Shipping by Road or Rail: Pros & Cons
[Updated June 2023]
When it comes to freight transportation, there are several modes of transport: such as road (trucks), rail (trains), air (planes), sea (ships), and intermodal (a combination of two or more modes). Road and rail transport are the two modes used for the movement of goods overland and across continents.
So, what are the main differences between them?
Road transport is the most commonly used mode of transport for the movement of goods. Many day-to-day items such as groceries, flowers, fruits, and dry goods are moved all across countries and continents using road freight. As they say, ”If you got it, a trucker brought it!” Road freight is widely used for the distribution and delivery of retail and other forms of cargo from and to various distribution centers (DCs).
Rail transport is a commonly used mode of transport, especially in countries and continents with long transit times such as China, Russia, the USA, and parts of Europe. Freight trains are capable of carrying various types of cargo such as freight containers, vehicles, livestock, commodities such as grains, coal, minerals, metals, etc.
Road vs. Rail
|Freight can be delivered quickly as per a set schedule
|Limitations such as cargo size and weights may be applicable for road weight across various states
|Cost-effective and economical especially over short distances
|It may not be a cost-effective option across longer distances
|Used for the long haul, short-haul, local, and over border movements
|Slower than rail over long distances
|Full door to door movement
|Limitations due to weather and road conditions
|An easier option for tracking cargo movement through GPS and satellite tracking
|Not as environmentally friendly as rail
|A greener option for transport as trains burn less fuel per ton-mile than road vehicles
|Additional costs to move a container from railhead to final destination, mostly using road freight.
|Freight trains carry more freight at the same time compared to road transport
|Possible delays in cross border due to change of train operators
|On average, long-distance freight movement is cheaper and quicker by rail
|Not economically viable across shorter distances
|Freight trains have proven to be transit-sensitive even more than ocean freight delivering cargo from China to Europe in as less as 18 days compared to 44 days by sea
|Abnormal cargoes cannot be moved in normal rail wagons
Here’s some additional information that can’t quite fit into neat little boxes. If you’re shipping LTL freight via rail over a long distance, your cargo is much less likely to be loaded or unloaded multiple times, as it is with trucks. As soon as your shipment is loaded from a truck onto a train, it is likely to not be touched until it reaches its destination city.
This is useful as with more handling, the chances of damage increase, especially if you’re shipping fragile cargo.
On the other side, road freight gets unloaded and redistributed at each terminal for further transport which means more handling, which means higher chances that something goes wrong.
We mentioned that over long distances trains are faster, but they are also a safer and greener option to boot. That’s partly because trains don’t get stuck in traffic. They have a single rail line which they follow to where they need to go. Unfortunately, the railroads in the USA aren’t that numerous anymore which means that there are fewer lanes than there are with road carriers.
Notwithstanding these pros and cons, these two modes of transport can be combined together to offer the customer an intermodal (or multimodal) mode of transport, where both these modes come together to provide a combined road/rail move to offer the customer a seamless door to door transport option
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