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)


What are the pros and cons of rail transport? ›

As a result, although rail transport has advantages such as high carrying capacity, economy, reliability and environmental impact, it also has some disadvantages such as limited flexibility, operating costs, necessity of intermodal connections and delivery time.

What were some pros and cons of the railroads? ›

List the positive and negative effects of railroads on the nation's economy. (+) allowing a huge communication network, the railroads also brought the dreams of available land, adventure. (-)caused harsh lives for the railroad workers, accidents, and diseases disabled and killed thousands of men each year.

What does it cost to ship by rail? ›

According to the Congressional Budget Office (, “The average price to ship by truck, across all markets and types of freight, is 15.6 cents per ton mile, versus 5.1 cents per ton mile by rail.”

Is shipping by rail cheaper than truck? ›

Cost: Advantage for Rail Shipping

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.

What are the problems with rail transport? ›

The sector's persistent challenges include inflation, rising ticket costs, ongoing strikes, service disruptions, and delays. Operators are leveraging innovations in digital systems, mobile connectivity, and station developments to boost passenger comfort and convenience and encourage them to return to rail.

What are 3 negative effects of the railroads? ›

Main Railway Disturbances: Noise and Vibration, and Air, Soil and Water Pollution
  • Noise and Vibration. ...
  • Air Pollution and Emission. ...
  • Soil Pollution. ...
  • Water Pollution. ...
  • Soil Erosion and Changes in Hydrology.
Sep 19, 2017

How much does rail cost per mile vs road? ›

The average light-rail line under construction or in planning stages today costs $25 million per mile ($50 million per mile in both directions). Heavy rail costs more than twice as much. By comparison, the average lane mile of freeway costs only about $5 to $10 million.

What are the risks of rail transport? ›

So let's get into the risks!
  • Derailments. Derailments are fairly common in the rail industry and are caused by various factors, including track defects, human error, and equipment failure. ...
  • Collisions. ...
  • Trespassers. ...
  • Fires. ...
  • Hazardous Materials. ...
  • NEBOSH General Certificate for Occupational Health and Safety. ...
  • About The Author.

What are two disadvantages of rail? ›

There are risks and disadvantages of transporting your goods by rail including:
  • routes and timetables available can be inflexible, especially in remote regions.
  • rail transport can be more expensive than road transport.
  • mechanical failure or industrial action can disrupt services.

What are 3 benefits of the railroad? ›

Rail has lower fuel costs compared to road transport, especially when shipping a high volume of freight. Rail also has less costs associated with drivers and typically has better costs for drop trailer programs. Shipping via train is more environmentally friendly. Trains burn less fuel per ton mile than trucks.

How much does a freight train cost? ›

Freight locomotives generally cost in the range of $3 to $4 million each. The cost of freight cars is in the range of $50,000 to $100,000 each, depending on the car. Financing and Leasing Freight Rolling Stock In North America, rail freight cars and locomotives are generally easy to finance.

What is the cheapest way to transport freight? ›

In general, the higher the cargo's density, the cheaper the rate. Mode of freight also matters — road and rail tend to be cheapest while air is most expensive. In addition, not all freight brokers have access to the best rates. FreightCenter can help you find the cheapest way to ship freight.

What is cheapest way to ship? ›

The cheapest way to ship a package will depend on factors such as package size and weight, as well as distance and delivery speed. Generally, USPS Ground and Priority Mail are the most affordable shipping options.

Is rail cheaper than sea? ›

Ocean freight is cost-effective for large quantities of goods and long-distance shipments, but it's slower. Rail freight strikes a balance between the two, making it an attractive option for certain transportation needs.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of Travelling by train? ›

Pros and Cons of Traveling by Train
  • Health Benefits. ...
  • Environmental Benefits. ...
  • Fewer Accidents. ...
  • Congestion. ...
  • Poor Air Condition. ...
  • Not Suitable for Children. ...
  • Maintenance.
Mar 16, 2011

What are three advantages of railway transport? ›

Top 10 benefits of rail transport
  • Cost-effective. Compared to other modes of transport, it is cheaper to transport goods and passengers via train than by car or plane. ...
  • Environmentally friendly. ...
  • High carrying capacity. ...
  • Reliable. ...
  • Safety. ...
  • Reduced traffic congestion. ...
  • Flexibility. ...
  • Energy-efficient.
Jun 13, 2023

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Fredrick Kertzmann

Last Updated:

Views: 6528

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (66 voted)

Reviews: 81% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Fredrick Kertzmann

Birthday: 2000-04-29

Address: Apt. 203 613 Huels Gateway, Ralphtown, LA 40204

Phone: +2135150832870

Job: Regional Design Producer

Hobby: Nordic skating, Lacemaking, Mountain biking, Rowing, Gardening, Water sports, role-playing games

Introduction: My name is Fredrick Kertzmann, I am a gleaming, encouraging, inexpensive, thankful, tender, quaint, precious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.