CAI Transportation Blog

How to determine if rail or over-the-road trucking is better for your business

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Moving your freight requires more than loading a shipment on a truck and hoping everything arrives on time and in shape. As a supply chain manager, you want to be sure you’ve got the best method of transportation for your freight, whatever it may be. There’s been a lot of back and forth over the years about whether it’s better to transport freight using railroads or trucks. Ultimately, the method of transportation you use depends on the specific needs of your freight and your business. We've broken down the main domestic shipping options to help you understand and make the right choice for your cargo.


Rail, over-the-road trucking, or intermodal: what’s best for your company?

Let’s look at the two main domestic transportation options: rail and trucking. Factors like schedule, load size, cargo type, and transportation capacity will determine whether you choose over-the-road trucking, rail or a combination of both (intermodal transport) for your freight transportation needs.



Moving your freight by rail can be a great option for a few reasons. First, it’s a more economical option, having fewer fuel surcharges compared to trucking. That’s because with rail, you’re sharing costs with other companies moving cargo on that rail line.

Rail shipments don’t face the highway obstacles that can impede cargo moving by truck. Bad weather, road closures, traffic accidents, and highway construction can all affect highway trucking shipments, more so than rail shipments. And if you’re shipping hazardous materials (such as petroleum or chemical products) rail transport is a safer option.

Download our free capacity guide here to learn the best strategies for reducing transportation costs and securing more capacity.

When you consider the environmental impact, trains boast lower emissions with greater capacity compared to highway trucking. Trains also offer better ways to optimize and maintain your capacity. Rail is generally protected from the impacts of driver shortages, traffic, and road closures, while these same impediments can suddenly tighten trucking capacity.


Over-the-road Trucking

What sets over-the-road trucking apart from rail shipping? Speed and flexibility.

Shipping from one distribution center to another allows time for the railroad to transport goods. But, railroad shipping isn’t a door-to-door service. If you need your products on shelves ASAP, then highway trucking is the way you want to go. With highway trucking, you have more route and destination flexibility to transport your goods. If you’re shipping freight that is over-dimensional or has a unique size, highway trucking can offer some flexible options for transport. If you’re shipping cross-country only a couple times a year or ship short distances (less than 700 miles), over-the-road trucking may be a more desirable option as rail can be more expensive in these circumstances.

Highway trucking also offers a convenience that the railroad doesn’t. Railroad routes and times are standard and don’t allow you to adjust those factors to your needs. However, trucking gives you this flexibility.



Intermodal Transport

If neither rail nor over-the-road meet all your specific needs, intermodal transport may be the ticket. Intermodal transport utilizes two or more modes of transport on a single bill of lading.  There’s no additional handling of the freight when changing between modes. Intermodal is a great option for your supply chain because it boasts many of the benefits of rail and over-the-road trucking together. By combining the flexibility and convenience of over-the-road trucking with the cost savings and sustainability of moving freight by rail, intermodal is an attractive alternative for shippers.



In the end, it comes down to the specific needs of your cargo. Whether you’re shipping by train, truck, or a combination of the two, we want to help you get exactly what you need. At CAI, we combine equipment, global shipping expertise, and a devotion to customer service to see that every customer achieves success for their goals. We have a range of service offerings and a diverse fleet to get your cargo to its destination while keeping things simple for you and your business.

Learn more about choosing  the right logistics partner.