The use of ships for handling cargo, sailing and simply rolling off directly to the destination has been in use for nearly two centuries and thus predates the automobile with which this mode of delivery is mostly associated today. In 1833, the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway in Scotland, which was built in 1826 to transport coal from the Monkland mine, opened a barge ferry service. The barges were equipped with rails and carried coal wagons along the Fort and Clyde Canal, which connected Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland.
The first shipping service began in Scotland with the rowing steamer Leviathan in the Firth of Forth. It connected Granton at Edinburgh on the south bank of the estuary and Berntisland on the north bank at a distance of about five kilometers. This vessel had two lines of rails on deck and operated from 1850 to 1890 when the Fort Rail Bridge made it obsolete.
The concept of a rail ferry became international in the early 20th century, when flights between Harwich (UK) and Zeebrugge (Belgium) and Dover (UK) and Dunkirk (France) opened in 1924 and 1936. Both of them lasted for about sixty / sixty-five years.
Between these two events, in 1928, Seatrain in the United States launched a service that carried loaded railroad cars from New Orleans to Havana, Cuba. The purpose-built vessel Seatrain New Orleans was deployed, capable of carrying up to ninety-five railroad cars. In 1932, it was joined by two other, larger new developments, which allowed Seatrain to open a service in New York as well. Although Seatrain expanded over the years and was forced to containerize out of necessity, a combination of factors led to bankruptcy in 1981.
The rail ferry concept still exists today, albeit limited to a niche industry. There are only thirty-one vessels of this type in operation, which Sea-Web considers “rail transport”, including passenger units. It is unclear if side rail tracks are still used for all of these. Basically, these remaining examples can be found when crossing the Caspian Sea (six vessels are used by the Azerbaijan Caspian Shipping Company, ASCo) or on various Black Sea routes (seven units).
In the memories of perhaps the pioneers of this type, Waterman Logistics (since 2019 – the trademark under which the old company Central Gulf Lines operates) serves two railway ships in international traffic. They run between Coatzacoalcos in Mexico and Mobile in the United States. Much further north in Canada there is one ship connecting Bae Como and Matane. It is served by the CN railroad and is powered by a 3700 dwt, built in 1975, which can carry twenty-six rail cars and travel sixty kilometers across the mouth of the St. Lawrence River that separates the two harbors.