As part of the broader sustainability and economic efficiency agenda, European transport policy places considerable emphasis on improving rail’s competitiveness to increase its share of the freight market. Much attention is devoted to infrastructure characteristics which determine the number of freight trains which can operate and influence the operating characteristics of these trains. However, little attention has been devoted to the composition of the freight trains themselves, with scant published data relating to the practicalities of this important component of system utilisation and its impacts on rail freight viability and sustainability. This paper develops a better understanding of the extent to which freight train composition varies, through a large-scale empirical study of the composition of British freight trains. The investigation is based on a survey of almost 3,000 individual freight trains, with analysis at four levels of disaggregation, from the commodity groupings used in official statistics down to individual services. This provides considerable insight into rail freight operations with particular relevance to the efficiency of utilisation of trains using the available network paths. The results demonstrate the limitations of generalising about freight train formations since, within certain commodity groupings, considerable variability was identified even at fairly high levels of disaggregation.