What Are the Most Common Goods Transported via Rail?

Posted on January 09, 2023

shipping by trainNearly 140,000 miles of rail make up the United States rail network. Rails are used for transporting goods in bulk before they reach consumers. Unlike highways, railway transportation is run almost entirely by private organizations. Investors are responsible for funding railroad maintenance and improvement.

Trucks may have the ability to move goods and materials more quickly than rail transport. Railcars, on the other hand, are usually much more efficient and cost-effective.

Almost all end products involve some form of railway cargo. But what are the most common goods transported via rail?  Read on to find out all you need to know about rail freight transporting!

The Freight Rail Network: An Overview

The United States freight rail network is a nearly $80 billion industry. Spanning much of the contiguous states, the rail freight system is one of the best in the world in terms of safety and efficiency.

The rail system consists of three groups of railroads:

  • 7 class I railroads
  • 22 regional railroads
  • 584 local/short line railroads

Trains are more efficient than other modes of transport in several ways. Although it is privately funded, rail freight transportation is still subject to government oversight to maintain safety.

What Are the Most Common Goods Transported via Rail?

Because of its efficiency, the freight rail network is useful for almost every industry. By adding more cars, trains can ship massive quantities of goods and materials.

There are several broad categories of goods that use railway transport.

Hazardous Materials

Hazardous materials include any type of cargo that is dangerous in some way. These materials, most often liquids and gases, may be flammable, explosive, or toxic.

Many kinds of fuel, such as petroleum, ethanol, and propane, fall into the category of hazardous materials. Toxic chemicals like chlorine and pesticides also present health risks.

Other hazardous materials may have the possibility of transmitting infectious diseases. Fertilizers, for example, can carry pathogens that lead to potentially fatal infections.

Railcars carrying hazardous materials have more regulations in place due to the dangerous nature of transporting them. These cars require additional precautions to reduce health and safety risks.

Consumer Goods

This is the broadest category of common goods transported via rail. Consumer goods include anything bought by individuals and not manufacturers.

Products like soap, clothing, produce, and electronics are all examples of consumer goods. Because railcars can carry such a large bulk of products, rail transport reduces the retail price of consumer goods.

Perishable items and goods that need protection from the elements go into covered railcars. Open-top vehicles carry more durable goods to reduce the weight of the train.

Raw Materials

Raw materials usually ship in bulk, so the freight rail network is essential to industries like mining and manufacturing. Mines are the most common point of origin for raw material transport.

Substances like coal, iron ore, and lumber fall into this category of goods. Raw materials rarely require covered cars, but some that are susceptible to moisture do.

From the mine or lumber yard, trains carry raw materials to ports, plants, and factories. Other types of raw materials include refined steel, other minerals, and plastic.

Special Cargo

All other types of cargo fall into this category of goods. Special cargo is anything that requires a specific procedure for rail transportation.

The following are examples of special cargo:

  • Live animals
  • Products sensitive to temperature
  • Artwork and valuables
  • Human remains
  • Oversized cargo
  • Automobiles
  • Aircraft and aircraft parts

Special cargo can require a variety of changes to the procedure for transport.

Live animals need a car that is safe and allows enough airflow. Temperature-sensitive items require refrigeration or heating.

Oversized cargo, like vehicles and machinery, most often travels on a large flatbed railcar. This kind of cargo provides unique challenges that require specialized warehousing procedures.

Rail vs Truck Transport

Next to rail transport, trucks are the second most common method of shipping goods. Trucks and railcars each have advantages and drawbacks.


Trucks are generally a faster method of transport than trains. However, highway transport has many variables that can affect travel time while railways are very consistent.

Railways, for example, don’t have the risk of traffic congestion. Additionally, trucks require more maintenance and need to make frequent stops for fuel and repairs.


Railcars, while slower than trucks, provide consistency and can carry larger quantities of cargo. This makes for a higher level of efficiency and much lower shipping costs.

Trains can also be extended with the addition of more cars. This process allows them to carry even more cargo at once, further reducing the cost of shipping.

Fuel and Emissions

In addition to the amount of cargo trains can carry, they are also much more fuel-efficient than trucks. Trains can carry a ton of freight nearly 500 miles with just one gallon of fuel.

Their fuel efficiency also makes railway transport more environmentally friendly than highway transport. Trains account for only 2% of greenhouse gas emissions while making up a third of freight shipping.

Top Quality Warehousing and Rail Siding

Nearly every product you encounter in your daily life involved railway transport in its production. This guide can help you answer the question, “What are the most common goods transported via rail?”

Trains may carry hazardous materials, consumer goods, raw materials, or special cargo. Within these broader categories are a wide variety of goods.

Whatever you’re shipping, choosing the right warehouse is crucial to get your product to its destination. Quality Warehouse and Distribution has been offering rail siding and warehousing for over 40 years.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you with your freight transport!