What is a Spedition?

What is a Spedition?

By Ernest H. Robl

If you have an interest in relatively modern European railroading — Eras IV-VI — you will find mention in model manufacturers’ catalogs of railcars, containers, swap-bodies, and highway tractor-trailer units painted or lettered for a specific “Spedition.”

Someone recently asked me what that was. An equivalent English term is “expediter,” but the more common term is freight forwarder. Well, a Spedition is somewhat the equivalent of an American freight forwarder. Another description would be “freight logistics company.”

So, what, you may ask, is a freight forwarder?

A freight forwarder is a travel agent for freight.

Let me give you an example. If you want to travel from Chicago to a small town in Germany, but don’t want to have to do a lot of research on which airlines to use, what intermediate airports to connect through, and what would be the best airport in Germany to fly into, you can just go to a travel agent. For a fee – either paid by you directly, from commissions on sold tickets, or a combination of the two —your travel agent will figure out your itinerary, based on your travel preference. And, he or she will then book your travel arrangements for you.

The same is true for freight. If you want to ship a case of self-sealing stem bolts from Chicago to a wholesaler in Germany, you could spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to best ship that product to its destination. Or, you could call a freight forwarder. That forwarder will get the product to its destination for you, without you having to contact various carriers. The forwarder will also work with you to prepare necessary shipping documentation such as waybills and customs declarations.


This Roco catalog photo – announcing a new model — shows prototype trailers of the Danish logistics firm (Spedition) Lauritzen on an intermodal train in central Europe. (See more information about Lauritzen below.)

Again, based on your preferences and instructions, the forwarder will choose between air freight and surface freight and will arrange to have the shipment picked up at your point of origin. This will cost you a fee, but in the long run, it may actually save you both time and money, particularly if overseas shipping is not something you do all the time.


Freight forwarders exist all around the world, but function slightly differently in different countries.

Probably the major difference between forwarders in the U.S. and Europe is that in Europe, these forwarders own far more transportation assets than do the typical forwarders in the U.S.

A typical American forwarder may own a few trucks to get your items to the first long-distance carrier or to deliver inbound shipments, but, for the forwarder, the emphasis is on logistics, not transportation.

So, what is the difference between logistics and transportation. Logistics is figuring out how to move something; transportation is actually moving it.

But, all over the world, the lines between logistics and transportation companies are becoming more and more blurred.

Particularly in the pre-internet age, where transportation documentation was in paper, rather than electronic form, it made ense to specialize on a particular market segment – and, in some cases, there were legal restrictions that kept a company from operating in multiple market segments.

The shipping unit

Freight forwarders are also sometimes described as freight consolidators.

To examine that role, we need to consider another important concept in transportation and logistics, the shipping unit.

Typically, that term is used to describe the smallest unit that a transportation company is willing to move by itself.

For example, for either the United States Postal Service or such companies as UPS or FedEx, the shipping unit is a small package. Most companies will gladly accept larger shipping units as well.

For a modern railroad, for example, the shipping unit is a railcar, intermodal container, or (in Europe) intermodal swap-body. Railroads used to handle express goods in LCL (less-than car-lot) quantities, but in most of the world, they no longer do.

Of course, railroads will also gladly handle an entire unit train for you, with the unit train also being a shipping unit.

But, that doesn’t mean that your small package may not travel part of the way by rail. But, that movement is inside of a container, trailer, or swap-body that is being moved by rail by another entity.

Transportation companies not only sell services to customers; they also sell transportation services to each other.

So, a freight forwarder at one location will collect enough small shipments all going to the same general part of the world to fill a container (or an intermodal trailer, if all movement is by land). That forwarder will then buy transportation services from an intermodal company to move that container to the destination area. There, the container’s contents will be broken back down into individual shipments and delivered to their destinations, usually by small truck.

The larger freight forwarders or logistics companies will have facilities in most major countries, but even smaller forwarders can take advantage of shipment consolidation. An American freight forwarder that does not have its own offices and terminals in Europe will simply contract with a European freight forwarder to handle the consolidated shipments at the other end.

That same American forwarder will also receive consolidated shipments from forwarders in other parts of the world and break down and deliver those shipments.


Many freight forwarders still specialize in handling particular commodities – because handling and transporting these commodities requires particular expertise.


Rinnen is a European logistics company specializing in the transport of liquid chemicals. This catalog illustration shows a Kato Hobbytrain Lemke HO model of a Rinnen tank container on an intermodal car. Note that due to the extreme weight of the tank container (compared to box containers of a similar size) the container is carried by itself on an intermodal car otherwise capable of carrying more containers or larger containers.

In Europe, for example, there are several large firms that focus on the transport of liquid chemicals. These firms not only have tanker trucks and semi-trailers; they also have large inventories of intermodal tank containers that can be moved by both road and rail.


Some of these logistics companies date back a century, initially providing door to door trucking services for their clients. However, the evolution of rail intermodal services showed that in most cases it was simpler to handle long hauls by rail with only the short hauls at either end being made by road.

This allowed the companies to get away from having long-haul drivers who would be away from their home base (and often in an unfamiliar country with a different language) for days at a time. It also allowed these concerns to cut down on the number of highway tractors that they needed – and to restrict these to short-haul cabs without extensive accommodations for drivers.

Example: Lauritzen

Lauritzen is a Danish logistics concern that specializes in transportation between Scandinavia and Italy. (It also has a terminal in Spain.)

It transports a variety of goods between the Mediterranean countries and the North Sea countries, with an emphasis on food: Refrigerated Scandinavian seafood south and refrigerated fruits and vegetables north.


Roco catalog illustration of an HO model of a Lauritzen refrigerated jumbo trailer on an intermodal car. (Notice the front mounted — “nose hung” in industry parlance — cooling unit.) The company’s distinctive logo is hard to miss. Lauritzen refrigerated trailers are white.

The company also handles non-temperature sensitive goods of all types, including furniture and machinery.


Roco catalog illustration of an HO model of a Lauritzen dry goods trailer – a canvas-topped (“curtain side” in industry parlance) trailer for the transport of non-temperature-sensitive goods. Note that these trailers are red.

In the above photos, note the vertical markings on the trailer which identify the reinforced lift points on the bottom for the lift arms of the intermodal handling equipment.

Through contracts with other freight forwarders in other European countries, Lauritzen will, of course, also handle shipments to those countries, too.


A few of these freight handling concerns have grown so large that they have their own large terminals where containers, trailers, and swap bodies are transferred from road to rail. And, you may see entire trains chartered by a particular Spedition running between these terminals. In that case, all or almost all loads on these intermodal trains will carry the name of that concern.

Even the smaller freight forwarding companies may still have enough business to account for several consecutive cars within a railroad’s long-distance intermodal train.

Railroad involvement

European railroads have not been oblivious to business opportunities in sectors served by freight forwarders and logistics companies. Some have expanded into these sectors by offering door-to-door services, where the railroad provides the shipper with a trailer, swap body or container – and then delivers it seamlessly to the consignee.

In other cases, with market sectors now less strictly regulated and competition encouraged, the railroads have bought up logistics firms and incorporated them into their service structure. One of the best known examples of this is Schenker, which used to be one of the largest German logistics companies. DB, the German railroad, bought Schenker and today the freight sector of DB is known as DB Schenker.

Some of these firms have a global reach, and you will find DB Schenker offices and terminal in North America and other parts of the world.

Modeling implications

If you model recent railroad operations in any European country, intermodal operations will play a major role. And your intermodal trains should include a substantial number of trailers, swap-bodies, and containers of the major European logistics companies. You’re also likely to see this equipment on roads and highways, particularly around major industrial cities. So, some of these trailers and containers belong on the roads of your layout, too.

Most major model manufacturers provide a large range of intermodal models, including railcars loaded with intermodal equipment of these logistics companies.

Many of these are very eye-catching with the large bright logos of the owning companies. If you spot a model that appeals to you, you can find out more about the company with a simple internet search.

Now, you can tell visitors to your model railroad a little more about the equipment they are looking at.


For related information, you may also want to check out my earlier posts on intermodal operations and on the transportation of hazardous goods.

And, oh yes, I have a Roco model of an intermodal car with a Lauritzen trailer on my want list.


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