Road and rail: Transforming the industry

01 November 2019

While container shipping dominates the conversation, it is only part of the intermodal story. Across the world, shipping companies and freight forwarders still rely on road and rail networks to move goods, because both options continue to offer considerable advantages.


The benefits of rail freight

In general, rail freight has proven to be one of the most energy efficient forms of transportation. It is fast, reliable, and cost-effective. However, it is also considered relatively inflexible compared to, for instance, road freight, which is why it has often found itself supplanted by container lorries.

Indeed, less than 20% of all freight tonnage moved in the European Union travels by rail, compared to a massive 40% in the United States, where the vast distances make it a more valuable option than road.

But with climate catastrophe looming, the environmental benefits of rail transport are returning it to the forefront of future freight strategies – and railways also form a major part of China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

There are also considerable cost savings when compared to road transport, because more goods can be packed onto a single shipment in multiple cars than in a single lorry.

Bulk cargo – unpackaged commodities – comprises the majority of rail freight. Bulk freight might typically be loose coal, grain or minerals, often poured into stock cars through a funnel; it might also be oil or another liquid, carried in a tank. As a result, rail freight is a favourite of power companies and agricultural suppliers alike.

According to the Rail Freight Group, the UK’s representative body for rail freight, a single rail freight train can take around 76 lorries off the road, preventing about 600 casualties a year and reducing CO2 emissions by up to 76 per cent compared to road freight. This, in turn produces up to 10 times less small particulate matter and as much as 15 times less nitrogen oxide. These are unarguable environmental benefits.

Railways are also used by freight forwarders and shipping lines to quickly and efficiently transport goods between ports and distribution centres. They go, after all, where the container ships themselves cannot.


The benefits of road freight

Road freight has an increasingly negative reputation. Pollution, climate change and traffic congestion make it more unpopular than rail freight, but it, too, has considerable benefits.

Like rail freight, it is relatively inexpensive (particularly when compared to air freight), but global road networks are far more extensive and make cross-border freight transport far easier by eliminating the need to switch between different rail gauges. This means road freight offer greater flexibility than rail: deliveries can be made to exact addresses, so long as it’s served by a road. This is especially convenient for freight forwarders.

What does the future hold?

Road freight is also experiencing significant transformations. Driverless cars, electric vehicles and blockchain are making it more sustainable, efficient, faster and safer, and freight companies are sure to adopt autonomous and eco-friendly vehicles in the coming years.

As with container shipping, lorry manufacturers and road freight firms can also make use of smart technologies to measure the condition and status of lorries and the goods they contain in order to measure the effect of weather and road condition on transport, and eliminate the threat of container theft.

These advancements – particularly automation – will put pressure on the rail freight sector. These innovations will significantly lower the cost of road freight, and door-to-door service and quicker delivery times are things rail simply cannot compete with.

Speed and efficiency aren’t a problem on electrified systems, but in countries such as the United States in which significant lengths of track aren’t electrified, this is a huge hurdle to overcome. Furthermore, locomotives are replaced far less frequently than trucks, so freight firms may have to look into shorter lifespans for their trains, in order to match the pace of change on the roads.


Discover more at Intermodal Europe 2019

Attend the conference programme at Intermodal Europe to unlock even more insights about road and rail freight. Discover presentations, panel discussions and seminars about the Belt & Road Initiative, investment opportunities in the Saudi rail market and an overview of the global intermodal sector.


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