Pros & Cons of Rail: Shipping Cost, Speed, Capacity and More (2024)

Explore the advantages and disadvantages of rail shipping, one of the most cost-effective and environmentally responsible transportation modes

Welcome to Part II of our transportation mode comparison series where we take a deep dive into the benefits of shipping by rail and the challenges of rail shipping, too.

Companies have a lot of options for freight shipping, which is why we're breaking down the most popular modes of transportation bycost, speed, capacity, reliability and environmental impact. Don't miss the other pieces in the series ontruck, ship/barge and plane.

Shipping by Rail

From household goods and food products to automobiles and building materials, you name it. It probably shipped by rail at some point. Trains play a major role in connecting markets from coast to coast, shipping the goods that keep America moving. Rail is one of the most efficient and cost effective transportation modes, especially when it comes to shipping very large volumes over long distances. Is it right for you?


  • Cost-effective shipping
  • Comparable speed to truck shipping
  • Ability to transport large volumes of freight at one time
  • Reliable transit times and schedules
  • Environmentally responsible and fuel efficient


  • If you don't have railroad tracks at your facility, coordination with trucks for first- and last-mile shipping may be needed
  • Limited reach in some instances
  • Very small shipments often do not yield tremendous cost savings

Rail shipping is considered one of the most cost-effective modes of transportation, especially for large volumes traveling long distances. Due to its ability to move major quantities of freight at one time, rail shipping has a lower cost-per-ton-mile (the cost of moving one ton of freight one mile) than truck shipping. In fact, a train requires less energy to move from Point A to Point B and can carry the freight equivalent of 300 trucks.

When you think about basic physics, the amount of energy needed to move a truck or train is related to the amount of rolling and air friction. A turning steel wheel in contact with steel rail produces a significantly smaller amount of rolling friction than a rolling rubber truck tire in contact with asphalt or pavement. There is less air friction on trains, too, because rail cars are connected and all cars ride together in the draft of a single locomotive. Each truck traveling over the road must independently fight air friction, which, in turn, expends more energy and uses up more fuel.

While you might think trucks travel much faster than trains, transit times for rail and over-the-road trucking can be comparable. Plus, trains are less susceptible to traffic congestion and road construction delays and have the ability to move shipments over long distances quickly and efficiently.

Unlike trucks and planes, rail shipping offers huge carrying capacities that can adjust as your business grows or shipping needs change. Rail can also accommodate shipments of many shapes and sizes, from grain to wind turbine blades.

You may be surprised to learn that railroad tracks span nearly 140,000 miles across the U.S., reaching all major markets from coast to coast. Even if you don't have railroad tracks at your door, most railroads can help coordinate a door-to-door shipping solution through intermodal transport or transloading.

Shipment Visibility
Typically, most train locomotives are tracked via GPS, and the majority of railroads offer shipment management solutions that help you trace your shipments in real time. All rail cars have Automatic Equipment ID tags, and tag readers are positioned throughout the United States to offer a high level of shipment visibility.

Weather delays can have an impact on rail shipments. Today’s railroads are focused on reliable transit times and schedules — and rail shipments can be expected to arrive within a pre-determined timeframe.

Environmental Impact
Shipping by rail is by far one of the most environmentally responsible transportation modes. On average, railroads move one ton of freight nearly 500 miles per gallon of fuel, and trains are four times more fuel efficient than trucks. Plus, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data show freight railroads account for only 0.5% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and only 1.9% of the transportation-related sources.

Questions about shipping your freight? Complete this short form and a shipping expert will be in touch.

Related Articles:

  • Pros and Cons of TruckShipping
  • Pros and Cons of Shipping by Air
  • Pros and Cons of Shipping by Water
  • Transportation Mode Pros and Cons: A Comprehensive Look

VIDEO: Rail Shipping Pros and Cons

Pros & Cons of Rail: Shipping Cost, Speed, Capacity and More (2024)


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