European Intermodal 2

European Intermodal 2

ISO containers in Europe

Revised repost with pictures 

By Ernest H. Robl

We’ve all seen intermodal containers.  You cannot help but see them traveling on major highways, on most main rail lines, and, if you live near a major port or river, on ships and barges.

Containers that meet certain specifications set by the International Standards Organization (ISO) are the backbone of international trade – and are also increasingly used in domestic transportation.

Today there are millions of ISO containers in use around the world.  Even military services rely heavily on the use of containers for movement of supplies.

The U.S. Army and Marines even have their own container handling equipment in the form of “rough terrain” container handlers (a variant of the widely used Kalmar ReachStacker family of machines) at bases around the world, including Europe.  These container handlers can be collapsed enough to be transported on larger cargo aircraft and will even fit on beach landing craft.

The same but different

While some of the same containers can be found on various continents, moving between them on huge specially-built ships, how they are handled by railroads in the U.S. and Europe is somewhat different.  So, that’s the focus of this installment – the use of ISO containers in Europe and how railroads fit into the picture.


Looking like prehistoric monsters or oversized insects ready to pounce, a pair of Kalmar ContChamp reachstacker container handlers await their next assignment at an Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) intermodal terminal at Hall in Tirol, Austria. Clearly visible on the spreader units are the twist locks which are used to lock onto the tops of containers.

  Most model manufacturers offer a variety of models of intermodal railcars and containers.  And, unless you are modeling very early railroading or only an obscure branch line, some intermodal traffic should fit into your layout.


But, let’s step back a minute and look at context.  When did ISO containers come into widespread use?  In the late 1960s and early 1970s – coinciding with the beginning of modeling era IV.

Initially, containers were loaded on any available compatible railcar, including gondolas and flatcars, with the latter sometimes having improvised equipment for securing the containers.  However, by the late 1970s, most containers on European railroads were moving on purpose-built intermodal cars (many of which were also capable of carrying highway trailers of swap bodies, or, if they had a solid deck, could also be used as general-purpose flatcars).

Today about the only containers you would find in or on non-intermodal railcars are containers used primarily for storage of railroad supplies and equipment.  In these cases, the containers were simply added to an existing car to provide a convenient and secure enclosure for the supplies and equipment.

Container sizes

As containerized transport increased in transport, so did the number of container sizes.  At one time, there were more than dozen different container sizes used in international trade – and that’s not counting the variations within a given size such as ventilated or not ventilated, equipped with side doors, etc.

But that multitude of sizes quickly became problematic, both for management of the inventories of container companies and ocean carriers.  In the latter cases, ships had to be equipped with spaces for each size of container – which could not always be used efficiently if there weren’t enough of those containers being shipped.

So, in recent years, the number of container sizes has been drastically cut back.  20- and 40-foot containers were among the first sizes used and today are by far the predominant specifications.  28- and 48-foot containers are still used to some degree, including in Europe.  53-foot containers are widely used domestically in the U.S., but I am not aware of any major use of these in the Europe.

For each length, containers also come in two standard heights: Standard containers are 8.5 feet tall; so-called “high-cube” containers are 9.5 feet tall.

Not metric

By the way, as the container standards were developed in the U.S., they are designated in foot-length sizes around the world, even in countries that are otherwise metric.

Therefore, you will even find European intermodal railcars referred to by their ability to carry various foot lengths of containers.  These are of course nominal sizes, with the actual frame size of the railcar and its total length over buffers somewhat larger.


A general rule for the loading and types of cargoes carried in containers is that heavy high-density goods go in smaller containers; low-density lighter goods go in larger containers.

Because of their weight when loaded, tank containers usually come only in 20- and 28-foot lengths.


The large portal container crane at the intermodal terminal at Munich-Riem, Germany, is temporarily idle during the slow time between Christmas and New Year.  But a just arrived intermodal train with swap bodies, containers, and trailers is waiting to be unloaded.

 Container ownership

As with freight railcars, containers can be owned by several different entities.

  • The industry that ships its products in them.  (That allows the industry that owns them to paint them in its own paint scheme, to install special inteiror fittings, and to use them for long-term storage without having to pay demurrage penalties.
  • A railroad
  • A container leasing company, providing the container for either one-time use or under a long-term lease to a company that doesn’t want to own its own containers..
  • An ocean carrier functioning as an intermodal service provider.

The big differences

Most model railroaders focusing on European trains are aware that in Europe ISO containers cannot be double-stacked on railcars due to clearance issues.

One exception to that is that in Europe, some shippers use very low-height (about three feet) containers for compressed gas cylinders.  These can be stacked as much as three-high and still fit on lines that can also accommodate a single high-cube container.

But, another major difference is that in Europe, intermodal is much more of a retail operation than in the U.S.  What I mean by that is that in the U.S., Intermodal trains run from one terminal (including ports) to another.  All delivery to retail customers is via drayage (road movement) from the destination intermodal terminal.

I am not aware of any situations in the U.S., where a railroad will deliver a single intermodal car to a customer’s siding – though that doesn’t mean this couldn’t happen, if the customer was willing to pay the right amount of money.

The only exception I know of are military bases, but these can even be considered “intermodal terminals” in their own right.

On the other hand, in Europe, while there are also unit intermodal trains that only run between terminals, most railroads are also perfectly happy to spot an intermodal car at a customer’s facility for loading or unloading.

Several factors contribute to this difference:

  • Containers with side doors (in addition to end doors) are far more common in Europe, allowing these containers to be loaded or unloaded at a standard industry loading dock via bridge plates that allow forklifts to drive into the containers while they are still on railcars.
  • Postal services in several countries use side-door containers which allow these containers to be loaded or unloaded at the tracks of major post offices.  (These post offices are often located in the proximity of major passenger stations.)  Package services such as DHL also use side-door containers.
  • Tank containers are far more common in Europe than in the U.S.  (Tank containers that I have seen on intermodal trains in the U.S. have usually originated outside the U.S.)  Once appropriate hoses are hooked up to these tank containers, they can, of course, be loaded or unloaded while still on a railcar.
  • Intermodal cars in Europe are much smaller, making it possible to move a car with one or two containers to a particular industrial facility.  Some large industries may even have equipment capable of lifting containers onto and off railcars.

European container cars

That gets us to the variety of European railcars capable carrying containers:

  • 40-foot 2-axle car capable of carrying
    • two 20-foot containers (or swap-bodies)
    • one 28-foot container (or swap body)
    • one 40-foot container (or swap body)
  • 40-foot 4-axle (bogie) car capable of carrying
    • two 20-foot containers (or swap-bodies)
    • one 28-foot container (or swap body)
    • one 40-foot container (or swap body)
  • 60-foot 4-axle (bogie) car capable of carrying
    • three 20-foot containers (or swap bodies)
    • two 28-foot containers (or swap bodies)
    • one 40-foot container (or swap body)
    • one 48-foot container (or swap body)

Two-platform articulated cars usually consist of two 60-foot platforms joined by a common truck (bogie) in the middle.  Each platform is capable of carrying the same loads as listed for 60-foot cars above.

So-called pocket cars (usually either 60-foot stand-alone cars or articulated cars with two 60-foot platforms, are also capable of carrying highway semi-trailers.  The pocked is a lower section into which the wheels of the trailer fit, allowing it to fit within railroad clearances.

Good news for modelers

The good news for modelers is that as with the prototype, model container and railcar fittings have largely been standardized.  Therefore containers (bought with or without a railcar) from one manufacturer will also fit onto the container railcars of other manufacturers.


Roco HO scale model of an articulated intermodal car.  Each of the platforms is carrying one 40-ft. container.  The car belongs to a private intermodal operator, while the ocean containers could be appropriate anywhere within Europe.  Because of the articulated design, this long intermodal car can still negotiate fairly tight curves on a layout.  (Roco catalog illustration; model scheduled for 2015.)

 If you want a particular container railcar, but it only comes with containers that either you don’t like or which don’t fit with your layout, you can always remove those containers, paint them another color, and use them as storage facilities at an industry or construction site.

Early model intermodal car and container combinations often had the problem that they were all plastic and therefore too light, causing train handling problems on layouts.  Many current model container cars have all-metal bodies, giving them much better handling characteristics even when empty.

For some of the early container cars, you can remove the containers, carefully pry them apart, and then add metal weights within the containers.

As even some smaller European stations have intermodal tracks, you can model such operations without having to devote space to a major intermodal terminal.

And, as noted above, intermodal cars with containers are sometimes delivered directly to industries for loading and unloading at those sites.  You do not even have to have containers with side doors for this.

In one particular case that I saw from a passing train, two 20-foot containers had been placed on the ends of a 60-foot container car  with a wooden deck.  The containers had the doors facing toward the center.

The industry, which I presume was shipping goods for export overseas, had put down bridge plates from its loading dock onto the center deck of railcar and from the deck of the railcar into the containers.  Forklifts were driving pallets directly into the containers from the factory warehouse.

For small intermodal terminals at railyards, Kibri makes excellent kits of Kalmar side-loading container handlers very similar to the model depicted at the top of this article.

Bad news for modelers

While several model manufacturers have produced working container cranes, none have been particularly successful.  Problems include not only being able to securely lock onto the containers to lift them, but also the extreme precision needed to place containers securely onto a railcar or road chassis.

But, such portal container cranes would only be found at very large container facilities, which would take up a large amount of space on a layout.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>