A Guide to Inland Logistics: Road, Rail and Barge


31 May 2021 • 29 min read

A Guide to Inland Logistics: Road, Rail and Barge

Editorial Team

A complete guide to Road, Rail and Barge transport services. Everything Exporters / Importers need to know about inland logistics.

The movement of goods by road, rail and barge – called inland transportation – is crucial to global trade and the international shipping process. While the majority of goods worldwide might be transported by sea and some by air, the shipping process would not be complete without inland transportation, especially in the first and last miles. For example, trucks and trains move cargo from the exporter’s warehouse to the port so it can be loaded on a ship, or from the port to the importer’s final destination. Road, rail and barge are, thus, important components of multimodal and intermodal transport – which are a combination of two or more modes of transport for the movement of cargo.

Inland transportation is very important for a country like India, with its vast land mass and road and rail networks. India has the world’s second largest road network at 5.89 million km and one of the largest rail networks spread over 123,236 km. It makes sense that 59% of all freight volume in the country moves on roads and 35% by rail, according to a 2018 government study. Waterways, including barge transportation, account for 6% of cargo volume. 

This blog is an in-depth exploration of road, rail and barge transportation and their roles in international shipping. We will be looking at the following subheads:

  • What is haulage?
  • Road transportation and its classifications
  • Types of vehicles used for road cargo
  • Rail transportation and cargo types
  • Types of freight wagons
  • Barge transportation
  • Types of barges
  • Advantages, disadvantages of all three transport modes

What is Haulage?

Haulage is a term we come across while discussing inland transportation. It is the business of transporting goods by road or rail. Haulage can be classified as:  

  • Carrier haulage: This meansthe carrier organises road or rail transportation of cargo to the carrier for loading and, on completion of the main journey, onward to the final destination. It is also called line haulage. The carrier is responsible for any damages, liabilities and claims that might arise, unless caused by improper packaging and stowage. In Europe, carrier haulage is the preferred mode for door-to-door delivery shipments. 
  • Merchant haulage: Here,the merchant/cargo owner organises inland movement of cargo to the carrier and, after the main journey, to the final destination. The merchant – who can be the exporter, importer or an agent acting at their behest – is responsible for any damages.     

Road Transportation

Road transportation is the most common mode of transporting goods. Compared to the others (sea, air, rail, barge, pipeline), it has the least geographical constraints and is the most versatile. These are the major ways of moving cargo by road:

  • FTL (full truckload): A single shipment takes up an entire truck. Usually, large consignments require FTL shipping. But shippers might opt for FTL for smaller shipments too if they are valuable or high-risk. Freight is charged on the basis of distance. FTL shipments are associated with FCl (full container load) and LCL (less than container load) shipping.    
  • LTL (less than truckload): A truck carries more than one shipment that is of a smaller volume than an FTL shipment. Hence, multiple shippers share a truck for their consignments. They pay only for the space they take up individually. LTL shipments are associated with LCL (less than container load) shipping.

  • Partial Truckload and Volume LTL: Sometimes, when a shipment doesn’t require a full truck but is more voluminous than your average LTL shipment, it might fall into a middle bracket called partial truckload or volume LTL. These terms are often used interchangeably but differ slightly. A partial truckload shipment comprises eight to 18 pallets and weighs 3,628-12,473 kg (8,000-27,500 pounds). A volume LTL shipment is smaller and must fulfil any of these conditions – at least six pallets, at least 2,268 kg (5,000 pounds), occupies more than 12 linear feet of space (a linear foot is 12 inches). Partial truckload does not need a freight class because rates are market-established. Volume LTL, on the other hand, requires a freight class because carriers provide quotes on the basis of their classification system and published LTL rates. (Freight class is a measurement system used by carriers to establish standard prices).                
  • Trailer pick-up and drop-off: Atrailer is a two-part vehicle with an unpowered cargo-carrying unit and a “tractor or cab unit” that moves it. It is equipped with a generator so a refrigerated (reefer) unit can be plugged in. Trailers are designed to move shipping containers. A shipper usually uses a trailer service to pick up empty containers from a container yard and drop them off at his warehouse for stuffing, and to transport the stuffed containers to the port or terminal to be loaded on the carrier. 

FTL versus LTL

The most common modes of moving cargo by road are FTL and LTL. To find out which suits your needs better, know the differences between the two: 

  • Size: By industry estimates, an LTL shipment weighs 68 kg to 6,800 kg (150-15,000 pounds) and comprises up to 10 pallets while an FTL shipment weighs 9,072 kg (20,000 pounds) or more and has 10 pallets or more. LTL is a great choice for small businesses shipping in moderate quantities.   
  • Cost: An LTL shipment costs less because you pay only for the space your cargo occupies. An FTL shipment is expensive because you pay for the entire truck.        
  • Time: An FTL shipment has a shorter transit time because it moves directly between two points with no stops in between. It is the better option for urgent and time-sensitive cargo. An LTL shipment might have more than one pick-up and drop-off, resulting in a longer transit time.             
  • Security: An FTL shipment stays on the truck the entire time, lowering the risk of cargo being damaged or going missing. An LTL shipment, which might switch trucks and is handled more, is at greater risk of being damaged or lost. 
  • Flexibility: The involvement of multiple shippers makes cargo pick-up and delivery times in LTL shipping strict. FTL shipping provides more flexibility on this count.

Truck and Trailer types

There are a variety of cargo vehicles used in road transportation:

  • Straight truck: A simple truck used to transport smaller goods such as furniture, it is also called a box truck, box van, cube truck or cube van. It is easier to operate than the other vehicles on this list.
A box truck or straight truck is ideal for moving home goods such as furniture. (Image credit: Mr.choppers / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)
  • Flat-bed: Versatile and popular, thistrailer has no sides or top and is ideal for ferrying heavy goods such as wood and pipes.  
  • Reefer: A refrigerated truck or trailer, it moves chilled and frozen goods. Because it counts as specialised equipment and uses extra fuel to power its temperature control system, reefers are expensive. But they are also in high demand.
  • Dry van: An enclosed trailer, it is meant for non-perishable cargo that needs to be protected from the elements. It can carry palletised, boxed or loose cargo.
  • Container trailer: This semi-trailer has an undercarriage that can accomodate a standard container (20 ft, 40 ft). Shippers who have their cargo stuffed at their warehouse or factory use this vehicle.
A container loaded on a trailer on its way to the Alexandria port in Egypt. (Image credit: TheEgyptian / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0)     
  • Low-bed: This trailer with a low-lying deck transports both heavy and tall cargo. The deck’s low centre of gravity makes it stable while carrying heavy loads. Most countries have restrictions on the height of cargo moved by road. A low deck allows the movement of tall cargo that may not be allowed on, say, a flat-bed. A low-bed is also called a low-boy.

Advantages of Road Transport

  • Only mode of transport capable of door-to-door deliveries 
  • Huge network of roads makes fixed delivery days, next-day delivery possible  
  • Not bound by schedules and routes. It can be operated any time and can easily adapt to the requirements of a specific route or cargo   
  • Fast movement of goods, especially perishables, over short distances 
  • Cheaper than air and sea shipping. Packaging requirements are minimal, leading to more savings
  • Not capital-intensive. Cost of building, operating and maintaining roads is comparatively low. Trucks and trailers are cheaper than ships, aircraft and trains
  • Services the world’s remotest regions and facilitates trade in land-locked countries
  • A vital link in the shipping of goods by air, sea and rail.


  • High risk of accidents makes road transportation less safe than air, sea, rail and other transport modes
  • Unsuitable for long distances and heavy and bulky goods
  • Not reliable during monsoon when roads get flooded, damaged
  • Traffic delays, breakdowns can impact delivery times
  • Some countries have high toll charges and road taxes
  • Poor maintenance of roads is a major problem
  • Road transportation costs are highly sensitive to fluctuations in fuel prices
A picture of a container train, departing from Jodhpur Railway Station (Image credit: Photo by Anirudh on Unsplash)

Rail Transportation

Nothing beats rail transportation when it comes to moving large volumes of goods on land over long distances, that too cost-effectively. In countries with large land masses and railway networks such as India, China and the US, freight trains not only haul cargo from origin to destination domestically and help in the development of major industries, they are also a key component of international shipping.

Types of Rail Cargo

  • Consumer goods: Fruits and vegetables, textiles, etc  
  • Bulk cargo: Cargo that is transported without being packaged, palletised and containerised. The mode of transport itself – in this case the freight train – counts as the container. Bulk cargo can be either dry bulk or liquid bulk. Grains, salt, cement and coal are examples of dry bulk and oil and fuel of liquid bulk. 
  • Break bulk cargo: Cargo that cannot be containerised or loaded in bulk but is essentially broken down into individual pieces and loaded or unloaded one at a time. Machinery, equipment and wooden logs are examples of break bulk cargo.     
  • Special cargo: Automobiles, temperature-sensitive goods such as perishable foods, oversized or over dimensional cargo (ODC), and steel pallets comprise special cargo.
  • Hazardous material: Crude oil, ethanol, liquified petroleum gas, etc. Because such goods pose health and safety risks, they are subject to national and international rules and regulations.    

Types of Freight Wagons

A freight train, commonly called a goods train in India, is a group of freight wagons pulled by an engine. Based on the cargo, there are many types of freight wagons:  

  • Hopper: Designed to carry dry bulk such as grains and minerals, hoppers can be both closed and open, depending on whether the cargo needs to be protected from the elements. Hoppers have doors that open from the sides or bottom.    
  • Gondola: An open-topped wagon, it is used to transport high-density dry bulk such as steel pipes and coils. It is lower than a hopper for easier loading.   
  • Container wagon: It is designed to move shipping containers. Some countries, including India, have double stack container wagons that give great savings on capacity, manpower and energy. Intermodal freight trains move containerised export cargo from inland container depots (ICDs) to ports, say, from an ICD in Gurugram, Haryana, to Nhava Sheva port in Maharashtra. For import cargo, it would be a trip in the opposite direction.      
  • Refrigerated wagon: It carries perishable and temperature-sensitive cargo such as milk, meat and other food items
  • Schnabel wagon: This is a uniquely designed wagon with multiple wheels that carries heavy and oversized cargo suspended from two lifting arms. The arms are attached to a network of pivots and frames to ensure even distribution of cargo weight.         
  • Box car: This is a closed wagon that carries goods that must be protected from the weather. It opens from the sides through one or more doors. It is less popular now because of the container wagon.       

India has its own way of classifying freight wagons as per standards:   

  • Open wagons: These include box open wagons with high sides and side-loading for bulk cargo such as coal, and boy open wagons with low sides suitable for carrying iron ore  
  • Covered wagons: These come as both single and double-decker wagons and are used to transport automobiles 
  • Tank wagons: These are used to carry petrol, petroleum products and kerosene  
  • Special purpose wagons: These include milk wagons capable of carrying 40,000 litres of milk at 4 degrees Celsius, aluminium and cement wagons, etc.

Advantages of Rail Transport

  • Cheaper than road transportation. In India, moving cargo by rail costs Rs 1.41 per ton km compared to Rs 2.58 per ton km by road
  • Trains are more energy-efficient, have a smaller carbon footprint than trucks. According to the Indian Railways, rail transport emits 28 gm CO2e per net ton km compared to 64 gm CO2e by road (CO2e being a measure of relative global warming potential)
  • Trains cover long distances in a short time 
  • Easy cargo loading/unloading because of large volumes, few packaging requirements
  • Less risk of damage to cargo during transit
  • Better safety record. Cost of road accidents in cargo movement is eight times more than train accidents  
  • Weather conditions have little impact on rail transport 


  • Not a universal cargo transport solution like trucks. Rail transport is mostly meant for high-volume goods over long distances
  • Longer transit times rule out time-sensitive goods
  • India’s rail network, while vast, is over-saturated
  • In most countries, rail networks are not as wide as road networks. In India, many container ports are not connected to rail lines
  • Trains are less reliable than trucks, especially in India
  • Rail transport lacks the flexibility of road transport
Image Credit: dendoktoor from Pixabay 

Barge Transportation

A barge is a long, flat-bottomed, non-mechanical cargo boat propelled by a towboat or tugboat. Barges generally move on inland waterways – interconnected rivers and canals – but are now used at sea ports too. They are an efficient and safe way of transporting goods in bulk. Barges contribute greatly to cargo movement in Europe and the US, while India has in recent years made a push for inland waterway cargo services.

Types of Barges

  • Dry bulk cargo barge: It carries grains, minerals, steel, coal, sand, gravel, etc. Some dry bulk cargo barges come with fibreglass or steel covers for weather-sensitive cargo. The covers can be lifted or rolled back.   
  • Liquid bulk cargo barge: It carries fuel, petroleum products, liquid fertilisers, etc. A liquid bulk cargo barge has one or several tanks to accommodate liquid cargo. It is, hence, also called a tank barge.
  • Split hopper: Designed to hold dredging material (soil, sand, rocks), a split hopper is used extensively in marine construction. Its hull (bottom, sides and deck) splits to release the material it is holding. When sailing, the hull is held together with locks.

Advantages of Barge Transport          

  • Greater cargo capacity than trucks, trailers and rail wagons
  • More environment-friendly, energy-efficient than trucks and trains
  • With fewer accidents, it is safer than road and rail transport
  • Lower risk of cargo pilferage and damage


  • Slower than trucks and trains, hence not recommended for perishable goods
  • Not time and cost-effective for short distances
  • Changing river levels can create potential shipping problems

Road versus Rail versus Barge
Try Cogoport’s Inland Transport Services

Blog comments

focal shippingmanagement@focalshipping.com
26 August 2023
Hello, I appreciate you providing this useful blog post to us.
Inland Transportationfocalshipping123@gmail.com
20 March 2024
I appreciate you sharing this information on your blog
Inland Transportationfocalshipping123@gmail.com
29 April 2024
Your blog is great, thanks for sharing it

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