In logistics, there are four main modes of transportation: ocean, road, rail, and air. In this article we explore each of them, including when you would typically use them and their pros and cons. Let’s start with ocean shipping, the backbone of international trade.
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Ocean

More than 90% of global trade is carried by sea. And it’s mostly done using container vessels, where cargo is loaded into standardised shipping containers that are then stacked on board the vessel, like one big game of Tetris.

Indeed, according to , the world’s 10 largest ports were responsible for the transportation of over 275 million twenty-foot equivalent containers per year. This massive capacity is due to the large amount of freight that ocean transportation can carry, versus all other modes.

Why use ocean transportation?

  • Capacity: Of all modes of transportation, ocean offers by far the largest carrying capacity both by volume and weight. Thus, ocean transportation is an especially good choice for oversized products or bulk shipments.
  • Cost effective: In carrying goods for long distances, ocean transportation is typically more affordable than air freight due to the difference in cost for fuel, while still able to transport around the world.
  • Flexibility: Did you know that you don’t need to fill an entire shipping container to access ocean transportation? If you only want to ship boxes and pallets, you can choose less-than-container load (LCL) shipping.
  • Weather resistant: Shipping is rarely impacted by weather conditions in the same way that other modes can be, especially road.
  • Safe: Due to the nature of ocean shipping, cargo goes through minimal handling, with less opportunities for tampering or theft. Additionally, for dangerous or refrigerated goods, the security of the slower-moving vessel means more protection from damage.
  • Environmental impact: Ocean shipping tends to be more environmentally friendly for certain cargo, especially if it would otherwise be sent via air freight.

Why would ocean not be the best mode of transportation?

  • Speed: Though ocean transportation can carry significantly larger loads than the other modes, maritime shipping takes much longer.
  • Accessibility: If a end destination is inland, ocean needs to be combined with one or more other modes of logistics transportation.

While ocean shipping takes your cargo from port to port, it is often combined with inland transportation to deliver cargo from door to door. Normally that means using trucks and trains to move goods via road and rail. Let’s take a closer look at these two modes of transportation.

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Rail

Trains have been integral to logistics in every nearly every country in the world for more than two centuries; with particularly high prevelance in Europe and North America, where railway networks are comprehensive. In 2022, rail accounted for approximately .

Containerised cargo can be moved via rail, which is great for intermodal transportation — where freight is moved by two or more forms of transport e.g. from port to port via ocean vessel and then inland via rail.

Why use rail transportation?

  • Reliability: Due to the nature of rail scheduling, goods are less likely to be delayed via rail than other modes of transportation, particularly road.
  • Capacity: Rail transportation can a variety of capacities, from less-than-a-container-load, to an entire train. Additionally, bulk items or heavy cargo can more easily be transported via rail than road.
  • Environmental impact: Though other modes are seeing innovations in decarbonisation, rail transportation traditionally has the lowest environmental impact of all modes of logistics transportation.
  • Cost effective: Rail transportation is typically more affordable than other modes when it comes to long journeys.

Why would rail not be the best mode of transportation?

  • Transit time: While reliability of rail transport is certainly a benefit, it comes at the expense of longer transit times than other modes, particularly air.
  • Connectivity: Though some countries are very well-connected with rail networks, most deliveries require an additional mode of logistics transportation, such as road, to get the cargo where it needs to go.
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Road

Road freight, where cargo is transported via trucks as an inland solution, is a very popular choice for logistics transportation.

Road is also the most common mode for last-mile delivery, as its connectivity is unparalleled. It can facilitate intermodal transportation, as shipping containers can be loaded onto the back of a truck.

Logistics providers are increasingly offering more environmentally friendly and affordable options for road transportation, for example, with the emergence of electric vehicles.

Why use road transportation?

  • Restrictions: As opposed to rail, air, or ocean freight; road transportation has fewer restrictions for transporting hazardous materials.
  • Tracking: With built-in tracking capabilities, road transportation offers great visibility.
  • Cost effective: Depending on the route, road transportation can be one of the most cost-effective modes of logistics transportation.
  • Accessibility: Nearly every end-destination is reachable via road, lending it to be the most accessible transportation mode with end-to-end delivery.
  • Flexible: In contrast to other modes of transportation, road freight is easily adjustable in-route. Additionally, there are more options for customisation depending on the needs of the shipper and the cargo.

Why would road not be the best mode of transportation?

  • Delays: Road freight is particularly vulnerable to delays due to weather or road closures.
  • Distance: Due to the nature of road transportation, it is impossible to implement as a mode for trans-global transportation, as it is only available as an in-land solution.
  • Vulnerable to theft: As trucks are on public roads and busy rest-stops, they are more vulnerable to theft or tampering than other modes that use less-travelled pathways.
  • Speed: Road transportation can be slower than other modes, especially air, and is more prone to accidents or breakdowns than other modes.
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Air

The newest logistics transportation mode is undoubtedly air, where cargo travels long or short distances via airplane.

Air freight is the most trusted mode for speed, with an airport-to-airport transit time of as little as a few days. That’s great news for moving time-sensitive cargo. It’s also accessible all over the world, and can be a quick solution when disruptions arise.

However, speed can come at a financial and environmental cost.

Why use air transportation?

  • Reliability: It is rare for air cargo to experience extensive delays, as the fixed scheduling of air transportation means that freight must depart and arrive on time for the proper functioning of air traffic systems.
  • Speed: Due to the nature of air transportation the cargo benefits from a much more direct route than other modes.
  • Security: With air freight more than other modes, cargo is subject to the most rigorous review and protection.
  • Low risk: As cargo is under strict protection insurance costs are typically lower than for other modes of transportation.

Why would air not be the best mode of transportation?

  • Cost: Due to the higher cost of fuel and additional security measures, maintence, handling fees, etc. air transportation can be more costly than other modes of logistics transport.
  • Capacity: Because of the size and weight limitations on airplanes, air freight is often not the best choice when shipping heavy or extremely large items. Additionally, it is often too dangerous to transport hazardous materials via airplane.

Ready to start shipping?

Whether it’s by ocean, road, rail, or air, Maersk has solutions to take your cargo all the way. We offer frequent departures on all major trade lanes, combining ocean shipping with inland transportation for truly integrated logistics. Explore our transportation services.

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