Train vs Truck: What’s the best shipping option?

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When considering the best mode of transportation for your shipment, there are a range of factors to be taken into account, from the locations and goods involved to the cost and speed of shipping. 

If you’ve narrowed it down to train or truck, you might be wondering how these two options compare. 

Keep reading for a full breakdown of the pros and cons of truck and train shipping, as well as insight into how intermodal shipping can offer you the best of both worlds. 

Shipping by truck: Pros and cons

Shipping goods and materials by road is a popular domestic shipping method due to its convenience, flexibility, and speed. In fact, it’s estimated that truck shipping accounts for approximately 70% of all freight transportation in the US. 

Depending on the specifics of the load that needs transporting, a range of trucking options are available, including:

  • Dry vans (the most common truck freight)
  • Flatbed trucks (offering a larger bed length and commonly used for carrying construction materials or equipment)
  • Step-deck trucks (similar to flatbeds, these sit closer to the ground)
  • Reefer trucks (for goods that need to be refrigerated in transit)
  • Hazmat trucks (for the transportation of hazardous materials)
  • Auto carriers (for carrying cars or other vehicles)
  • Box trucks (for partial shipments and smaller items) 

Plus, depending on the amount of cargo you need to transport, you can opt for a truckload that offers full truckload (FTL) or less-than-truckload (LTL).

Shipping by truck is certainly versatile — let’s explore some more pros and cons of opting to ship by truck. 

Pros of truck shipping

Truck freight shipping is highly popular, and for good reason. Here are some key benefits:

Provides wide geographical coverage

One of the greatest advantages to shipping goods via truck is the convenience of having access to the extensive road networks covering the United States. 

This wide geographical coverage is one of the main reasons why trucks form such an essential part of the supply chain and dominate freight transportation in the US. 

Not only can trucks reach locations that aren’t linked by rail and follow direct routes that aren’t dictated by existing rail lines, but they can also traverse difficult or remote landscapes in which it would be problematic or cost-prohibitive to lay a rail line. 

Transporting goods by truck offers a degree of geographical freedom and flexibility that other modes of transportation simply can’t provide. 

Allows for door-to-door shipping

As the popularity of e-commerce continues to grow, and customers seek faster delivery solutions and tracking features, the value of trucks to provide door-to-door shipping only increases. 

Since trucks have the geographical freedom we explored above, truck delivery can be a fast and efficient way of providing scheduled deliveries for both short and long haul journeys, even in remote areas. Trucks can be used on-demand, and aren’t tied to schedules in the way that rail, air, and ocean transport systems are. This makes just-in-time deliveries feasible.  

Fast shipping over short distances

Another key reason for the popularity of truck freight is that it provides relatively fast shipping, especially over short distances. 

Since trucks have a smaller capacity than many other transport methods, you can make use of FTL shipping, removing the need for stops or handling that aren’t directly to your goods. The truck can travel from pick-up to drop-off without passing on goods or materials being transported for other companies, resulting in a faster journey.  

Cons of truck shipping

Despite its popularity truck shipping, like any modality, has its downsides:  

Can be expensive

The cost of moving cargo by truck can be expensive, with some estimates placing truck transport as being 3-4 times more expensive than rail per ton per mile. 

These costs can be linked to the truck’s lower load capacity, as well as the cost of external expenses such as driver pay, fuel, maintenance, and delays and detours related to road and weather conditions. 

Rapid increases in fuel costs are expected to continue to impact the cost of truck freight. 

Lower load capacity 

With federal legislation limiting the maximum loaded weight of a freight truck to 80,000lb, and many trucks such as flatbeds carrying significantly less than this, there is a clear limit to the load a truck can legally and safely carry. 

Depending on shipping needs, this might not be an issue, but for larger or heavier loads this lower capacity can be inhibitive. 

Train vs. Truck
Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Shipping by train: Pros and cons

Shipping by train, or rail freight transport, is an efficient method of transporting bulk loads over long distances. 

Typically, shipping by rail offers a range of car/wagon types, including:

  • Boxcars (a popular car for moving palletized freight)
  • Flatcars (a flat design, used for carrying metals, machinery, and equipment)
  • Closed or open-top hoppers (commonly used for dry bulk materials)
  • Tankers (for the transit of liquids or gases)
  • Centerbeams (for bundled goods such as lumber)
  • Refrigerated boxcars (also called reefers, for the transit of perishable goods)
  • Well cars (with an indented well, designed for intermodal transit)
  • Containers (for ocean and domestic shipping)

Pros of shipping by train

Cost-efficient over long distances 

Rail freight provides an economical solution to transporting goods over long distances, with moving cargo by rail costing approximately 5.1 cents per ton-mile, as opposed to 15.6 cents per ton-mile by truck.

This cost efficiency is largely due to the increased load capacity that rail freight can provide. 

Easier drop and hook 

Drop and hook shipping provides a “grab-and-go” efficiency by removing the time-consuming process of loading and unloading transportation. 

Unlike a “live load”, which requires workers to make the transition between truck and train, drop and hook allows a container to simply be “hooked” on, ready to make the next leg of the journey.

Drop and hook is well-suited to train or intermodal shipping since it significantly decreases the time needed to transfer the load from truck to train or train to truck. The flexibility, speed, and associated saved costs of using drop and hook make it a popular choice for large-volume shippers in particular.   

Environmentally-friendly 

As the climate crisis poses an increasing risk to our planet, businesses are under increasing pressure to provide environmentally-conscious options and abide by legislation surrounding carbon emissions.

With the transportation sector in the US contributing approximately 29% of total carbon emissions, there is a significant opportunity for impact within the industry. 

A massive benefit of rail freight is that it offers a more environmentally-friendly alternative to road freight, producing fewer emissions than any other type of land-based transportation. Impressively, freight railroads in the US account for just 0.5% of total greenhouse emissions across the nation. 

Rail freight has the additional benefit of reducing the congestion and air pollution on America’s roads. As if that wasn’t incentive enough, rail freight is also a more fuel-efficient option.

Cons of shipping by train 

A lack of flexibility

Despite the numerous benefits of shipping by train, rail freight suffers from a lack of flexibility due to its reliance on existing infrastructure and timetabling. 

This makes it less suited for just-in-time shipping or adjusting to sudden changes in supply needs.  

Engineering works or mechanical problems can be expensive and time-consuming to repair and result in shipping delays due to limited routes across certain locations. 

Aren’t suitable for very short journeys or providing door-to-door shipping

Unlike trucks, which benefit from the ability to navigate urban areas easily, trains are largely unable to provide door-to-door shipping. 

The limitations of existing infrastructure and the cost inefficiency of utilizing trains over short distances would likely make using rail freight for short journeys more hassle than it’s worth. 

In practice, these limitations often necessitate the use of a truck for part of the shipment journey. Which brings us to a potential solution to the truck vs train debate that we opened with: what if we could combine both methods of transportation into a seamless shipping solution?

Enter, intermodal shipping. 

Train vs truck – why choose? Try intermodal shipping

If you’re looking for a solution that combines the cost-efficiency and environmental benefits of rail freight with the flexibility and speed of truck transit, then you’re in luck. 

Intermodal shipping offers the best of both worlds by optimizing on the best traits of multiple shipping modalities. 

How does this work, exactly?

Intermodal shipping utilizes equipment that makes the transfer from truck to train (or vice versa) a breeze, providing logistics firms with the flexibility to provide reliable door-to-do shipping across long or short distances. 

If you’re looking for a high-capacity solution, a single intermodal train can carry the load of approximately 280 trucks. In addition to an impressive capacity, intermodal shipping also offers the following benefits:

  • Cost efficiency
  • Increased safety 
  • A focus on sustainability
  • The ability to meet custom shipping needs

Take advantage of Jansson’s second-to-none intermodal transportation network today 

Here at Jansson, we provide the flexibility you need with our second-to-none intermodal transportation network. 

As an independent agent of Landstar, we can offer access to our extensive network of carriers available for truck, train, or intermodal shipping across the US, Canada, and Mexico. 

To discover the value of fast, cost-efficient shipping with drivers willing to go the extra mile, reach out to Jansson for a free quote today.  

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