Rail freight transport includes all freight transportation carried out by railroads and trains.
Railways are ideal for transporting high volumes of bulk commodities over long distances. Rail freight movement is generally more efficient than road transport due to the low friction produced by the use of steel wheels and rails. In the United States, for example, rail freight is two-thirds more fuel efficient than road transport on a per ton-kilometer basis. Efficiently run railways can provide a more inexpensive means of transporting high volumes of goods. Railways mainly carry bulk raw materials (coal, ores and minerals, crude oil, sand and gravel, grains, logs, sugarcane) and semi-processed industrial goods (oil products, chemicals, iron and steel, cement, fertilizer, sawn timber). The largest volumes of freight are carried by the railways of China, United States, Russia, and India. Growth in the rail freight sector is strongly correlated with growth in intermodal traffic, as container shipment becomes an increasingly large component of total rail shipments.
Over the past decade, road freight appears to have received more focus from green freight programs, and has been prioritized over rail freight with a high share of investments proposed for road improvement. This has resulted in rail freight mode share reduction in several countries. Regulatory restrictions, such as on train length, can prevent improvement of rail freight fuel efficiency. Railway assets, such as the track infrastructure, have high maintenance and depreciation costs which may prevent scaling up of the rail network especially in developing countries with limited funds. Railways with low axle-loads can be less energy efficient than road freight because rail freight wagons typically weigh more than highway vehicles. Railway construction can be a highly emission-intensive process, especially in mountainous terrain. Developing systematic reforms within railways is a multi-year effort, taking significantly longer time when compared with road industry. Lack of rail-truck multimodal freight collaboration can act as a significant barrier in improving rail freight efficiency.
Coordination among railway companies and between different modes will have to be strengthened, and data quality for rail freight will have to be improved. Some of the strategies to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions from rail freight movement includes setting new standards for rail locomotives, conduction of energy audits of rolling stock (locomotives) and coaches, adoption of energy efficient equipment in railways, improved driving techniques in railways, electrification in railways, aerodynamic drag reduction in railways, wide body stock and double-decked stock, natural gas (CNG, LNG) locomotives, train weight reduction, dual power source trains, longer trains, hybrid drives in trains, trip logistics and optimization software in railways, reduced idling in railways, railroad grade separations, and brake energy recovery/regenerative braking. These technologies can also potentially improve the competitiveness of rail freight to attract more rail infrastructure investments.