Will The Electric Car Revive the MotorRail Train?

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A little known service offered by railways is the car shuttle or MotorRail.

A motorail train or accompanied car train (ACT) is a passenger train on which passengers can take their car or automobile along with them on their journey. Passengers are carried in normal passenger carriages or in sleeping carriages on longer journeys, while the cars are loaded into autoracks, car-carriers, or flatcars that normally form part of the same train.

Motorail was the brand name for British Rail’s long-distance services that carried passengers and their cars, ultimately part of the InterCity sector.

The service had originated in June 1955 with the introduction of the Car-Sleeper Limited between London and Perth. The service operated between June and September conveying car and driver for £15 return, inclusive of sleeping berth. In 1961 it was reported that over 50,000 cars had been transported and a new two-tier transporter was introduced to expand the capacity.

The Motorail brand was introduced in 1966 with the opening of the Kensington Olympia Motorail terminal. Serviced ceased in 1996

British Rail wasn’t the only railway offering car shuttles, as most railways crossing the Alps offered car shuttles through long tunnels and the Deutsche Bahn still operates a car shuttle to the island of Sylt.


The Channel tunnel also offers a roll on – roll off car shuttle through the tunnel.

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This begs the question, with very expensive gas prices and the limited endurance of electric vehicles, combined with the large distances involved in BC and Canada, cannot the reinvention of Motor Rail or car shuttles be that far off?

At best, an electric car can travel around 300 km to 400 km or put another way, one can travel from Vancouver to Salmon Arm or Trail before recharging. Taking a Car-Go-Rail type service would both enhance ones travel by electric car and provide a service reducing auto traffic on our highways.

It is time to think 20 minutes into the future and just for the traveler, but the entire tourist industry.



7 Responses to “Will The Electric Car Revive the MotorRail Train?”
  1. Haveacow says:

    The Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and later the Seaboard Airline Railroad did both passenger auto-trains and freight trailer-trains as early as the late 1940’s. The existing Amtrak Car Train still runs on the same line between Virginia and Florida. Many American and one Canadian raiload did similar services. The issue is having the time and space to load and unload the cars. Most large passenger terminals don’t have a loading/unloading freight ramp anymore. Without space and time this is very difficult

  2. Dan says:

    Not in Metro Vancouver that is for sure. Metro Van will not consider anything but SkyTrain….

  3. zweisystem says:

    This is part of my “thinking out of the box”, taking old ideas and presenting them as new ideas for ones consideration.

    Car-go-rail seems to be the ideal response for the electric car. Also, as I type this, several railway companies are experimenting with driverless, powered freight cars so designed that they can be left at a station and after the train leaves can navigate on their own to a siding for loading/unloading.

    This means a car-go-train could stop at Kamloops and 3 car carriers can detach from the train and make their way, on their own to a siding for unloading, with minimal time waste and with no employees needed to uncouple and shunt the cars to a siding.

    Traveling in Europe I saw sever instances of trains splitting and joining with other trains to proceed to their destination.

    Just something to think about.

  4. Paul McGown says:

    Autonomous trains are nothing but scary with many level crossings and rock fall danger in the mountains. Sorry this will not work in BC.

    Zwei replies: We are not talking about autonomous trains, on the mainline, rather autonomous cars that will “shunt” themselves at a station.

    The concept is the main train stops at a station then the the car or cars automatically uncouple and after the train departs, shunts themselves into a siding to be loaded/unloaded. Evidently this is being tried in California as I type this.

  5. Haveacow says:

    It really doesn’t matter how each car is powered or if both the train and the cars are automated, it’s still all about having the space and time to do the endeavor in the first place.

    1. This would be a specialist service so, not every longer distance passenger train could offer this, thus it becomes expensive to use and supply the service.

    2. Most passenger rail lines get the majority of their passengers boarding/leaving at large centralized train stations, usually the main station in each community, where there is no land space for a siding, to load even 1 automobile carrying freight car. It takes a remarkable amount of parking/organizing space to load even 20 cars or small trucks on to or off of a singlle freight car.

    3. These centralized passenger rail hubs have track configurations designed for passenger services, a freight siding just doesn’t exist at most station locations anymore. This means nearly all of the automobile loading/unloading facilities will be in suburban locations, with large commuter parking facilities, that have the capacity for no fewer than 2 extra and isolated freight sidings. There would be no more than a single facility at each major stop or community (a suburban commuter rail or region rail station facility would be ideal). It would also mean the station might loose expensive to provide and financially lucrative parking spots to provide the loading and unloading facility.

    4. A strict schedule for loading and unloading has to be maintained. This will require a reservation only type service, passengers will have to show up with their cars and will have to be there at specific stations at specific times. This is not a show up and load up operation like a passenger ferry. Vehicles loaded on to a train need to be loaded in a way that allows for easy unloading at specific stations. This is incredibly time consuming and can easily as well as severely slow down the total travel time of the train. This will not be a speedy express service in any way. This makes it an expensive use of limited track time and space. Remember, most North American passenger railways don’t own their own tracks and have to rent time blocks inside the major freight railway’s operating schedule.

    5. Separate freight staff have to hired and trained, new employees or already trained freight handlers from freight railways. These employees need to be operated as a contracted group or as a spealist group inside the passenger railway itself, due to existing laws and labour agreements in Canada and the U.S. You see, in North America, passenger railway staff can’t legally load heavy freight, like cars and light trucks, specially trained freight handlers need to do this. Many decades of experience tells me that, the existing major North American Class 1 freight railways would have ZERO INTEREST in this type of service or contracting out its employees to do this job. It would be up to the passenger service, like VIA Rail to do the expensive hiring, planning and facilities engineering for this type operation. Always remember the key 3 word phrase that created our existing freight railway system in North America, “freight can’t sue!”

    As much as I like idea, there is a reason and reality why only 1 service like this survived from the many that existed in the 1950’s and 1960’s in North America, for these reasons and many more I haven’t mentioned it is incredibly unlikely to return.

  6. BC says:

    Millions of cars are shipped across Canada by freight rail. If you buy european car, It will be shipped to east coast, then put on a train to west coast. VIA rail could add a few trains to carry cars since they are using CN tracks.

  7. Haveacow says:

    Via Rail buys its track time from the railways it doesn’t own the tracks it travels on. Via rail can’t legally carry freight, unless, in the case of luggage or packages, its accompanied by passengers or has been allowed to travel by a customer buying space. A car or light truck (SUV) is considered freight not a package. Unoccupied cars are considered freight, put passengers with cars are allowed, then Via Rail can carry cars but CN definitely won’t do it because passenger service, which is something they said they would never do again, doesn’t make a profit without government subsidy. Via Rail would also have to lease autoracks (car carrying freight cars) and change the status of their auto train to a mixed passenger-freight train, which legally has a huge amount baggage and a whole slew of different operating regulations to deal with.

    CN Rail also can’t be ordered to do it any more because the government of Canada is no longer the primary stockholder of CN, the last time I checked the government was only the 3rd or 4th largest stockholder. Back in the 1980’s CN was told to act as a, for profit, private stock holding company not a government crown corporation and they did. CN Rail is now private company with large amounts of government owned stock but the government of Canada isn’t a majority owner anymore and can’t order CN to do anything, unless federal rail safety regulations are in question.

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