Shipping by rail in Canada: When is it your best option?

The romance of the railroad is deeply embedded into our Canadian culture.

The image of the train chugging through Canada’s picturesque landscape has inspired many songs and stories.

But for transportation, supply chain and logistics professionals, the lure of rail goes much further than charming words and beautiful pictures.

Linked with ship, air and truck transportation, the powerful freight train moves through Canada’s landscape with products that drive the world’s economy.

In today’s high-speed supply chain networks, rail represents a key component of the intermodal framework.

How do you know if rail is is the right solution for you?

With Canada’s railroads ramping up capital spending on infrastructure and equipment, intermodal services that include rail have significant benefits.

Here are 5 advantages and disadvantages to using rail to ship goods to, from and through Canada:


Advantages of shipping by rail in Canada:


1. A solution to truck driver shortage

Canada is heading into a truck driver shortage, the Conference Board of Canada warns — our nation could be short by up to 33,000 drivers by 2020.

The impact on everyday Canadians is far-reaching.

Fewer trucks on the roads will mean a lessened ability to transport goods.

As capacity concerns choke transportation efficiency in trucking and driver availability continues to drain capital resources, the railway offers a viable alternative to trucking.


2. Lower costs

Rail is less expensive than truck or air by far, especially for bulk commodities that need to be hauled over a long distance such as coal, lumber, grain, fertilizer, fuel, etc.

Shipping freight by rail may be less expensive if your freight is near a railhead at the point of pick-up and delivery.

Railroads offer containerized service with the containers available in different sizes allowing for cost-effective large-scale shipments. In addition, with the availability of stacked containers, significant cost savings are realized.

It is also estimated that trains are about three times more fuel-efficient.


3. Trains are better for the environment

Trucks are much worse than trains for contributing to greenhouse gas enhancements and their associated climate change impacts.

One train can carry the load of more than 280 trucks.

If you live near a railroad, you see them every day, semi-trailers secured to the deck and shipping containers stacked two-high.

They’re moving freight that isn’t clogging Canada’s highways and polluting the air with excess hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide produced by trucks.


4. Safest mode of ground freight transportation

Railway is the safest form of transport. The chances of accidents and breakdown of railways are minimum compared to trucking.

Accidents on highways that end in fatalities often involve trucks. Less so with trains that have low accident rates.


5. Dependability

One of the greatest advantages of railway transport is that it’s the most dependable shipping mode.

Railway transportation is the least affected by weather conditions such as rains, fog etc. compared to other modes of transport.



DISADVANTAGES of shipping by rail in Canada:


1. Lack of timely transport

The main downside to rail is the lack of timely transport, a near non-starter for companies that demand just-in-time logistics.

The need to put things in storage makes rail particularly difficult for perishables.


2. Inflexibility

Inflexibility is another disadvantages of railway transport. It routes and timings cannot be adjusted to individual requirements.


3. No door-to-door service

Rail transport cannot provide door-to-door service as it is tied to a particular track.


4. Unsuitable for short distances

Railway transport is unsuitable and uneconomical for short distances and small traffic of goods.


5. Requires more extensive planning

There is much more time and labour in booking and taking delivery of goods through railways as compared to motor transport.

Boasting over 48,000 kilometres of track, Canada has one of the largest rail networks in the world.


Promoting a greater market share for rail transport is not a goal in itself, but is a key element in maintaining and improving the transportation infrastructure in Canada.

If you have any thoughts on the future of railway transport in Canada, we’d love to hear from you.