The Advantages of Rail vs Truck Shipping

Finding the optimal shipping modes and routes can help you reduce shipping costs substantially and improve the efficiency of your supply chain. Rail and truck are the most common shipping modes across land. However, finding which shipping type is right for your materials and your business can be a challenge. Let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of rail vs truck shipping to see which one is best for you.

The Advantages of Rail vs Truck Shipping

Cost: Advantage for Rail Shipping

When it comes to cost, rail transportation has the advantage. Rail shipping is much more cost-effective than truck shipping for several reasons. Rail is a much more fuel-efficient mode of transportation. Railcars can also carry much more volume than trucks; one rail car is equivalent to about four full truck loads. The cost of maintaining rail cars is also significantly lower. While trucks require engine maintenance and expensive replacement parts after many miles traveled, rail cars can travel much farther with much less maintenance, since the construction is less complex. When comparing the cost of rail vs truck shipping, rail wins out easily.

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Stability: Advantage to Rail

In this context, stability refers to supply and demand, as well as the shipping mode’s resilience against disruptive events, like political conflict, weather events, or economic shifts. When it comes to stability, the advantage goes to rail.

While the Covid pandemic, political issues and a truck driver shortage have created supply shortfalls in trucking in 2022, rail has remained relatively stable. Rail is more resistant to these sorts of shifts partly because rail required less labor per ton shipped than truck. The rail industry has significantly less employee turnover than that of the trucking industry.

Environmental Impact: Advantage to Rail

Businesses and consumers are both increasingly prioritizing a strong environmental stance. Younger buyers in particular tend to buy from eco-friendly and sustainable brands when they can. About 75% of Millennials prefer buying from sustainable brands, according to Nielsen. This sentiment is even stronger among Generation Z, who are more likely to experience more serious effects of climate change in their lifetimes.

Businesses that seek to change their supply chain in favor of sustainability are looking at rail as an eco-friendly transportation mode. On average, rail is four times more fuel efficient than trucks, and emit 75% fewer GHG emissions. This fuel-efficiency can also help to reduce transportation costs significantly, while giving the business a promotional platform for sustainability initiatives. When it comes to environmental impacts of rail vs truck, rail easily wins out.

Speed: Advantage to Trucking

When comparing the speed of rail vs trucking shipping, the advantage goes to trucking. Extensive highways allow trucks to (usually) follow a shorter path between two points and deliver their cargo faster. Trucks are also generally easier to load and unload. However, the speed advantage of trucking over rail starts to fade over longer distances.

Trains travel consistently at about 50 mph when actively moving. However, railroads utilize a network of classification involving large rail yards. Like the time spent for passengers in the airline industry, railcars are delayed within the classification yards much like an airline passengers time spent on a layover. Rail incurs delays in the frequency that a rail shipper or receiver is switched by their serving railroad; typically an industry is switched either 3 or 5 days per week.

Flexibility: Advantage to Trucking

Flexibility is the main advantage of trucking. While railcars must travel along fixed rail routes, trucks have access to a much wider range of roads and highways. This means that trucks are capable of accessing many more loading and unloading points across the nation. Trucks can also find a direct path more easily, while railcars may have to divert around some areas where rail infrastructure isn’t available.

Safety: Advantage for Rail

When comparing the safety of rail vs truck transportation, rail has the advantage. Unlike trucking, rail shipments aren’t exposed to risks of crash or fender benders. Railcars are also less likely to suffer from theft since they are secured and there are fewer opportunities during travel. When railcars are not actively moving, they are positioned in a rail yard that has 24/7 security. When transporting potentially dangerous chemicals, the safety checks and security measures around railcars help to improve safety even further.

Rail shipping has a number of advantages over trucking that can be easy to overlook. Transloading gives shippers the opportunity to take advantage of both rail and trucking. With transloading, shippers can use trucking to increase speed and travel flexibility while taking advantage of the cost-savings, stability, and safety of rail shipping over longer routes. To learn more about transloading and combining trucking and rail, take a look at our transloading map or contact our experts.

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