Here at John Pipe, we have over 60 years of experience dealing with packing for export, as well as various types of freight and logistics. This guide is designed to help you learn more about land freight, and some of the advantages and disadvantages of using it.
Roads or Rails?
Broadly speaking, there are two main subtypes of land freight. Goods can be transported via road vehicles, using vehicles like vans or lorries, or even more specialised forms of transport depending on the cargo. Alternatively, rails and trains can be used. Whilst both types of transport are quite versatile, they have different strengths and weaknesses. Read on to discover the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Advantages – Road
The first thing to consider is the handling of items. Compared to other forms of transport, road transport often involves less physical handling of items, and less steps in transport. When an item is handled more, there is often a higher risk that it can get damaged. Because road vehicles can often deliver straight to the door, this becomes less of a risk. In extreme cases, transporting an item by sea could involve many steps and different types of transport, such as a railway journey from a port, and then a lorry to its final destination. Relying on road transport for the whole journey simplifies this greatly.
Compared to other forms of transport, land freight is often the most flexible. Roads have the best reach of any type of transport network, and you can send an item to practically any destination connected by roads. Rural or remote areas are not usually accessible by any other form of transport. Additionally, other types of freight such as trains, boats and aircraft are limited by the location of ports, stations and airports. Road vehicles don’t have this issue and are able to load and unload cargo anywhere, including at the final destination.
As well as with travel routes, road freight is also very flexible when it comes to time. Items can be sent whenever is needed, and there is often no timetable restriction. Road transport can generally transport an item short distances much faster than other forms of transport. Additionally, loading and unloading items is faster and simpler. If you aren’t sending an item a long distance and time is a concern, road freight is definitely the way to go.
Disadvantages – Road
Road vehicles might not be the way to go if your item is very large or heavy, or you are sending a large amount of items. For this sort of transport, an alternative such as rail might be more efficient. Very large items might require a specialist form of road transport, such as an oversized trailer with multiple towing vehicles. In the most extreme cases, escorts may even be needed to get your freight to the destination safely. This can be slow and cause major disruption to other road users. All this extra complexity can add significantly to the cost of your logistics and slow the process down.
Freight via road can also be affected more heavily by conditions along the route than other forms of transport. Bad weather may impact safety or cause delays. Roadworks and maintenance can also be a concern, further adding potential delays to the journey. As well as disruption along the journey, the route itself could also be an issue. For example, some isolated or rural areas might have very narrow or poor roads, which can severely limit the type of transport used to reach the destination, or further impact the safety of transport. As well as these other issues, road transport also carries a higher risk of accidents along the journey than rails, boats or aircraft. As road vehicles often rely on a single human operator, they are more prone to incidents involving human error.
Whilst road freight is great for short distances, it becomes impractical for very long distances. If your item needs to travel to another country, or even another continent, there are better alternatives that could be faster and cheaper. Whilst road vehicles can travel via ferry across shorter stretches of water, they generally can’t travel across oceans. Additionally, the further an item needs to travel by road, the more prone it is to issues mentioned previously, such as roadworks. For a very long route across land, rail transport is likely to be faster and more free from disruption,
Advantages – Rail
One of the biggest advantages of rail over road is effectiveness for long distance travel. Generally, the further an item has to travel, the more efficient rail freight becomes when compared to road. This extra efficiency can also mean that your money goes further, and as a rule, railways are one of the greenest forms of transport. This difference in efficiency between rail and road is even greater in 2022, owing to the big increases in the price of diesel.
Further adding to the efficiency of train travel, rail freight is also much better than road transport for large or heavy goods, as well as carrying large amounts of items. Trains can have enormous pulling power when compared to vans or lorries, and can be very long. Additionally, rail infrastructure is better suited for loading and unloading large or heavy items.
Another strong point of rails is the infrastructure. Rails are less affected by bad weather conditions than other forms of transport. Whereas a severe storm may affect virtually every other form of freight, trains can often continue unimpeded. Rails generally last a lot longer than roads and require less regular maintenance.
If time is a concern or you are sending a very valuable item, you probably want to track it with a great degree of accuracy. Trains generally run to very strict timetables on set routes, which makes them ideal when you need to track an item with as much accuracy as possible.
Disadvantages – Rail
One of the big disadvantages of rail freight is the lack of flexibility, especially versus road vehicles. The network of rail lines (especially across the UK) is dwarfed by the coverage that roads have, and trains can only unload at stations, which are in fixed places. This means if you need to deliver to a place without a station nearby, your logistics will become a lot more complicated. Rural or isolated areas are usually a complete no-go. This lack of flexibility also extends to time. Whilst good for tracking, running to a very rigid schedule means it might be hard to send items at irregular times, or at very short notice. For an urgent item, road vehicles have the advantage.
Even though trains can be very green and efficient, they don’t work well when you need to send an item short distances. In this sort of situation, rail often becomes the most inefficient way to send something, being expensive and time-consuming. Rails are best optimised for very long distances.
Whilst road routes are at higher risk of disruption due to roadworks and maintenance, the disruption from rail maintenance can be a lot more severe. Rail routes are often linear, and you may not be able to find an alternative route to send your item if the line is closed. The only option may be to wait, which can take a long time. Rails also require large amounts of workers to remain functional, and can be quite vulnerable to staff strikes.
What’s best for me?
At the end of the day, your choice of transport depends on a lot of different factors. The size, weight and fragility of your item, as well as the value are all important, as well as the distance, point of origin and destination. You also need to consider time and cost requirements.
Choosing the right form of transport for your cargo can be difficult, but John Pipe is here to help. With our wide range of connections and access to expert advice, we can assist you in finding the right solution. Get in touch with us now for a same-day callback.