This section aims to outline some of the commonly-used terms in the rail freight industry.

Control Period (CP)

Network Rail conducts its financial and infrastructure investment plans in five-year cycles known as ‘Control Periods’. Each CP starts on the 1st April, with the cycles being:
CP4: April 2009 – March 2014
CP5: April 2014 – March 2019, etc


A dynamic signalling system which provides in-cab instructions to a train driver, allowing more trains to run on the network with even greater levels of safety and cost efficiencies.

Freight Facilities Grant (FFG)

Available in Wales and Scotland to assist with the cost of constructing new rail freight handling facilities. Applications are made by developers to the relevant departments in Wales and Scotland.

Freight Operating Company (FOC):

Licenced companies who operate trains on the railway network, under license from the ORR. Most FOCs have multiple divisions which serve different freight markets. The current FOCs are listed and further information on each is provided in the Operators section.

Intermodal / Multimodal

Intermodal simply means a unitised load which is (capable of) being transported on more than one mode of transport without direct handling of the goods themselves. Multimodal is more commonly used to describe a supply chain which uses more than one mode of transport (i.e. ship and rail), although the two terms are interchangeable.  In UK rail, intermodal is used to describe those trains conveying unitised loads, either from ports or between terminals.

ISO Containers / Shipping Containers

A standardised steel container which is stackable, secure and reusable. Containers are most commonly 20-ft or 40-ft long, and 8ft 6in or 9ft 6in high (and 8ft wide). The UK railway’s loading gauge has been enhanced on key routes to accommodate the 9ft 6in high variant, and specialist low-lying wagons allow movement where the smaller gauge persists. A variety of handling equipment exists to facilitate the transfer of containers from one mode to another. The image below shows two containers in succession; an 8ft 6in followed by a 9ft 6in container. (See also: TEU, Loading Gauge)

Loading Gauge / Gauge Clearance:

Loading Gauge refers to the maximum physical dimensions of railway vehicles that are able to be transported on the network. Constraints are created by tunnels, bridges, etc. Gauge Clearance is the work undertaken to increase the maximum dimensions by, for example, lowering the trackbed. The current target is to have a network cleared to W10 gauge, which allows the passage of 9ft 6in ‘hi-cube’ ISO containers on a standard wagon.

Logistics Service Provider

Also known as a third-party logistics provider (3PL). A company which specialises in providing logistics services for its customers, typically involving the whole logistics chain (e.g. storage, despatch and transportation). LSPs typically retain control over the choice of transport mode (and in some cases, the location of storage and distribution facilities).

LTL/ FTL: Less-than trainload / Full-Trainload

Rail freight delivers maximum cost-efficiency when running at 100% utilisation. This is achieved by running a locomotive with as many value-generating wagons as possible, within the constraints of maximum train weight and length (which are variable, depending on the type of locomotive, gradient of route, etc.). This is known as full trainload operation, and it is the goal of each operator to achieve FTL. LTL is commonly used as a reference to freight volumes that will not themselves fully utilise a train. It therefore becomes the goal of logistics operators and FOCs to consolidate these loads where possible.

Mode Shift Revenue Support (MSRS)

A government grant which ‘assists companies with the operating costs associated with running rail…instead of road (where rail/inland waterways are more expensive than road)’ (DfT Guide to MSRS)

ORR / The Office of Rail and Road

The independent regulator of the UK’s railways: Its key roles are the economic regulation of Network Rail, approving access application, overseeing access charges, and acting as the Competition and Safety authorities for the UK network.

Rail Freight Interchange

Rail freight interchanges enable freight to be transferred between transport modes. (See also: Strategic Rail Freight Interchange)

Strategic Freight Network (SFN)

A DfT and industry initiative to providing funding to Network Rail for investment in infrastructure, with a focus on creating a wide-ranging rail freight network (supported by over £400m of funding since 2008). These developments include gauge clearance, passing loop lengthening, capacity enhancements at bottlenecks and so on.

Strategic Rail Freight Interchange

A Rail Freight Interchange that meets the design requirements defined in the DfT’s Strategic Rail Freight Interchange Policy Guidance. A larger site footprint and co-located storage & distribution facilities are prominent features.

TAC: Track Access Charge

FOCs pay Network Rail a set charge for running a train on the railway, based on the type and weight of the locomotive, wagon and freight carried. This charge is intended to reflect the impact of the individual train on the infrastructure, and is set by the ORR (in consultation with stakeholders) in line with Network Rail Control Periods. The current charges can be found here.

Unitised Load

Combining a volume of goods into a single unit for movement (e.g. 25 Euro-pallets can be put into a single 40-ft container).

TEU: Twenty-foot equivalent units

An inexact unit of measuring cargo capacity, based on a reference of a twenty-foot long ISO container. Containers of 20ft (1 TEU) and 40ft (2 TEU) are most common on the UK network, and many intermodal wagons are capable of carrying both in combination. (See also: ISO Container)