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All Aboard: Why rail transport offers real advantages

Did you know that trains have the best eco-balance among all modes of freight transport? And it’s far from the only advantage. Interest in rail logistics is growing, so let’s look at the benefits of shifting from road to rail.

Rail transport: environmental benefits and beyond

The ships, planes, trucks, and trains that move goods and materials between manufacturers, suppliers, and consumers are the lifeblood of the global economy. They fuel globalization and the prosperity it brings. But this prosperity comes at a price: Freight transport accounts for some 8% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, not including vehicle manufacturing or warehouse operations. And with global demand expected to triple by 2050, freight is on track to eventually displace energy as the most carbon-intensive sector – unless we change course.

While solutions like biofuels are slowly scaling up to reduce long-haul truck transport emissions, millions of miles of railroads are ready now – and can offer the best option for lowering the logistics footprint of overland transport. A single freight train running between Munich and Berlin today can offset a whopping 52 trucks while generating less than 6% of the GHG emissions.

Trucks might be indispensable for getting goods to and from transport hubs in first- and last-mile logistics, but there are so many advantages to moving medium- and long-haul overland logistics from road to rail. The environmental benefits of rail transport are a big plus, which is one reason why the EU has set a 2030 target to increase the share of cargo shipments traveling by train.

Rail transport, by comparison

Before we dive into the advantages of rail transport, it’s important to understand that trains cannot meet all needs:

  • By sea: We will always need container ships to move large volumes of goods cost-effectively across oceans.
  • By air: Airplanes are critical for transporting urgent or highly perishable items quickly across long distances.
  • By land: Trucks and trains share the task of long-haul overland transport, but with wildly different environmental impacts: Trucks are responsible for over five times the harmful greenhouse gas emissions per ton-kilometer (one metric ton of freight transported across one kilometer), so it makes sense to prioritize rail wherever possible.

With rail transport, the environmental benefits are clear

Electrification is playing an enormous role in green logistics and sustainable business. But today’s fleets of long-haul trucks, container ships, and cargo aircraft still rely primarily on fossil fuels. Efforts to electrify these modes – especially trucks and planes – are exciting, but the challenges are daunting, and (scalable) solutions are a decade away (at least) – too late to help us reduce emissions now.

Rail networks, on the other hand, are already largely electrified. For example, Europe’s cargo rail network is over 80% electric, so its trains have no direct emissions. Meanwhile, the indirect emissions from the power plants that generate electricity are being driven down continuously and aggressively as energy grids go green. This yields a genuine potential for net zero emissions over the medium term.

Overland transport: rail vs. road

24 grams

Average GHG emissions of freight trains per ton-kilometer

Less than 20%

Ratio of GHG emissions from rail freight relative to road freight per ton-kilometer


Share of European rail freight network currently electrified

11,500 metric tons

Expected annual reduction in CO2 emissions from just one DHL road-to-rail modal shift (Duisburg–Padborg)

The advantages and disadvantages of rail transport

Reduced GHG emissions may be the biggest benefit, but there are many other advantages – and some downsides to consider.

One of the reasons rail transport is environmentally beneficial is because freight trains can carry more cargo than trucks, including heavier and bulkier items. Higher capacity can make rail transport shipments both more ecological and economical. Trains are safer – accidents are around 40 times less likely. And rail networks experience fewer short-term delays, which improves plannability.

Rail transport also offers many other benefits:

  • Reduced congestion
  • Improved air quality
  • Better automation and optimization
  • Better security
  • Fewer disruptions
  • Better scalability
  • Higher availability of skilled labor

There are disadvantages, of course. Trains are not as flexible as trucks, rail transport tends to be a bit more expensive than road, and the track networks are not as developed as interstate highway systems in many places.

Read more about the pros and cons of rail transport in DHL Freight Connections.

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Road to rail in practice

The Germany–Denmark connection

A good illustration of the sustainability of rail logistics is the new rail freight connection between Germany and Denmark. Since early May 2023, we’ve been running dedicated freight trains on three round trips per week between Duisburg in Germany, home to the world’s largest inland port, and Padborg on Denmark’s border with Germany.

The new connection relieves road congestion on this busy corridor, shifting up to 240 truckloads a week from road to rail and eliminating up to 11,500 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. Available exclusively for full-truckload shipments, the connection can be combined with our GoGreen Plus service for a complete solution that includes pickup and delivery on either end. The weekly round trips to Denmark join over 3,900 trains that DHL Freight runs in partnership with various rail companies throughout Europe.

Supporting “Net Zero by 2050” in the UAE

Another example is our partnership between DHL Global Forwarding and Etihad Rail, the developer and operator of the United Arab Emirates National Rail Network. The 20-year agreement allows us to use Etihad Rail’s network for operations within the UAE. Each train journey has the potential to displace 300 trucks on the road.

We expect the partnership to significantly reduce pressures on road transport and boost trade, commerce, and logistics in the UAE while playing a key role in helping the country meet its environmental commitments. It will also deliver significant benefits to businesses by optimizing asset and resource management, reducing costs, and strengthening end-to-end logistics and supply chain services for customers in the region.

Rail transport from China to Europe

China has been investing heavily in freight rail links with Europe as part of its decades-long New Silk Road project. Traffic along the Northern Corridor has plunged since the war in Ukraine began, but traffic along the Middle Corridor that bypasses Russia to the south is carrying more than ever before, up 63.7% year on year in the first quarter of 2023. Rail transport is opening up many opportunities for importers and exporters to shift the shipment of goods away from ocean freight. The vast majority of goods leaving China for Europe still travel by ship. There are many advantages to making the move, such as door-to-door delivery of about 10-20 days. Anyone shipping between China and Europe should certainly check the options and contact an expert.

Time to change tracks?

The unrivaled eco-balance of rail transport among all modes of transportation, coupled with a host of other advantages, should make any long-distance shipper curious. European businesses can get the biggest benefits, but rail infrastructure is expanding, and new opportunities are opening up. With more and more companies committing to net-zero, one should overlook the advantages of rail transport.


Is it time for you to change tracks? Find out more about our cost-effective and environmentally-conscious rail logistics solutions.

Published: June 2023

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