The roll-on/roll-off ship is one of the most successful types operating today. Its flexibility, ability to integrate with other transport systems and speed of operation have made it extremely popular on many shipping routes.

One of the ro-ro ship's most important roles is as a passenger/car ferry, particularly on short-sea routes.

But despite its commercial success, there have been disturbing accidents involving different types of ro-ro ship, the worst being the sudden and catastrophic capsizing of the passenger/car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise in March 1987 and the even more tragic loss of the Estonia in September 1994.

In response to those incidents, IMO has adopted a series of amendments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) which are intended to ensure that incidents of that type would not re-occur.

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Ships were specially designed to take trains across rivers which were too wide for bridges: the ships were equipped with rails, and the trains simply rolled straight on to the ship, which sailed across the river to another rail berth where the train would roll off again. An example is the Firth of Forth ferry in Scotland which began operations in 1851.

It was not until the Second World War, however, that the idea of applying the ro-ro principle of road transport became practicable - and was used in constructing the tank landing craft used at D-Day and in other battles. The principle was applied to merchant ships in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It proved to be extremely popular, especially on short-sea ferry routes, encouraged by technical developments on land as well as sea, notably the increase in road transport.

Ro-ro ships also integrate well with other transport development, such as containers, and the use of Customs-sealed units (first introduced in the late 1950s) has enabled frontiers to be crossed with the minimum of delay, thereby further increasing speed and efficiency for the shipper.

Ro-ros have also proved extremely popular with holiday makers and private car owners and have significantly contributed to the growth of tourism. Until the early 1950s someone wishing to take his car from one country to another by sea had to get it loaded into the ship's hold by crane, a time-consuming and expensive process. The development of the ro-ro car ferry changed all that and many ports boomed as a result.

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