Freight Rail Overview | FRA

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Freight is moved by rail, waterways, pipeline, truck, and air throughout the United States. Freight Moves pie chartRail has an advantage in moving heavy freight over long distances efficiently, as do waterways and pipeline services. Trucks provide time-sensitive delivery services for more high-value goods being transported over medium- and short-haul distances. 

Heavy freight such as coal, lumber, ore, and heavy freight going long distances are likely to travel by rail, or some combination of truck, rail, and water. The rail network accounted for approximately 28 percent of U.S. freight movement by ton-miles (the length and weight freight travels). [7] The Waybill Sample map shows U.S. rail routes by tonnage of commodities they carry.  


[7] U.S. Department of Transportation, 2019 Pocket Guide to Transportation, 19.STB 2018 Public Map


Rail is a cost-effective and efficient way to move almost any freight in the United States, which benefits both producers and consumers. Each American requires the movement of approximately 54 tons of freight per year. Goods people use or components of the goods people use are largely shipped by rail. [8]

Freight Rail Commodities percentages

In all, 52 percent of rail freight car loads consist of bulk commodities such as agriculture and energy products, automobiles and components, construction materials, chemicals, equipment, food, metals, minerals, paper, and pulp. The remaining 48 percent is intermodal traffic that generally consists of consumer goods and other miscellaneous products. [9] Intermodal traffic is made up of shipping containers of all types of goods that can be transferred easily from rail to truck, plane, or other vessel, and vice versa.

U.S. rail freight moves on a variety of cars, depending on the goods being transported—from refrigerated cars for shipping perishables to flatbed cars for aircraft or automobile parts to intermodal shipping containers. Modern freight trains average roughly 73 cars (but top train length is 200 cars and growing), whereas the average freight train length in 1929 was 48 cars. [10]

Goods in the United States move predominantly to and from ports, manufacturing hubs, and areas of specific economic activity, from rural areas for agriculture and energy products to population centers or outlying regions where power plants and large manufacturing facilities are located. 

Freight rail participates in achieving national export goals and facilitating the safe and efficient importation of goods via both the East and West Coasts and to and from Mexico and Canada. (See U.S. Rail-Carried Trade with Canada and Mexico for additional information on the volumes and values of commodities that flow between North American countries and the most important freight gateways along the borders.) 


[8] Association of American Railroads, “Freight Rail: Making Modern Life Possible for Consumers,” March 2018.
[9] Association of American Railroads,
Railroad Facts, 2019 Edition, 27 (Class 1 railroads only).
[10] Association of American Railroads,
Railroad Facts, 2019 Edition, 38.