The three main structuring effects of rail terminals involve adjacency, accessibility and network effects:
- Adjacency. A structuring effect where land uses directly adjacent or in close proximity to a rail terminal are strongly influenced (and influences) by the nature and the level of terminal traffic. In sufficient quantity, they form a cluster. For passenger terminals, activities such as hotels, retail outlets, restaurants and offices are usually in close proximity with a good share of their function attributed to the presence of the terminal. New passenger terminal developments, particularly high speed rail stations, offer the opportunity to establish office parks, including hotels, large surface retail and convention centers. Still, these developments often take place not particularly because of the presence of a high speed station, but because of land availability and road connectivity. For freight terminals, the adjacency effect is also significant and has been observed since the setting of rail systems in the late 19th and early 20th century. Due to their ponderous nature, the storage of several commodities takes place directly adjacent to rail terminals, particularly dedicated single use facilities. Heavy industries such as steel, chemical and cement plants commonly have rail spurs servicing their heavy inputs and outputs. A more recent form of development concerns the setting of large logistics zones that are co-located with intermodal terminals. This mostly takes place in suburban or exurban sites.
- Accessibility. A structuring effect where the users of a terminal are impacted by a distance decay function which is related to their intensity and frequency of use. The more reliant the user is on the rail terminal the more likely sites with high accessibility to the facility will be preferred. This effect is generally small as most passengers do not use rail regularly, so as long as the rail terminal is accessible through road or public transit systems, it is said to be reaching a user base. Freight terminals have their own customer base accessible through a drayage distance, which is usually lower than a day (about 400 km). The significance of the drayage distance is related to the frequency and intensity of rail use and the relative transport cost in relation to the cargo value.
- Network. A structuring effect where a set of interconnected rail terminals are supporting the specialization and interdependency of locations. For passengers, the network is a reflection of a regional urban system with increasing intercity commercial and social interactions. While this effect has endured in Europe, India, China and Japan, it has ceased to be relevant in North America with the exception of the Northeast. Yet, high speed rail systems are permitting the setting of new network effects with increasing interaction levels between cities along the corridors they service, with some terminals such as Brussels becoming hubs and thus reflecting and coordinating a new urban hierarchy. For freight, the conventional networking effect of commodities that has supported the interactions between agricultural, mining, energy and forest regions and main manufacturing and consumption markets is being expanded by intermodalism. This is particularly the case with the setting of landbridges in North America and inland load center networks across the world. The rail terminal becomes an element of a transport chain that can be global in reach. In Europe where intermodal rail played a marginal role until recently, an emerging network effect is being observed with the setting of rail shuttle services between ports and inland terminals.