What is rail freight?

The simple answer is freight carried by trains on the railway network. The services are fast, reliable and cost-effective. They are more environmentally-friendly than road services and reduce congestion and accidents. See Why use rail freight?

A wide range of customers choose rail as the best option for their freight both within the UK and internationally. Products range from whiskey, toys and auto parts to construction materials, biomass and steel coils. See Who uses rail freight?

Services are run by private operators on rail tracks and infrastructure owned and managed by Network Rail, which is a public sector body owned by the UK Government (Department of Transport). See Who operates rail freight?

The rail freight industry directly contributes £870m pa to the UK economy, and supports an economic turnover of £5.9bn. The sector carries £30bn worth of goods per year.

Who do I contact if I am interested in using rail freight services?

You can contact one the rail freight operating companies (See Who operates rail freight?) or one of the logistics companies which manage door-to-door freight services: for instance RFG members the Malcolm Group, Russell Group, Maritime Transport and Stobart Rail. (See Members).

There are two major types of rail freight – intermodal and bulk.


As the name implies, this is freight that is shifted using more than one mode of transport. In this context, it usually means goods carried in standardised 20ft or 40ft long containers which are transported by sea, rail and/or road. In the UK, one in four sea containers arriving or departing from a port is carried by rail. The containers are loaded onto flatbed rail wagons which have been designed to maximise the number of units each train can carry.

Import containers are typically railed to inland freight interchanges and then taken by road to their final destination at a distribution hub /warehouse (sometimes on the same site) where they are stuffed (emptied).

Export containers may come direct from manufacturers or logistics companies which have rail-connected premises, or taken by road to inland freight interchanges where they are lifted onto the rail wagons and then railed the port.

Products include everything from washing powder, confectionery, whisky and toys to auto parts and other components for manufacturers. See Who uses rail freight?

There are also significant movements of containers that do not involve the ports (they are transported from one inland terminal to another). And while 70% of UK rail freight begins or ends in a port, not all of it is containerised.


Bulk products, such as oil & petroleum, coal, grain, gravel, sand and biomass are carried ‘loose’ in specially-designed wagons which make loading and unloading as easy as possible e.g. discharged via doors in the bottom of the wagon as the train moves over a pit.

Breakbulk – is neither containerised nor bulk, although some products could be carried in containers. This ranges from steel coils to cars to concrete slabs and can be carried on flatbed rail wagons or in more traditional freight wagons.

Freight/parcels and especially mail used to be routinely carried on passenger trains and there is a growing interest in reviving this.

Terminals and depots

Both bulk and intermodal goods are often carried directly into and out of customer sites, ports and warehouses. But the industry is also reliant on a network of depots, terminals and interchanges where goods can be loaded and unloaded before being taken on to their final destination.

This includes inland terminals, often operated by third parties, where containers can be taken from rail wagons and loaded onto road vehicles. It also includes sites adjacent to railways where, for instance gravel, cement, sand and other materials can be unloaded and stored for use on nearby building sites by the construction industry.