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Shipping by Rail vs Truck: Everything You Need to Know

Resources > Shipping by Rail vs Truck: Everything You Need to Know
There are important pros and cons to consider when shipping by rail vs truck. See which option is best for your business.
Published: August 17, 2021
Last Modified: October 23, 2023
Author: Ask Truckload

When deciding to ship freight via rail or truck, there are a number of important details to consider. Each mode of transportation comes with its own set of pros and cons. Making an informed decision on which is best for your specific shipping situation will require a close look at the advantages and disadvantages of each. 

There are important pros and cons to consider when shipping by rail vs truck. Over long distances, shipping by rail is used frequently thanks to the increased fuel efficiency which typically leads to lower costs. When freight needs to travel a short distance, using a truck to transport goods is often preferred. Trucks can quickly load and unload and fuel efficiency is less of a concern over a short distance. 

Our comprehensive guide below provides you with a complete breakdown of the important differences between shipping by rail vs truck. After reading our guide, you’ll be able to make the best decision for your freight.

Shipping by Rail vs Truck

There’s a lot to consider when you’re thinking about shipping by rail vs truck. Truck and rail shopping are both solid choices in ground transportation, but there are challenges with each.

For example, the container shortage is expected to be a problem even over the next several years It might be hard to find a container for rail shipping your goods. This also means railcar equipment costs are rising due to scarce supply making rail shipping more expensive than it has been in the past.

The best, most efficient way to reduce shipping costs when thinking about shipping by rail vs truck is to consider a multi-modal strategy. With access to the right transloading facilities and effective container drayage service,  you should be able to keep shipments on schedule for a fraction of the cost.

The right 3PL partner can help you save money on multi-modal shipping no matter how volatile the industry gets. USA Truckload Shipping, powered by R+L Global Logistics, has the solutions you need for power-only drayage moves, rail shipping, and more. 

Ready to learn more about shipping by rail and rail for truck services? Keep reading to make sense of your options and even see when multi-modal shipping might be best.

Learn more about how using rail drayage can help reduce freight transport costs.

What is Truckload Shipping?

At its core, truckload shipping is an easy concept to understand. It’s a form of shipping in which an entire trailer of a truck is occupied and shipped from origin to destination. The service will usually be end to end, and this means that your goods won’t have to stop and be moved onto other trucks during the shipping process, instead of staying on the same vehicle for the whole journey. You will be expected to fill the whole truck when you use this sort of service. Truckload shipping is in direct contrast to LTL (Less Than Truckload) shipping, which involves shippers occupying part of a trailer instead of all of it.. 

For businesses shipping large volumes of goods that are on a tight deadline, this is the preferred method of transportation. As noted above, truckload freight is typically transported from end to end with no stops along the journey. On the other hand, LTL shipments contain freight from multiple shippers and stop multiple times to offload individual loads. 

What is Rail Shipping?

Much like truckload shipping, rail shipping is easy to understand from its name. Rather than loading up a truck with all of your goods, you will be using a train, and this can have a dramatic influence on the way that your goods are handled. 

There are a number of features that come with rail shipping and you can find some of the most important ones below.

  • Trains can have temperature-controlled boxcars that are heated or chilled, giving you the chance to control the environment your goods are stored in.
  • Trains can move between two points very quickly, making them a viable option for time-sensitive deliveries.  
  • Trains are considered a secure method of transportation. There are fewer train accidents each year than truck accidents. 

Rail shipping has long been one of the most important pieces of the worldwide logistical puzzle. These machines can move tremendous amounts of weight, all while using very little fuel, and this can make them excellent for moving goods. 

It’s worth noting that all rail shipments involve an additional mode of transportation to complete the full journey. Trucks must deliver goods to and from rail yards in order for the shipment to begin and end. This is why rail shipping is often associated with intermodal shipping, which is a shipment that involves two or more types of transportation. 

Check out our article on rail freight transport for more information about this shipping service.

What is the Difference Between Rail and Road Transport?

While they can achieve the same goal, there are some huge differences between rail and road transport. To start, the machines you’ll be using along the way will be very different with each of the options. Trains are designed to move along rails which limits route options as there are fewer rail routes vs road routes. Road vehicles, like trucks, have a lot more freedom, but will also have to share the roads with cars and trucks.

Trains are very fast machines, and they don’t have to deal with congestion on the roads, making a lot of people think that they are faster. In reality, though, this ignores the fact that you often have to use truckload shipping for the final piece of the journey. Thanks to their track-bound nature, trains will only be able to stop at pre-designated stations, and this can slow things down to a surprisingly large degree. 

Cost is another major difference between these two shipping options. Coordinating a rail shipment will involve more work than a point A to point B truck shipment.  For shipments going a short distance, this additional work for a rail shipment can reduce the cost-benefit of some rail shipments. Of course, though, you can move more with a train than a truck, often balancing out the cost difference between the two when the project involves a lot of goods. It’s always worth thinking about how these differences could impact your shipping job before you choose which one you’d like to use. 

When looking for freight quotes, it’s helpful to work with a 3PL company. A third-party logistics provider will be able to provide you with multiple options for your shipment. This includes a cost analysis and estimated delivery date difference between a truck-only shipment or intermodal that includes rail and truck.

What are the Advantages of Truckload Shipping?

Truckload shipping hasn’t been around as long as rail shipping, but its distinct advantages make it a preferred choice for many companies that ship goods. Drivers can follow a set schedule with their deliveries, making it possible to come up with a very accurate delivery window. This also makes it easier to plan each stop to make sure that the trip is handled efficiently. You can move your products anytime and anywhere when you use this form of shipping.

Most roads can accommodate trucks, and this gives you the chance to choose whatever route you’d like to get your goods to their destination. You won’t have to worry if roads are closed, accidents happen, or other delays are in front of you, as your truck can simply change course, choosing roads that are free from obstructions. You will have the freedom to ship orders both large and small, and you can simply add another truck to the fleet if you need more than one of them.

Alongside giving you more freedom, truckload shipping makes it possible to track goods as they move. The driver can closely monitor the goods they are shipping, and you will enjoy a door-to-door service. This is opposed to having to use other forms of transport along the way. This makes truckload shipping an excellent choice for both long-haul and short journeys alike.

What are the Advantages of Rail Shipping?

Like truckload shipping, rail shipping has its advantages, and a lot of people ignore them when they are choosing which option will be the best for their job. To start, a train is far more efficient than a truck. They will use less fuel to move goods the same distance, and many modern trains are powered by electricity, making it possible to fuel them with renewable energy. Alongside this, while each carriage might not be able to hold as much as a truck, a train can pull many of them at the same time. This means that you can move more freight at the same time as a train.

Finally, as the last advantage of a train, it’s time to go back to speed. When your goods are traveling over long distances, trains will almost always be the faster option. Their routes aren’t always direct, but they won’t have to stop for traffic, avoid accidents, or deal with other delays, and this can make up for the extra time it takes to get your train moving. Moving cargo from China to many places in Europe can take around 44 days by sea but will take as little as 18 days when using rail transport.

What are the Disadvantages of Rail Shipping?

When something has advantages, you can almost guarantee that it will also come with a more negative side. In the case of rail shipping, the biggest disadvantage you’ll find is the fact that you will probably still have to use a truck at some point when you use a shipping method like this. It’s unlikely that both the start and end of your journey have train stations, and this means that trucks will be necessary to move your goods to the train at the start, and then to the final destination once the train has arrived. Alongside this, trains can also end up being a lot slower than trucks over short distances. The time it takes to plan a trip, load up the train, and get the massive machine moving will all be time that a truck can spend on the road.

Rail shipping can be more expensive than using trucks. Getting a train ready for action can be costly, This is before you consider the fact that you will have to pay for a truck at the start and end of the journey. While a train is usually allowed to carry the same amount of weight as a truck, the carriages are often much heavier, and this limits the number of goods which can be transported with them. Most rail shipping providers can move 43,500 lbs. per container, though this can be less with some companies.

What are the Disadvantages of Truckload Shipping?

Truckload shipping doesn’t come with quite as many disadvantages as rail shipping, though it’s worth looking at them all the same. To begin, a truck is always out in the open, surrounded by other cars and forced to face countless threats along the way. This means that a truck can be halted thanks to the actions of other drivers, even if the driver you choose for your truck is extremely skilled. Along with this, trucks aren’t quite as secure as trains, and it can sometimes be easier for theft to occur from vehicles like this, especially if the journey is long enough to force the driver to sleep.

You can find some additional examples of the small disadvantages which come with rail shipping in the section below.

  • Trucks lack the capacity of a train, and can only pull one or two trailers behind them. This can be challenging when you’re trying to make large shipments. 
  • Roads are getting busier and busier, with more people driving than ever before, and the population of cities soaring. Not only do trucks add to this congestion, but they can also face delays as a result of it.
  • Trains are incredibly efficient, and trucks can’t match this, often making truckload shipping worse for the environment. This is particularly bad at a time when everyone is trying to reduce their environmental impact. The trucking industry has made efforts to reduce its impact on the environment, so this gap could lessen over the years. 
  • A lot of the world’s roads are in dire need of repair, causing delays and potential risks to truck drivers who have to use the roads all the time.

While truckload shipping certainly has some disadvantages, the vast majority of shipping jobs will be better suited to this form of transport. The challenges and risks which come with rail shipping are far greater, and you often have to pay more for the privilege, making it hard to look at these options and see the tracks as the best choice.

When Should You Use Truckload Shipping?

There are a lot of situations that call for truckload shipping. This form of transport is one of the most popular for large goods, and this makes sense, as there are few options that offer the same level of flexibility and risk management. Of course, though, it’s always worth considering the different jobs which are most suitable for this type of shipping, as this can be very helpful when you’re deciding on the best option for you.

You can find some examples of common situations which will call for truckload shipping below. 

  • Moving goods over short distances when a job has a very strict deadline should always be handled with truckload shipping, as it will usually be faster to handle jobs like this. 
  • Transporting food, medicines, and other sensitive products will be best handled by truckload shipping, as you’ll have greater control over the environment that your items are sat in.

Of course, these are just a few examples of the sort of situations which will call for truckload shipping, and there are loads of other scenarios which will require the same sort of attention. When comparing shipping by rail vs truck, it’s always worth considering the journey time, cost, and the state of your goods when they arrive, using this information to decide which will be best for you.

Find out how to keep your supply chain moving even during crises like a Rail Strike.

Is it Cheaper to Ship by Rail or Truck?

As mentioned above, shipping by truck is typically cheaper than shipping by rail. This isn’t absolute, though, and this means that it’s worth assessing your job before deciding whether or not the price is right. When you’re traveling over short distances, for example, using a truck will almost always be cheaper, as there’s only one carrier involved which means one party to pay. As journeys get longer and cross through different regions, though, it can make more sense to use a train, as this might be more affordable.

There’s nothing wrong with getting quotes before you choose which route you’d like to go down. Both rail and truckload shipping companies will be happy to give you an idea of the price you’ll have to pay before you commit to anything, and this can provide you with an excellent guide when you’re trying to figure out how much your shipping is going to cost you. As noted above, a 3PL company, like R+L Global Logistics, that partner with both truckload and rail companies will be able to provide you with comprehensive options.

There are other factors that are worth considering when you’re choosing a transport or shipping method. Having goods arrive late, damaged, or not at all is much more costly than choosing a slightly more expensive method in the beginning. 

Is it Faster to Ship by Rail or Truck?

We’ve mentioned speed quite a few times in this post, but it can be difficult to figure out which of these options is faster. Truckload shipping is usually offered as an end-to-end service, meaning that you don’t need to use any other transport methods to get your goods where they need to go. Trains can’t offer this in most cases but will be a lot faster when they get moving, and this can prove to make a journey take less time. 

The flexibility of truckload shipping often wins out when compared to rail transport options. For those willing to spend a little bit more, expedited shipping services can be chosen which will make the journey a lot shorter. We offer services like this, giving you the chance to make your goods travel much faster, all without having to put them at greater risk.

Freight trains will usually travel at around 50 mph. While this may not sound that fast, it’s worth considering that trains don’t have to stop at lights, deal with junctions, or go through different speed limits. Most trucks will have their speed limited, but will be able to match the top speed limits found in the country they are registered in. Of course, though, trucks won’t be able to avoid slowdowns which are caused by accidents or traffic.

In most situations, a rail shipping option will be faster over long distances. Over shorter distances or on journeys with a lot of obstructions, though, a truck can be much quicker. It’s always worth remembering that you’ll almost certainly have to use a truck at some point when you’re using a train.

What are the Top Commodities Shipped by Rail?

Railway lines have been used to ship all sorts of different goods over the course of history. Animals, vehicles, and natural resources are all great examples of this, with these machines being a huge driving force in the world’s growing industries. While some countries don’t have many train lines, those that do benefit from them hugely, with these links providing a way for goods to be shipped without having to use normal roads. But what exactly are trains used for, nowadays?

  1. In 2018, motor vehicles and their parts were the most popular item to ship by train. These goods are incredibly large, and most trucks don’t have the space to carry many of them. This made trains the perfect alternative for companies looking to move their vehicles around the world.
  2. Mineral fuels come second to vehicles, with resources like coal, oil, and natural gas being transported all the time. As many of these goods are volatile, it makes sense to use a train to transport them, as using normal roads could put people at undue risk. Need help with oil and gas logistics? See how a strategic partner can help.
  3. It shouldn’t be a big surprise to find plastic on this list. Plastic is a foundational resource found in many of the products made today. Before it’s been molded into the end products used by consumers, plastic is often transported by rail to then be picked up by trucks and delivered to manufacturing plants.

As you can see, there are few consumer goods which are transported by train, nowadays. Many of the world’s shipyards are situated close to centers of industry, placing them perfectly for use by companies operating in this field.

What are the Top Commodities Shipped by Truck?

In 2018, the number of goods transported by trucks eclipsed the workload of trains. Far more companies are choosing to ship their goods using roads, and this makes a lot of sense when you consider the benefits explained thus far in this article. The items which are transported by trucks are quite different from those which are moved by trains, and this can give you a good insight into what this transport option is good for.

The computer industry is one of the most lucrative in the world, and people in just about every city, town, and village in the world want access to these machines. This should make it no surprise that computers and parts were the most common items to be found on trucks in 2018. These items are small enough to be worth shipping by truck, and they often need to go to many different locations, and a train would make this very difficult.

Most of the world’s factories have long been using electricity rather than coal, gas, or other kinds of fuel. Likewise, many of the machines you find at home use electricity to power themselves. This change has made electronic machinery another popular commodity to be shipped by truck over the last few years, with the destinations these items are bound for being too varied for a train to be able to reach. CNC machines, 3D printers, and a host of other electronic industrial equipment are shipped by truck each year. The same can be said for homes, with appliances like washing machines also finding themselves in trucks. 

Despite a lot of them being transported by train, vehicles and their parts are other common items found being shipped by truck. In a lot of cases, car deliveries will need to be made at many different dealerships on the same day. This would make it impossible to use a train to complete the job, and means that companies almost always have to use trucks to complete the final leg of their journey.

The items which are transported by truck don’t tend to be quite as large as those which go by train. This isn’t a set standard, though, and companies will often do their own thing when they are approaching areas like this. It’s always worth talking to your shipping provider to make sure that you’re choosing the best mode of transportation for your particular shipment. 

What Truckload Shipping Services are Available?

A lot of people assume that truckload shipping services are quite basic, simply offering to move your goods from A to B, without doing much more in the middle. In reality, though, this sort of service can be surprisingly diverse. Most freight companies offer a few standard truckload shipping services including:

  • Truckload Shipping: A general shipping service that consists of delivering a truckload of freight from origin to destination. This is ideal for most people’s needs.
  • Refrigerated Shipping: Some products need to be kept at the right temperature when they are being transported. Goods like food and medicine become useless if they aren’t looked after properly throughout the transportation journey. If you have goods that require a temperature-controlled vehicle, it’s important that you trust your shipping partner’s ability. 
  • Expedited Shipping: The standard shipping time will vary from company to company. When the standard turnaround time isn’t quick enough, most companies will offer an expedited shipping option. This service ensures that your goods arrive quicker than a standard delivery with an increased cost. Some companies even offer guaranteed delivery by a specific date and time. It’s worth noting that guaranteed delivery incurs an even higher rate than expedited shipping.

Choosing the right truckload shipping option is crucial when you’re using a service like this. The state of your goods, the time it takes for them to arrive, and the satisfaction you feel at the end of the job will depend on the service you choose. Our expert team of logistics and transportation specialists can help you to find the very best truckload shipping option for your needs, and are happy to offer any advice you might need.

When is Truckload Shipping the Best Option?

Truckload shipping isn’t going to be the right option for every single job. There will be times when using a train will be better, and some situations will even call for ocean and air transport. Of course, though, having spent a long time in this industry, we can recognize the sorts of jobs that are best suited to truck-based transport. We’ve collected some of these scenarios for you to look at below, giving you an insight into the types of jobs we would recommend our services for.

  1. Food & Drink Transport: You have to be very careful when moving food and drinks, with perishables easily turning bad when they are being transported. Our refrigerated shipping trucks can keep food fresh for a very long time, making them perfect for truckload shipping. 
  2. Multiple Delivery Points: Not all deliveries have a single destination, and some will involve stopping off at loads of places along the way. Trains can’t handle jobs like this very well, but trucks are perfect for it.
  3. Short Distance Delivery: When goods don’t have to travel a long distance, it makes more sense to use a truck. Loading and unloading goods onto a truck can be done quickly with the right equipment. And since the freight is only traveling a short distance, the lower quality of fuel efficiency of a truck vs a train isn’t a deciding factor. The additional work that would be needed to deliver goods to a shipyard and pick them up at the other end would add unnecessary time and work in the case of a short shipment. 

There are countless situations that can call for a truckload shipping company. R+L Global Logistics can help you find the right partner for your freight and get your goods delivered safely and on time, every time. 

Shipping by Truck with R+L Global Logistics

Here at R+L Global Logistics, we’ve been working in the shipping business for a very long time, and have a wealth of experience when it comes to providing the right freight shipping services options.

Since we’re a 3PL, we manage all aspects of the shipping and logistics process. From warehousing to customs brokerage and everything in between, we serve as a one-stop-shop for our clients. Our customer service and quality of work are why our customers continue to choose us over the competition.  

We understand that it can be hard to decide to handle your shipping by rail or truck. Our dedicated team is ready and willing to answer any questions you have and get your freight moving. When you’re ready to receive a freight shipping quote or inquire into our rail services, give us a call at (866) 353-7178 or click “freight quote” below. 

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