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 Less-than-Truckloads (LTL) and shipped to their final destinations by short-distance trucks.

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 significant 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).

Related Topics


  • Bertolini, L. and T. Spit (1998) Cities on Rails: The Redevelopment of Railway Station Areas. London: E&FN Spon.
  • Kreutzberger, E. and R. Konings (2013) “The Role of Inland Terminals in Intermodal Transport Development”, in J-P Rodrigue, T. Notteboom and J. Shaw (eds) The Sage Handbook of Transport Studies, London: Sage.
  • Meeks, C.L.V. (2012) The Railroad Station: An Architectural History, New York: Dover Publications.
  • Rodrigue, J-P (2015) “The Structuring Effects of Rail Terminals”, in C. Comtois and B.P.Y. Loo (eds) Sustainable Railway Futures: Issues and Challenges, Transport and Mobility series, London: Ashgate, pp. 23-37.
  • Rodrigue, J-P and T. Notteboom (2012) “Dry Ports in European and North American Intermodal Rail Systems: Two of a Kind?”, Research in Transportation Business & Management, Vol. 5, pp. 4-15.