European Intermodal 1

European Intermodal 1

Swap bodies and RoLa

By Ernest H. Robl

Reposting with pictures



A Kalmar ContChamp reachstacker maneuvers with a P&O container after having lifted it from a chassis trailer at an Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) intermodal terminal at Hall in Tirol, Austria. These Swedish-built Kalmar units are among the newest container handling equipment available.

There are five major types of intermodal operations that can or could be found on European railroads:

  • Containers on railcars: (abbreviated industry-wide as COFC, for containers on flatcars, though most container railcars carrying containers today aren’t really flatcars, but purpose-built intermodal cars). These containers conform to international standards and therefore can be moved not only by rail but also by highway and on ships (and barges) in most parts of the world.
  • Trailers on railcars: (again, abbreviated TOFC in the industry, though most trailer-carrying cars are not really flatcars). Many intermodal railcars can carry either containers or trailers.
  • RoadRailer operations: In this American-developed concept, specially built highway trailers can be coupled into trains after the addition railroad wheels. A German company tried this operation in the early 2000s, running RoadRailer trains between Germany and Italy. The company was not successful – though it’s difficult to say what factor or factors led to its demise. (Roco at one time thought RoadRailer operations were the next big thing and for several years produced HO models a variety of RoadRailer units.) RoadRailer trains still operate in the U.S.
  • Swap bodies: These are a lighter-weight version of containers that can usually be carried on the same railcars as containers. (The main differences between containers and swap bodies are described below.)
  • Rolling Highway (RoLa): This is a European concept where the entire tractor-trailer unit is moved by rail and the drivers ride along in a passenger car that is included in the train.

Today, we’ll look at the last two concepts, because they are mostly unique to Europe, and therefore less familiar to Americans. What follows is mostly adapted from my (out-of-print) book, Understanding Intermodal.

Swap bodies

Swap bodies, extremely popular in intermodal service in Europe and some other parts of the world, have many of the characteristics of intermodal containers but are not true ISO containers. Swap bodies are in effect half-containers, with a strong bottom that allows them to be transferred from road to rail mode, but only a minimal upper body. In fact, they may be entirely open on top. They have bottom fittings that allow them to be locked onto either a road chassis or a railcar.



A Kalmar ContChamp reachstacker maneuvers with a truck swap body after having lifted it from a chassis trailer at an Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) intermodal terminal at Bludenz, Austria. Swap bodies are can be carried by road or rail like ISO containers. However, they cannot be stacked on top of each other or lifted from the top. In this case, the swap body has only a light metal framework on top with a tarp cover. The foldable arms of the stacker’s spreader, used to bottom-lift the swap body, are clearly evident. These arms are not needed for lifting ISO containers.

With their minimal upper structure, swap bodies cannot be stacked. They can also only be bottom-lifted, using extendable arms on the spreaders of container handling equipment.

Swap bodies should not be confused with flat racks. Flat racks, while open on top, normally have strong end sections, which allow them to be top-lifted and to be stacked with other containers. Swap bodies have no such end structures.

Often, swap bodies have only a minimal upper metal structure used to support a canvas tarp covering.

Why swap-bodies in Europe?

Why are swap bodies so popular in Europe? In part because their lighter construction gives them a much lower tare weight—an important factor for truckers operating on steep mountain roads or over bridges not rated for extra heavy loads.

Why have swap bodies not caught on in North America? In part, this is a chicken-or-egg type situation.

North American semi trailers developed with somewhat different characteristics from those in Europe. There are no absolute reasons why swap bodies could not be used.

North American curtain-side trailers—those not fully enclosed, but rather using canvas sides—are relatively rare and are typically used only in specialized fleets carrying only goods that need some type of weather protection but are not likely to be subject to pilferage.

Fully enclosed trailers are more versatile, in that they can carry a wider range of goods, while still providing more security than a curtain-side trailer.

Weight limitations are typically not as much of a factor in North America.

While there are no real impediments to using swap bodies, no American truck fleet owner has invested in this type of equipment. If one did, it would introduce an additional type of equipment—beyond the many variations of trailers and containers—that would need to be managed.

As swap bodies cannot be stacked, either in transit or at terminals, they take up more space. American railroads would likely have little enthusiasm for hauling swap-bodies, as, due to their lack of stacking ability, they would not lead to efficient use of train space. (With container stacking not possible on European railroads due to clearance restrictions, that’s not a factor in Europe.) However, any existing American equipment able to bottom-lift trailers would also be able to bottom-lift swap bodies.

In effect, swap bodies were and continue to be the domestic containers of Europe. In part they predate the widespread use of ISO containers, and, in some applications, standard containers are now replacing swap bodies.

European clearances

Mostly, however, swap-bodies started out as a response to Europe’s much tighter railroad clearances.

Early railroad development in Europe slightly predated that development in the U.S., and some of those early standards have persisted throughout the years. Two main factors affect those clearances:

  • Many of central Europe’s railroad lines not only have tunnels but some of those tunnels are several miles long, providing key portals through Alpine ranges. These tunnels were often built in the late 19th or very early 20th century.
  • Most European railroad lines are electrified. Alpine countries with relatively few oil or coal deposits decided early on that it was better to use abundant hydroelectric power to move their trains than to import fossil fuels from elsewhere.

As highway trucks and trailers became bigger and bigger with technological improvements, particularly after World War II, when many of Europe’s war-damaged highways were completely rebuilt and many new high-capacity highways were built from scratch, the railroads had no easy way to accommodate those larger trailers. They would not fit under the existing wires and through the existing tunnels. And, with the well-developed rail networks, going back and re-working all the infrastructure was simply impossible.

But, if you only took the part of the trailer above the wheels by rail, you automatically reduced the amount of clearance required by several feet—and you could now carry most modern trailer loads by rail.

For that same reason, ISO containers do fit European railroad clearances, though they cannot be double-stacked, as is done in North America.

 Rolling highway (RoLa)

“Rolling highway” is a concept that is found most widely in the German-speaking countries of Europe (though these trains also reach into Italy and several former East Bloc countries). Therefore these trains are most frequently referred to by an acronym based on their German name, Rollende Landstrasse or RoLa.

Unlike the North American trailer on flatcar (TOFC) form of intermodal, where only the trailer is moved between terminals, RoLa carries both the trailer and tractor on special low-level flatcars. The special low-level railroad rolling stock is required because of the limited clearances of European railroad lines and the need to make the loaded cars fit safely under the electric catenary used on most European mainlines.


Loading of a “Rolling Highway” (Rollende Landstrasse in German or RoLa for short) intermodal train at Brennersee, Austria. These intermodal trains carry tractor-trailer combinations from the Austro-Italian border to a suburb of Munich, allowing the drivers to take a break. The drivers travel in a special passenger car on the train that includes vending machines and other amenities.

RoLa trains carry a passenger coach for the truck drivers, who drive their own rigs onto the RoLa trains via an end loading ramp (and off again via a similar ramp at the other end). Amenities in the coach vary from route to route, depending on the length of the run, but usually include at least reclining seats and snack vending machines. In some cases the passenger car has shower facilities and bunks.


RoLa offers a particular advantage to shippers and carriers of time-sensitive goods moving over substantial distances. Many of the tractor-trailer combinations that move on these trains are from companies that own their own fleets of trucks and are moving goods between factories or from factories to distribution centers.

However, freight forwarders who handle their own long-distance trucking, more prominent in Europe than in North America, are also major users of these trains. Cargo can range from bulk furniture loads to virtually all types of industrial goods, including powdered bulk and liquid loads.

In each of these cases, a single driver (or sometimes a team of drivers) remains in charge of a shipment from origin to destination, even when the move is over distances that are normally too long to be handled by a single driver without intervening rest.

These trains allow the shippers and carriers (often the same entity) to bypass congested highways, particularly in difficult mountain terrain, where weather may be a problem much of the year.

For example, a driver will depart from a factory in northern Italy and drive just over the Austrian border to a RoLa terminal, where he will put his rig onto a RoLa train. (Truckers in these lanes can reserve space on trains, which operate on intervals as frequently as every two hours during some parts of the day. Other trucks are taken on a first-come basis.)

If the trucker has timed his arrival well, the train will depart less than an hour after his arrival at the terminal. From there to Munich, Germany, about four hours away by train, the driver has a chance to relax, eat, read, and even nap.

On arrival at the RoLa terminal in Munich, the driver takes his rig off the train and on to its destination in Germany. The trip by train allowed him to bypass the difficult descent from the Italian border into Innsbruck, Austria, and the climb back up over another Alpine range into Germany.


A primary disadvantage is that clearance problems still eliminate the tallest of tractors on these routes, even with the extra-low railcars.

Also, the railcars themselves also present problems. The cars typically have eight to ten axles with wheels that are only half the height of typical freight car wheels. These smaller wheels and the lack of space for extensive suspension gear mean that the railroads have to be particularly careful in handling this equipment.

While fully loaded trains usually handle fine on well-maintained mainline tracks, RoLa trains have to operate at extra slow speeds through sharp turnouts in yards.

Empty RoLa cars are a particular problem, as they are far more prone to derail. Empty cars always need to be at the end of a train. And, if the train has such empty cars, it cannot use pusher locomotives, typically assigned to heavy freights on mountain grades.

RoLa railcars

Because of their low level, RoLa cars have special low-level couplings. Only the end cars of the entire train have standard buffer beams and standard European coupling equipment.

The buffer beam is mounted on a hinge, so that it can be swung aside for loading and unloading, which is done with a rubber-tired ramp which is wheeled into place.

Terminals are relatively simple, requiring only a short stretch of track set into concrete (like streetcar tracks), allowing the trucks to drive up or down the access ramp.

All RoLa cars carry the special low-level couplings—and the hardware for mounting the end buffer beam. So, no special cars are needed for the end of the train. The end buffer beam is mounted using hinge hardware on both sides of the car. Pulling out the hinge pin on either side allows the buffer beam to be swung to the side for loading and unloading.

If the end car needs to be taken out of service or the length of the train changed, the buffer beam can be moved, with the help of a heavy-duty forklift, by pulling both hinge pins.

 Modeling implications

Several manufacturers offer models of intermodal railcars with swap bodies (called Wechselpritschen in German). As noted above, the same railcars that carry containers or trailers can usually also carry swap-bodies. For an articulated two-platform intermodal car, one platform can carry standard intermodal containers, the other swap bodies.

If you model an intermodal terminal that handles both containers and swap bodies (and possibly also highway semi trailers) you need container equipment that has the extendable arms that can reach under the swap bodies or trailers to lift them that way. Kibri offers such a model of a Kalmar Reachstacker, as well as other Kalmar models that only have the fittings for top lifting containers.

RoLa cars are also available from several manufacturers. The same concerns that apply to the operation of the prototype cars also apply to models. Because of the small wheels and light weight of the cars, you need extremely good track. Backup moves, particularly through switches are not advised. It is also not advised to run these cars empty. (They are usually already sold with a tractor-trailer load.) If you use RoLa cars from different manufacturers, be sure the low-level couplings are compatible, as these are not as standardized as normal couplings. You may need to do some work to get these cars to work together. (HO is the smallest practical scale for RoLa, as, in other scales, the wheels of the cars are so tiny that they would present even more problems.)

Unlike the prototype, where any RoLa car can be converted to an end car with the addition of the buffer beam, only models that are sold as end cars will have the NEM coupler pocket allowing these cars to couple to an engine or coach.

Several model manufacturers also offer the specially painted coaches that are used for the drivers on these trains.

If your RoLa train crosses borders between countries that have different electrical systems, you need to use a multi-system electric locomotive, as these trains run through without changing locomotives at borders. Speed is an important part of this service.







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