Sea, air, rail freight or truck – which mode of transport is the right one for my shipment? The choice of the appropriate transport type depends on various factors, e.g. size, time, infrastructure, costs and the type of product to be shipped. In this article, we compare the different transport types and work out the advantages and disadvantages.
Within Germany, truck transport takes the largest share in transport logistics. According to the Federal Statistical Office, the volume of truck transport in Germany 2019 was around 3.2 billion tons. There are various reasons for this. Transport by truck is not only the logistically simplest way to transport goods, but also the most economical for short distances. Another major advantage is the possibility of door-to-door delivery. Transport by rail, ship or plane always requires a certain lead and follow-up time. With a truck, on the other hand, the goods can be delivered directly to the customer without any further handling. Due to its flexibility, the truck is also well suited as part of an intermodal transport.
Disadvantages are the limited loading capacity, the arising traffic on the roads and the dependence on weather. Moreover, on public holidays and Sundays the truck transport among others in Germany requires special approvals.
Transporting freight by air is the fastest, but also the most polluting and expensive way of transport. Due to the high costs and emissions, air transport is mainly used for long distances across several countries. About half of the air freight volume is transported in the underfloor compartments of passenger aircraft, so-called “belly freight”. It is particularly suitable for perishable items, sensitive and valuable goods as well as for products that require fast delivery. The transport is very reliable and safe, as the aircraft is usually less exposed to complications. Due to the low turnover rate, the probability of damage and theft is lower compared to other means of transport.
A disadvantage is that air transport cannot be used for all kind of goods. Goods that do not comply with weight and size restrictions must be transferred via other means of transport. Special regulations also apply to dangerous goods. The “Dangerous Goods Regulations” (DGR) determine which dangerous goods can be transported by air under which conditions. Often there are certain quantity regulations. Dangerous goods must also be marked with the UN dangerous goods classes during transport.
Waterways are usually used as a transport route for goods requiring high capacity but no time constraints. Large container ships are used to transport the standardized containers overseas. The currently largest container ship is about 400 meters long, 61 meters wide and has a capacity of 24,000 TEU. Although the transport is inexpensive and efficient, it requires a long transit time, including lead and follow-up time.
Typical products are therefore heavy goods, goods in large quantities and bulk goods such as coal, ore metals or agricultural products. Compared to air freight, sea freight offers more capacity, is cheaper and less polluting. In addition, products that cannot be transported by air freight for security reasons can often be transported by this route.
Inland waterway transport
At around seven per cent, inland navigation plays a rather subordinate role in German freight transport. Nevertheless, it contributes to relieving the roads. One inland waterway vessel replaces about 80-100 trucks. This makes inland waterway transport more environmentally friendly than a truck, at least in terms of the CO2 balance. If instead we compare the overall air pollution balance, the inland waterway vessel comes off worse due to high particulate matter levels. This is a particular problem in areas such as the Rhine, where there are particularly large numbers of vessels. Moreover, only destinations with appropriate pre-loading facilities and container terminals can be served. Due to the longer transport time, inland waterway vessels are particularly suitable for less time-sensitive goods such as bulk goods, building materials or finished products.
Rail freight transport
Rail freight transport is considered as one of the most environmentally friendly mode of transport. In this way the goods are transported by freight trains over the railway track. In addition to universal freight wagons, special refrigerated wagons, bulk freight wagons and tank wagons are used for the transport of liquid or gaseous goods.
A great advantage is the available capacity. For example, a 500-meter freight train replaces about 30 trucks. Transport by rail is particularly suitable for long distances. At just over 13,000 km, the goods train route “Belt and Road Initiative” was opened in 2014 and runs from China to Spain. It is the longest freight train route in the world. The transport is fast and inexpensive. The goods train only takes 21 days to arrive in Madrid from China. Another end point for the freight route is in Duisburg harbor. Up to 60 trains now run between the Port of Duisburg and various destinations in China. Rail freight transport is therefore seen as having great potential for efficient, climate-friendly transport. According to the Federal Environment Agency, the share of rail freight transport in Germany has been between 17 and 20 percent in recent years. The disadvantages are mainly in the infrastructure. The transport network is inflexible and is not always easy to reach with few railway sidings, so that longer lead and follow-up times with HGVs must be considered.
For long distances it is often not possible to use only one transport type. This is where intermodal transport comes into play. Intermodal transport is the combination of several means of transport. In this way it is possible to combine the advantages of different means of transport and to organize the transport of goods as efficiently as possible. Standardized containers are used to make the combination of different means of transport possible. Intermodal transport is also of great importance for the transformation of transport. The prime focus here is on shifting goods from truck to rail. In a combined transport, only short necessary distances should be covered by truck while the predominant part of the transport is carried out by rail. This is also possible in combination with sea freight and is particularly worthwhile for long distances. The largest railway port in Europe is provided by the Port of Hamburg. Over 200 trains arrive at the port daily, making it an important link between the container ship handling terminals and the European rail network.