It pays to ship parcels by rail

Although shipping by rail has long been part of the logistics mix, today’s shippers often don’t consider rail to be an option. That’s changing, and parcel shippers are taking notice.

On track to the future?

The oldest known constructed trackways date back thousands of years. But we don’t need to travel nearly that far back to understand the essential role of railways in transportation and logistics. The development and expansion of the railroad revolutionized travel and shipping – and fueled the Industrial Revolution. However, the growing popularity and flexibility of road and air freight and the low cost of ocean freight in the second half of the 20th Century made it difficult for rail to compete. Today, many shippers don’t even consider shipping by rail to be an option.

That’s changing. And that’s good news for both (ecommerce) business and the environment.

Regular nonstop rail links between China and Europe have been well established for nearly a decade. Trans-Eurasian rail services meet the growing demand for a quick and cost-effective option. Trains are faster than ships and less expensive than planes. Depending on the route, shipments by rail could take half the time of ocean freight and cost considerably less than air freight. China-Europe rail services have grown into a fully developed network with 30+ lines connecting Chinese and European cities.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic turned global logistics on its head, causing the already growing rail transport sector to boom. The travel restrictions that grounded many passenger aircraft made capacity extremely limited and caused costs to explode. In addition, ocean lines cancelled stops and even cut entire routes due to decreasing demand and a lack of containers, making lead times longer and unpredictable. These developments drove companies to railroad shipping, where services were less volatile when pandemic disruptions were at their peak.

Shipping parcels by rail


Train connections in our national rail transport network in Germany.


Parcels can be transported by a single freight train.


Current monthly carbon savings (in metric tons) compared with road transport.

Shipping parcels by rail is sustainable and on the right track

If railroad shipping works on long-haul and transcontinental lines, why not use it for domestic parcel shipping? The answer: the industry already ships parcels by rail. In Germany, for example, the first parcel trains featuring a new mountable swap body design took to the tracks back in 2000 on a north-south route. 

Rail is a much more economical and environmentally friendly mode of transportation. Compared with trucks on the road, shipping by rail reduces the carbon footprint by 80-100%. For example, the current share of parcels we transport by rail in Germany is six percent. This seemingly small amount reduces our carbon emissions by some 1,000 metric tons per month compared to road transport. Right now, we have 20 connections in our national parcel railroad shipping network, and we can move up to 100,000 parcels on one train. What’s more, most of our trains travel overnight and are powered by sustainably produced electricity.

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A more climate-friendly parcel rail transport network.

Shipping more parcels by rail won’t be easy

Utilizing railroad networks to ship parcels harbors so much potential, but there is much to do in order to tap into it fully. For example, we need faster freight cars for light goods transport, expanded infrastructure, better rail lines and high-speed routes, simplified processes for building and expanding rail connections, and optimized loading to and from trucks and trains.

Collaborationg with partners like DB Cargo is one of the ways we are facing these challenges. One element of our long-standing cooperation is the extensive railroad shipping network that has grown steadily over the past 21 years. Since the first parcels began traveling through Germany along the single north-south corridor in 2020, we have increased the number of connections to 20, adding seven since April 2021, with most running every weekday. By adding new routes, we have increased the share of parcels shipped by rail to six percent. In the long term, we want to utilize railroad shipping for around 20 percent of domestic packages. Of course, sending parcels by train will take longer in some cases, but current trends indicate that many climate-conscious customers will accept this tradeoff.

To further expand a more climate-friendly parcel rail transport network, we also plan to equip selected parcel centers with rail sidings – secondary tracks that will connect with main lines. This would reduce the number of transports to these terminals, speed up loading, and increase the number of parcels we can transport by rail. The first project is to begin at our parcel center in Cologne, where we want to create a direct link between the center and the Eifeltor container terminal nearby.

Projects like these also require collaboration between business and government. Planning new rail sidings and upgrading existing facilities are often delayed and complicated by building codes and regulatory requirements, resulting in years of preparation.

It won’t be easy, but it will be crucial to reducing the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Railroad shipping is the cleanest and greenest mode of high-volume transport so far.

Sustainable strategies can yield an 18% higher ROI.

Cleaner forms of transportation

The pandemic has removed many doubts over whether rail is a viable option, and the world’s governments want cleaner forms of transportation. The EU’s Green Deal, for example, heavily promotes the increased use of rail as a safe and sustainable mode of transport. The EU even designated 2021 as the European Year of Rail. Transportation represents 25% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions, yet rail is only responsible for 0.4%. Electricity powers most trains – and while global greenhouse gas emissions from transport have continued to rise, rail is the only mode of transportation that has considerably reduced its emissions since 1990. In Europe, 75% of inland freight travels by road, and only 100% of goods travel by rail. 

Shifting a significant part of this to rail is an opportunity to shape the future of parcel shipping. By collaborating with other forward-looking logistics companies, modifying outdated business models, and updating infrastructure, we make an enormous positive impact: consumers get more choice, ecommerce gets a competitive edge, and the world gets greener logistics.

This train has not yet left the station, so let’s all get on board!

Published: December 2021

Rail Freight

Our Rail Freight products offer secure, reliable and environmentally friendly freight transportation via rail, either throughout Europe or connecting Europe and Asia, West- and Eastbound.

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