Shipping by road and rail: The Comparisons

When deciding which shipping method is best for your business there are many things to take into consideration. Things that will likely impact your decision the most are budget, the product being shipping, delivery times and the increasingly important, environmental impact. 

Firstly it is important to outline the differences between the two shipping methods:

Rail Transport

This is a popular method of freight in countries where there is likely to be longer transit times such as China, the US, Russia and Europe. A freight train can carry a wide variety of shipments from vehicles to shipping containers and essential items such as coal and grains. Rail shipping is a great option for moving goods between continents. 

Road Transport

The most common form of transporting goods is by road, it is available worldwide and is favoured for the movement of day to day goods such as groceries and retail goods. It is commonly used as it provides the shipping of goods from distribution centres and shorter distances within the same country or continent. 

Now let’s look at the comparisons in key areas that should help you decide which is the best method for you and shipping your product.



Moving goods by rail is immediately cheaper due to the lower amount of fuel consumption. A typical train may haul 3,000 tons of freight over 500 miles, for example, and consume 3,049 gallons of fuel. This then calculates to 492 ton-miles per gallon compared to 134 ton-miles per gallon for a freight truck. 


There are a variety of options with Road Shipping which allow to keep costs down, such as Less than Truckload (LTL) or Full Truckload (FTL) which you can find out more about here.
Rates are generally lower on shorter routes which makes road freight one of the cheaper options, dependent on the destination and type of goods being shipped.

Cargo Type:


This shipping method is typically used to move natural resources such as coal, petroleum or agricultural products. There are less restrictions on the size of the load being transported.


Road is a very versatile mode of transportation for a wide range of shipments, including temperature controlled supply chain management. However there is of course a restriction on the size and weight of the load that can be carried and therefore road shipping is often used for smaller shipments or day to day movement of goods over a shorter distance. 

Delivery Times:


This method of shipping is generally used for goods and shipments that are not so time sensitive as the delivery and transit times are much longer. However there are not many external factors which will affect routes, meaning delays are rare and the times more reliable. 

It is also a good option for moving goods across continents and longer distances, it is a preferred method for this type of shipment due to the larger capacities rail is also able to carry at one time. 


Road is generally faster due to road networks and scheduling, however it is also subject to delays from traffic and weather conditions. 

Road is quick for daily, national shipments and considered the preferred option when moving goods within the same continent and over a shorter distance. For this reason it is a great option for shorter delivery times and the convenience of door – to – door delivery.

Environmental Impact:


As mentioned above, Rail has a higher ton-mile ratio than truck or lorry freight, meaning it will deliver more goods per mile whilst consuming less fuel. With larger capacities comes less scheduled shipments, meaning Rail has a much lower environmental impact. 


With smaller, more frequent deliveries Road shipments have a higher environmental impact. Road freight contributes with air pollution and noise pollution, however the increase in electric vehicles should bring a hopeful solution to this impact in future years. 

In general Rail freight has the lowest share of the logistics market, with Road freight being the number one preferred means of shipping due to easy access to networks and distribution centres. 

Both types can be used together in multimodal freight methods to provide a combined option whilst lowering price, environmental impact and increasing efficiency. 

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