Freight trains are the kings of efficient land transport. Using a single gallon of fuel, a train can move a ton of freight 436 miles. According to the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, railways account for 40 percent of the country’s freight movement by ton-miles, or the distance freight travels. That sheer volume wouldn’t be possible if freight trains couldn’t take part in intermodal transport by accepting shipping containers.
Generally, intermodal transport by rail carries consumer goods–items you’d find in a typical store. Freight trains are ideal for transporting containers from sea to inland depots (where a truck might pick up the goods for final delivery), or vice versa.
One reason trains are so efficient is double stacking. Double stacking is exactly what it sounds like: One container sits on top of another, much like on a container ship, albeit on a smaller scale. This method allows two 40-foot containers or four 20-foot containers to occupy a single rail car, effectively doubling its capacity. The method also works with 53-foot containers meant to be passed off for transport by tractor-trailer.
According to Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue at Hofstra University, double stacking first appeared in the North America in 1984. For a long time, only that region featured double stacking. That changed in 2004, when “double-stack container train services using 40 foot boxes between Shanghai and Beijing were launched.”
There are two drawbacks to double stacking: Loading and unloading is more complicated, and trains need more clearance when passing under bridges. But the upside is enormous. It’s hard to think of a simpler way to double a transportation method’s capacity.
Freight transport by rail is opening up new trade corridors throughout the world. For instance, a relatively, still-expanding rail network connects Europe and Asia, giving shippers a cheaper method of transporting goods. For Asian shippers sending goods west, the rail service can be up to 65 percent cheaper than shipping the same goods by air. It’s also faster than sending the goods by sea.
We’ll continue to see the growth of intermodal shipping methods. In 2015, for example, the industry grew by 5 percent in North America, and the Europe-Asia freight corridor shows the method’s worldwide appeal. At the center of all this growth is the incredible efficiency of intermodal freight trains.