What is a Train Ferry?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A train ferry is a ferry boat with the capacity to accept train cars, and sometimes entire trains, depending on the design. Train ferries were developed in the 1800s and are in use around the world in regions where numerous rivers, bays, inlets, and other water features make traveling overland difficult or impossible. Many nations with islands rely on train ferries as part of their public transit system. In addition to taking trains, the ferry may also accept automobiles, as well as passengers on foot. Numerous companies manufacture a range of configurations.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The train ferry has tracks inside and connects with a ferry slip, also tracked. Personnel can push train cars onto the train ferry when it is docked, and in cases where locomotives will fit, the train can be driven directly on. At the other side, waiting ground crews offload the train onto a new set of tracks. Passengers and freight can stay on the train during the loading process and usually remain in place as the ferry travels, although on long trips, people may be allowed to get out and wander around for fresh air.

This ferry design requires a special slip design, as the tracks on the slip and the ferry must meet. The slips usually float to allow the slip to rise and fall with water levels so it can match up with the tracks inside. They must be able to bear very high weights, as trains can be extremely heavy. A siding near the flip provides storage for extra train cars and locomotives and may offer maintenance and repair facilities as well.

When people purchase tickets on a train or make arrangements for freight, the cost of ferry transfers is part of the ticket price. This includes not just the fee for the ferry trip, but costs associated with paying ground personnel to load the trains and secure them in place. Rolling stock inside a ferry can pose a risk if they are not properly secured by ferry personnel. Running a train ferry can be expensive because of the special design and the need for support staff to handle loading and unloading tasks.

While on a train ferry, people will notice the motion of the ferry and can become seasick if they are sensitive or the crossing is rough. The train's amenities may be restricted during the traveling period, and people concerned about dining service, plumbing, and other matters can ask the personnel on the train about what will be available during the ferry ride.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Once when we were in Europe we boarded a rail ferry and I was quite excited about it at first. The whole process was very exciting and interesting how the train sat on tracks on the ferry. Just watching the whole process was an experience in itself.

Everything was fine until I got a little sick from the ride. You could get out and wander around, but still felt like you really had no where to go!

It was not a real long trip, and even though I got sick, I would still say if you have the chance to ride a train ferry, it is well worth the experience.


I have been on a car ferry a few times in my life and was always fascinated by that, but have never been on a train ferry.

I can see if you lived on an Island, where this would come in very handy. Especially in Europe where they have a big network of trains and several islands you can travel to.

On one of my ferry trips we traveled from Northern Ireland to a tiny island called Rathlin Island. It was one of the most interesting trips I ever made.

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