Train ferry

For information on other shipping boats such as this, see Merchant vessel.
Classification yard and two docking train ferries in Detroit, April 1943. A third ferry slip can be seen at the bottom of the photograph.
A train ferry of the RFI in the Golfo Aranci harbour (Italy, 1997)

A train ferry is a ship (ferry) designed to carry railway vehicles. Typically, one level of the ship is fitted with railway tracks, and the vessel has a door at the front and/or rear to give access to the wharves. In the United States, train ferries are sometimes referred to as "car ferries", as distinguished from "auto ferries" used to transport automobiles. The wharf (sometimes called a "slip") has a ramp, and a linkspan or "apron", balanced by weights, that connects the railway proper to the ship, allowing for the water level to rise and fall with the tides.

While railway vehicles can be and are shipped on the decks or in the holds of ordinary ships, purpose-built train ferries can be quickly loaded and unloaded by roll-on/roll-off, especially as several vehicles can be loaded or unloaded at once. A train ferry that is a barge is called a car float or rail barge.


The 'Floating Railway', opened in 1850 as the first roll-on roll-off train ferry in the world.

An early train ferry was established as early as 1833 by the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway. To extend the line over the Forth and Clyde Canal in Scotland, the company began operating a wagon ferry to transport the rolling stock over the canal.[1][2] In April 1836, the first railroad car ferry in the U.S., the Susquehanna entered service on the Susquehanna River between Havre de Grace and Perryville, Maryland.[2]

The first modern train ferry, was the Leviathan, built in 1849. The Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway was formed in 1842 and the company wished to extend the East Coast Main Line further north to Dundee and Aberdeen. As bridge technology was not yet capable enough to provide adequate support for the crossing over the Firth of Forth, which was roughly five miles across, a different solution had to be found, primarily for the transport of goods, where efficiency was key.

The company hired the up-and-coming civil engineer Thomas Bouch who argued for a train ferry with an efficient roll-on roll-off mechanism to maximise the efficiency of the system. Custom-built ferries were to be built, with railway lines and matching harbour facilities at both ends to allow the rolling stock to easily drive on and off the boat.[3] To compensate for the changing tides, adjustable ramps were positioned at the harbours and the gantry structure height was varied by moving it along the slipway. The wagons were loaded on and off with the use of stationary steam engines.[3][2]

Bouch's ferry design. Note the adjustable ramp.

Although others had had similar ideas, it was Bouch who first put them into effect, and did so with an attention to detail (such as design of the ferry slip) which led a subsequent President of the Institution of Civil Engineers[4] to settle any dispute over priority of invention with the observation that “there was little merit in a simple conception of this kind, compared with a work practically carried out in all its details, and brought to perfection.”[5]

The company was persuaded to install this train ferry service for the transportation of goods wagons across the Firth of Forth from Burntisland in Fife to Granton. The ferry itself was built by Thomas Grainger, a partner of the firm Grainger and Miller.[6]

The service commenced on 3 February 1850.[7] It was called "The Floating Railway" [8] and intended as a temporary measure until the railway could build a bridge, but this was not opened until 1890, its construction delayed in part by repercussions from the catastrophic failure of Thomas Bouch's Tay Rail Bridge.[9]

The largest train ferry ever built is the MS Skåne on the Trelleborg-Rostock route, built in 1998, 200 meters long, 29 meters wide, with six tracks plus two on an elevator to the lower deck, having a total length of track of 1,110 meters.


The Japanese train ferry, Toya Maru, sank during typhoon Marie on 26 September 1954, killing more than a thousand. Four other train ferries, Seikan maru No.11, Kitami Maru, Tokachi Maru and Hidaka Maru also sank on that day; the loss appeared to be of about 1,430 people.

In those days, Japanese train ferries did not have a rear sea-gate, because engineers believed that inrushing water would simply flow out again quickly and would not pose a danger. However, when the frequency of waves bears the wrong relationship to the length of a ship, each wave arrives as the water from the previous wave is trying to leave, causing water to accumulate on the ship. After the accidents, all Japanese train ferries were retrofitted with rear sea-gates and weather forecast technology was greatly promoted.

The Norwegian train ferry, Skagerrak, built in 1965, sank in gale force winds on 7 September 1966, on a journey between Kristiansand, Norway and Hirtshals, Denmark, when the rear sea-gate was destroyed by heavy seas. One person subsequently died of injuries, and six freight cars and a number of automobiles sank to the bottom with the ship.

Loaded train ferry approaches dock in Detroit, Michigan, USA, April 1943.

The Canadian train ferry MV Patrick Morris sank on 20 April 1970, while assisting in a search and rescue operation for a sinking fishing trawler (MFV Enterprise) off the northeast coast of Cape Breton Island. The ferry was trying to maintain position to retrieve a body when its stern gates were overpowered by 30-foot (9 m) waves. It sank within 30 minutes taking several rail cars and 4 crew members, including the Captain, to the bottom of the Cabot Strait. There were 47 survivors.

Train ferries rarely sank because of sea hazards, although they have some weaknesses linked to the very nature of transporting trains "on rail" on a ship.

These weaknesses include:

The Ann Arbor Railroad of Michigan, USA developed a system of making cars secure that was adopted by many other lines. Screw jacks were placed on the corners of the railcar and the car was raised slightly to take its weight off of its wheels. Chains and turnbuckles were placed around the car frame and hooked onto the rails and tightened. Clamps were placed behind the wheels on the rails. Deckhands engaged in continual inspection and tightening of the gear during the crossing. This system effectively held the cars in place when the ship encountered rough weather.

Several train ferries—the SS Milwaukee, SS Pere Marquette 18, and SS Marquette & Bessemer No. 2—were lost on the Great Lakes. These losses, though causes remain unconfirmed, were attributed to seas boarding the unprotected stern of the ship and swamping it in a severe storm. As a result, seagates were required on all new ships and required to be retrofitted on older vessels. In addition, two wooden crosslake railroad ferries were burned.

Some accidents occurred at the slip during loading, when stability was a major problem. Train ferries often list when heavy cars are loaded onto a track on one side while the other side is empty. Normal procedure was to load half of a track on one side, all of the track on the other side, and then the rest of the original track. If this procedure was not followed, results could be disastrous. In 1909, the SS Ann Arbor No. 4 capsized in its slip in Manistique, Michigan when a switching crew put eight cars of iron ore on its portside tracks. The crew got off without loss of life, but salvage operations were costly and time-consuming.



Nine train ferries were used between 1907 and 1990 to cross the Paraná river and join the Buenos Aires province (the main state in Argentina) and the Entre Rios province (the entrance to the Mesopotamian region), until new bridges were built over the rivers they crossed. They were the Lucía Carbó (1907), the María Parera (1908), the Mercedes Lacroze (1909) (three ferries that operated between the ports of Zárate and Ibicuy (Entre Rios), crossing the Paraná at the northwest of the Buenos Aires province). Then were added the Roque Saenz Peña (1911) and Ezequiel Ramos Mejía (1913) paddled train ferries at Posadas (crossing the Paraná river in the southwest of the Misiones province, at the north of the country, in the frontier with Paraguay).

Three other train ferries were added later: the Dolores de Urquiza (1926), the Delfina Mitre (1928) and the Carmen Avellaneda (1929) to cover the service in the Zárate-Ibicuy crossing. The María Parera had a collision with the Lucía Carbó at km. 145 of the Paraná river, and it sank in less than 15 minutes on June 30, 1926. Two of the most modern still serve as floating piers in the Zárate region, and one of the first group was sunk during a storm at the Buenos Aires port in the eighties. The two northern paddled ferries still remain at Posadas, and one of them holds a model railway museum inside. All the eight old ferries were built by the A & J Inglis Co. Ltd., in Pointhouse, Glasgow, Scotland for the Entre Rios Railways Co. in Argentina. The ninth ferry, the Tabare, was built in Argentina by Astarsa (ASTilleros ARgentinos S.A.) in 1966 at Astillero Río Santiago Río Santiago Shipyard near to La Plata city. It was the largest train ferry that operated in Argentina, with a deck more than 100 meters long. The Tabaré is still floating, but not operating, at the old south docks of Buenos Aires port, near the Puerto Madero zone.








A railbarge is a variation of a train ferry that consists of barges pushed by a tug.

In use

Former car floats

Former train ferries


The Lüshun (Dalian) terminal of the Bohai Train Ferry

In use



Note: all auto and rail ferry services have been suspended between the United States and Cuba due to the ongoing United States embargo against Cuba.


In use






In use




A new train ferry link-span terminal is under construction at Amirabad Special Economic Zone, Mazandaran Province, Iran.


Train ferries were at one time used to cross the Euphrates River at Baghdad.


Train and car ferry between Calabria and Sicily
In use

Both Sicily and Sardinia services are operated by Bluvia that is a subsidiary company of Rete Ferroviaria Italiana. At present the link between Mainland and Sicily has a regular and frequent activity, while the link between Mainland and Sardinia is less frequent and operated basically day by day on the basis of the actual traffic demand.


In Japanese, a train ferry is called "鉄道連絡船 tetsudō renrakusen", which means literally "railway connection ship". Such ships may or may not be able to carry railcars. A ferry service that is part of a railway schedule and its fare system is called "tetsudō renrakusen".

Japan Railways linked the four main Japanese islands with train ferries before these were replaced by bridges and tunnels.

There were three ferry services that carried trains. Through operations of passenger trains using train ferries were conducted between December 1948 and 11 May 1955. The passenger services was canceled after the disasters of the Toya Maru (26 September 1954, killed 1,153) and the Shiun Maru (11 May 1955, killed 168) occurred, after which the Japanese National Railways (JNR) considered it dangerous to allow passengers to stay on trains aboard ship. These three lines have been replaced by tunnels and bridges.

The Seikan ferry connected Aomori Station and Hakodate Station crossing the Tsugaru Strait connecting Honshū and Hokkaidō. The first full-scale train ferry, the Shōhō Maru, entered service in April, 1924. On 13 March 1988, the Seikan Tunnel was opened and the ferry ceased operation. The tunnel and the ferry line was operated simultaneously only on that day.
The Ukō ferry connected Uno station and Takamatsu station crossing the Seto Inland Sea connecting Honshū and Shikoku. The ferry service started carrying railcars on 10 October 1921. On 9 April 1988, Great Seto Bridge was opened and the last train ferry operated on the previous day.
The Kammon ferry connected Shimonoseki Station and Mojikō Station crossing the Kanmon Strait connecting Honshū and Kyūshū. This was the first train ferry service in Japan starting operation on 1 October 1911. The train ferries used piers at Komorie station. After the completion of the Kanmon Tunnel on 1 July 1942, the service was discontinued and the ferries were transferred to the Ukō Ferry operation.



The Netherlands

From 1886 to 1936, train ferries sailed between Stavoren and Enkhuizen across the IJsselmeer. From 1914 to 1983 a ferry carried freight carriages from the Rietlanden shunting area to the Amsterdam-Noord railway network, which was not connected over land to the rest of the Dutch railway network.

New Zealand




Encarnacion — Posadas [20]


Russia & former USSR

Black Sea

Pacific Ocean

Caspian Sea

The Caspian Shipping Company (Caspar) has 7 train ferries and is building two more.

See Iran.

Baltic Sea



A ferry, though not necessarily a train ferry, links the 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) gauge network of Egypt and the 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) network of Sudan, across the Nile River.

A ferry used to operate between Juba, Sudan (now in South Sudan) and Pakwach, Uganda, also along the Nile River.


In use

All are for freight trains (and road vehicles) only, except that there is a nightly passenger train service between Malmö, Sweden and Berlin, Germany over Trelleborg — Sassnitz.


Never opened


See Uganda.


Ferry Van approaching Van harbour.



United Kingdom


Proposed but never implemented

United States

For international Great Lakes ferries, see Canada.

In use


Proposed ferries

The Trans-Asian Railway has proposed a few train ferries:

See also


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  2. 1 2 3 Marshall, John (1989). The Guinness Railway Book. Enfield: Guinness Books. ISBN 0-8511-2359-7. OCLC 24175552.
  3. 1 2 "Forth Place".
  4. George Parker Bidder; not to be confused with the lawyer (his son)who represented Bouch at the Tay Bridge Inquiry
  5. "Memoirs of Deceased Members" (PDF). Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. PART 1. 63 (01): 301–8. January 1881. ISSN 1753-7843. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
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  10. "Azerbaijan to Purchase New Train ferry in May". Trend News Agency (requires subscription). 2008-05-08. Retrieved 2009-12-24.
  11. Trains (Magazine) February 2009 p9
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