The European rail freight market is ostensibly a free market where, from 1 January 2007, both incumbent and new‐entrant operators are able to compete on every line and in every European Union country. The main objective of this research paper is to assess the advances in the competitiveness of the pan‐European rail freight services operated by a new‐entrant (private) operator. Its main focus is to assess and contribute to the understanding of the advances towards competitiveness and the future prospects in the open European rail freight market, including dealing with challenges (e.g. dormant and departure of partners, suspension of the project, indistinct roles and responsibilities of operating partners) at different phases of the research, development and service offerings, that will be an important contribution to the Research and Development (R&D) policy and management arena in the Europe rail freight transport sector. The current research applies a case study research approach. The assessment of the rail freight service is performed by conducting two phases: first, a comparison of the progress between first and second year of the REorganisation of Transport networks by advanced RAil freight Concepts (RETRACK) rail freight service, operated by a new entrant and conducted on the corridor between two hubs – Cologne, Germany, and Györ, Hungary, and secondly a comparison of the opinions of customers on the RETRACK service and its competitors. From the comparative study between the first and second years, the study finds that the new‐entrant operator was able to offer an increased number of services by consolidating cargo from satellite connections at both ends of the operational corridor by adopting a pragmatic and flexible approach. The customer satisfaction survey suggests that the new‐entrant operator offered better service in terms of price, transit time, reliability and information flow/management compared to its competitors' services (offered by incumbent rail operators) on the corridor. However, their service was inferior to that of its competitors, in terms of frequency and availability of service. These less‐well performed service factors have improved gradually over time. The study suggests that intra‐rail competition has improved, but that inter‐modal completion is yet to be achieved. The ups and downs of the project provide important lessons for R&D management, academia and policy makers. The study suggests that a pan‐European rail freight service can be efficiently and effectively run by new‐entrant operators, and this will lead to more intra‐modal competition. However, they have yet to achieve competitiveness that will result in a shift of cargo from road to rail by offering an improved service that at least matches the major attributes of road freight service, e.g. price, transit time, door‐to‐door service and working in a collaborative way with other actors.