A major automotive OEM is set to become the launch customer for a new pan-European road-rail system that is due to go into operation over the next few years.

German-based logistics service company CargoBeamer has developed a new type of transfer system that it claims is faster and cheaper than existing 'piggyback' systems for moving trailers on and off trains while allowing completely standard road trailers to be used. Following ‘extensive negotiations’ with carmakers and suppliers over the use of the trailer loading system, which will operate at the Calais Premier multimodal logistics project currently under construction at the Turquerie industrial park in France (read more here), the company has confirmed that an automotive company has signed up as customer for the system. for movements of components on the France-Lithuania corridor, from about 2015. Details of the manufacturer would be revealed in about a month's time.

Unlike cranes, CargoBeamer can move an entire trainload of trailers on and off simultaneously, allowing the transfer operation within 15 minutes, according to the company's CEO, Hans-Juergen Weidemann, speaking at a press conference at the CargoBeamer facility in Calais last week at which the first two prototype wagons for the system were unveiled.

Trailers are driven onto special 'pallets' and unhitched from the tractor unit. The pallets are then slid onto rail wagons and moved by train to the destination terminal where the pallets are slid off the rail wagons and the tractor unit picks them up to take them to final destination.

Moreover, there is no need for trailers to be strengthened as there would be with lift-on, lift-off cranes Wiedemann told those gathered.

Further advantages of the CargoBeamer system include potential cost savings in equipment investment compared to conventional cranes and the faster transfer of whole trainloads of trailers at 'break of gauge' points where rail lines of different track gauges meet – for example between Russia and Poland or between France and Spain. Trailers can also be delivered to the loading point and dropped immediately without having to wait for the train to arrive – and likewise, rail wagons could be unloaded without waiting for road tractors to arrive, improving the railways' productivity.

Management systems would be put in place to ensure that there was always a supply of empty pallets available and trailers would be tracked electronically, said Weidermann.

He added that rail wagons payload would be 37 tonnes and that the trains could operate at speeds of up to 120kmph. Rail locomotives are currently being provided by EuroCargo Rail, the pan-European arm of the main German rail operator, DB Schenker. At the moment it is envisaged that CargoBeamer would used dedicated trains, although Hans-Juergen Weidemann did not rule out attaching smaller numbers of wagons to 'mixed' (multi-user) freight trains to reach smaller or more remote destinations.

The port of Calais has agreed to include a CargoBeamer terminal as part of its Calais Premier project to create a new logistics and transport complex at the French Channel port. Other terminals that would be included in the first wave or operations are Hagen in Germany, Legnica (Poland) and Mockava (Lithuania). The first trains will start running in 2014 but using mobile cranes to lift trailers on and off the trains, with the CargoBeamer modules not going into operation until 2015 with 1-2 trains a day. The Calais terminal will be in full operation with 8-10 trains a day by 2020, CargoBeamer predicts.

A map published by CargoBeamer shows further routes being added to include Bayern, Lubeck, Rostock, Luxembourg, Bratislava, Verona, Trieste and other terminals in Switzerland and Italy . However, there are no immediate plans to extend services across the Channel to the UK, where the restricted UK rail loading gauge – or the need to use the country's only European-gauge route, the passenger-orientated High Speed 1 line to London – would presumably cause problems. However, Hans-Juergen Weidemann did not rule out extension to the UK at a later stage.