This article is to compare trucking with railroads in the transportation of goods. First, let me give what I feel are necessary disclaimers:

  1. I am a member of the trucking industry, and as such probably carry a pro-truck bias.
  2. I am not a transportation scholar. These observations are just that, observations by one person.
  3. I am not an expert in railroad operations.
I welcome responses by anyone who is an expert, or indeed anyone else who has observations that may apply to the subject at hand.

I have been asked to provide some arguments for the viability of trucks as compared to shipping by rail. The point was made that trucks should be used as a final link in a chain, the last link to get goods from a railhead to the final destination. In my opinion, that is not a viable option.

A bit of history
Trucks and trains both have their own place in the American psyche. Many people find themselves interested in big rigs or the 'iron horse', and sometimes in both. Before the railroad was invented, goods were transported overland by pack train or wagon. The only flexibility was in how many and what size the wheels were on the wagon, and what was hitched to it to provide the motive power. The railroads were of course the first means of transporting large amounts of goods or people after technology became available which freed us of the need to use waterways for the same purpose. There is a long tradition in America that romanticizes the rails, from the track laying prowess of John Henry to the Wreck of the old '97 near Danville, Virginia.

Compared to trains, trucks are a johnny-come-lately on the scene. They initially were for local delivery or at most regional operations. It was only after the highway system sufficiently developed that long haul trucking operations became feasible. The interstate highway system enhanced the ability of trucks to provide fast, dependable goods transportation.

Beasts of a different stripe
Railroads are the most efficient way to move goods in that they can move more tonnage per gallon of fuel than trucks. The rolling equipment of railroads isn't prone to breakdown nearly as much as trucks. The railcars are basically large steel boxes mounted on steel spring suspensions which in turn are mounted on steel axles and wheels. There isn't a lot there to go wrong. The locomotives still run diesel engines, but they aren't direct drive configurations. The diesel engine actually run large electrical generators which in turn drive the locomotive. These are subject to more intensive maintainence needs than the other rolling assets of the railroad. One of the larger expenses of railroads is maintaining track, bridges, and tunnels. When you hear of a rail accident, it is usually due to a track failure or a foreign object on the track.

Trucks are quite different in that they are more prone to failure than trains. Rubber tires blow out, steel wheels don't. While both usually utilize diesel power, the power plant of the truck doesn't operate at a steady rate which translates to increased wear on the engine as the demand upon it varies. Trucks aren't forced to stay on a set course and are prone to leaving the highway in bad weather, accidents, or the operator's inattention or drowsiness. So far, trains are looking pretty good in this analysis. There is more to consider.

Room for both at the table
The argument in favor of either trucking or rail is not an 'either-or' proposition. There are niches which each mode of transportation fulfill which the other cannot do as well. I will point out some and briefly discuss them.

What they do well, they do well
Railroads excel in the movement of large quantities of a single good. An example would be transporting coal to an electrical generation plant. Another would be the movement of large quantities of chemicals to a secondary user or storage facility. Other commodities which rail moves efficiently include wood chips (for paper making), lumber, steel, building materials, etc. The breakdown occurs when asked to move smaller qualtities. Each railcar requires a spur line to access each building of a destination. To deliver a car to a consignee the train must be 'broken apart' to get the required car in position for delivery. The car has to be pushed down the spur line to the destination, then the remainder of the train is reassembled to continue onward. This is a time consuming process. It often occurs out of sight of the public, which makes it go not one whit faster. When you get below the full car level, the problems escalate. Railroads simply do not have the infrastructure for 'break point' distribution.

Trucks simply pull up to a warehouse, swing open the trailer doors, back into a dock and load/unload. It takes about 5 minutes instead of a half hour or more to break a train down.

Trains have suffered a loss of track mileage instead of an increase. Many areas have lost train service over the last decades due to routes being discontinued. To reopen these tracks would require inspection and renovation to meet safety requirements. The acquisition of new right-of-way as well as the cost of laying new track would be daunting to expand rail significantly.

Few highways have been closed, but rather are undergoing constant renovation and expansion. Trucks can literally deliver to the doorstep of almost any home or business.

When you want it now
Trains due to the limitations of infrastructure are simply slower than trucks. The simple act of tracking railcars is a huge task which has admittedly become more efficient due to scanning technology. It still happens that a car is 'lost' by being dropped at a yard or spur, until it is discovered again. A truck with a team can deliver from any place in the continental US to any other destination in about 3 days, dock door to dock door. Trains cannot meet that kind of schedule on a continuous basis.

Truck accidents are dramatic. We all know that from watching the news. Trains, while they enjoy a very good safety record, do occasionally have accidents. The damage of a truck wreck pales in comparison to what happens when a train jumps the track. Trucks when they have accidents can be accessed by fire/rescue/recovery crews immediately because the accident site is on the highway. Trains often encounter accidents far off the highway which makes recovery of freight much more problematic. Many times the only way to make recovery of train equipment and freight is to send in a special train with equipment to make track repairs and remove damaged equipment. This is a much more time intensive activity than a typical truck accident.

When you want it yesterday
Our culture has become one in which we expect to be able to buy whatever we want when we want. Trucking caters to that need. Trains, for the previously mentioned reasons, are far less able to meet that need. As long as your Aunt May wants to go to the store and always have fresh fruit, veggies, and her favorite brand of toilet tissue available, a truck must first deliver it.

Trucks are more efficient in transporting fresh fruits and vegetables to market. They can deliver it from the field to the market, usually next day. We have all become used to farm fresh lettuce, greens, peppers, and a host of other perishable goods.

Trains could supply the needs of huge processing plants which provide canned or frozen produce. There isn't quite the need to deliver so quickly in those type operations.

What the JIT are you talking about?
In recent decades there has been a development in industry caled 'JIT', which is an anagram for 'Just In Time' delivery of goods. Industry discovered that rather than carry days or weeks of inventory of a good it is feasible to have the daily requirement trucked in. This removes the space required to carry huge inventory and the capital costs of the money to purchase that inventory. If you have tried recently to buy a part for your car more involved than a set of wiper blades you have probably found that your part had to come from a regional distribution center. Car dealerships don't carry all the parts for their various models, just the ones that have a very high demand. Other parts that are not so much in demand come from their RDC (Regional Distribution Center). Until manufacturers and suppliers decide to spend the capital for warehousing/inventory expansion, JIT will continue. Trains are not suited for this strict scheduling requirement.

As you can see there are needs that both of these methods supply very well. There is not a 'one size fits all' solution to our transportation needs. Trucking suffers from being so closely integrated with everyday life. You have to maneuver around these huge vehicles all the time while you may be stuck at a rail crossing once in a great while. Much of what the railroads do is out of sight of the public. Tracks run through the hills, forests and farmland of our nation while trucking's use of the highways is much more intrusive. That seems to be what bothers most people about big rigs; they are something that one must deal with in using the highways. They're either too fast or too slow, too darned big and too obtrusive. They are a royal pain to the driving public. Just try to remember however that the driver isn't joyriding, he's doing a job. That job has in some way affected every thing you use in your daily life. The motto 'If you got it, a truck brought it!' is absolutely true. The convenient life you live is only possible because of the existence of trucks.

The article, while certainly far from exhaustive, will perhaps give you food for thought. There is a role for every mode of transportation whether it be truck, train, boat, bus, or plane. If there was no need for any of them, they would soon join the buggy whip in history's anteroom. The challenge is to integrate each into society to realize the greatest benefit while experiencing the least inconvenience. It's a work in progress.