Freight transport is necessary for moving products from one country to another. Without freight forwarders, international trade would not even be possible.

There are three major types of freight transportation employed in freight forwarding. They are land freight, ocean freight and air freight.

Each mode of freight transportation has processes which may differ in varying degrees from one another. Different kinds of specialised vehicles are employed and each type may have different processes to fulfil its purpose in the movement of goods in the supply chain.

What does freight mean?

Before we delve deeper, let us clarify what this term means. Freight is one of three general terms used to refer to goods which are being transported from one place to another, often in large quantities or weightage. Two other similar terms are ‘cargo’ and ‘shipment’.

How many types of shipment are there?

Cargo is shipped within countries and between countries using one or more types of freight modes. Each mode of transport offers advantages which another mode cannot offer.

Logistics companies and freight forwarding companies may classify freight transportation as having only three types, some may mention as many as five types. It depends on how they want to present the information.

However, going strictly by the modes of transportation, there are basically only three: land, air and sea. Under each mode there are sub-categories.

What is road freight?

Land freight consists of road or ground freight, and rail freight. Road freight or ground freight is also known as ‘road haulage’ or ‘road transport’. It refers to the transfer of goods on roadways with the use of a vehicle.

Ground freight shipping is one of the most common modes of transporting goods because it forms the first, second and last links of a supply chain.

Materials for manufacturing – whether obtained locally or imported – need to be sent to factories. This is the first leg requiring the service of road vehicles since manufacturing plants are mostly located on land.

Once the end product is ready, land vehicles are needed to transport the product in bulk to warehouses or ports. The last link served by road freight transport is for moving cargo from warehouses or ports to the buyer (the end of the supply chain line).

Due to the varying nature of cargo or materials, different types of road transport are required. The type of vehicle is also dependent on the weight and volume of the cargo.

Ground freight shipping can involve vehicles as small as a van to as big as a heavy-duty truck with a payload capacity of 70 tonnes. Some of them have specialist facilities to cater to moving very specific goods such as tank trucks for transporting liquid.

This mode of transportation is suitable for the shortest delivery distance and it can access small roads in cities and towns.

Land freight – rail

As its name suggests, rail freight transport involves the use of trains. It is most efficient and suitable for moving bulk cargo over vast distances of land using rail networks.

Usually freight trains are used in rail freight as these can pull a great number of train cars without needing to stop to drop off cargo or to refuel. Similar to ground freight shipping, rail freight can also cater to a wide variety of materials handling.

There are as many as 9 types of train cars which are made specially to carry every possible type of cargo. The train cars are linked to one another and pulled by a heavy-duty freight train.

The type of goods transported using rail freight is usually bulk cargo, and extremely large items such as lumber and construction equipment.  

Rail freight is comparatively safer than ground freight shipping as it is less likely to run into a traffic accident. Because trains do not depend on road systems, it cannot be held up by traffic jams, or interruptions to roads caused by landslides and other issues.

Transportation by rail is also comparatively cheaper than road transport because of the massive payload capacity of freight trains. A single freight train can pull up to a few thousand tonnes of multiple types of cargo. In contrast, a heavy-duty truck can only carry one type of cargo with a far lower payload capacity. 

What is ocean freight?

Ocean freight is sometimes called marine freight or sea freight. These terms refer to the transportation of cargo on water. For transport via rivers, sometimes the term ‘river freight’ is used.

Over 90 percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea transportation, as it is the most economical way to move large quantities or large items over vast bodies of water, from one country or continent to another.

The carrying capacity of ocean freight far exceeds that of land freight and air freight transportation. One carrier ship can carry millions of tonnes of cargo at a time.

However, sea freight shipping takes the longest amount of time compared with the other modes of transportation. Cargo ships must tackle all manner of weather conditions such as sea storms, quells and changing tides, as well as threats from piracy.

Similar to land and rail freight, marine freight can also handle a wide variety of materials and goods using both general and specialist carrier ships.

General carrier ships typically hold hundreds of shipping containers of both 20-feet and 40-feet sizes. Specialist carrier ships have facilities to accommodate a limited range of cargo types.

For example, there are specialist carrier ships equipped with gigantic pits for holding raw materials. The oil and gas industry uses oil tankers or petroleum tankers.

What is air freight?

Air freight is the moving of cargo using air transportation. It is the fastest mode of transport compared to land, rail and ocean freight.

Being the most expensive of all, air freight is usually reserved for the delivery of more time sensitive and urgent shipments. Bulk delivery can also be sent through air freight and this is usually carried by cargo planes or aircrafts, combi aircrafts and cargo helicopters.

Passenger aircrafts also take on air freight shipping, especially for smaller packages, whenever they have the spare capacity to spare for non-passenger goods. The maximum payload capacity of a cargo aircraft is about 100 tonnes whereas cargo helicopters can take on almost 20 tonnes.

However, some types of goods cannot be sent via air freight, such as volatile materials and flammable items, unless the air freight forwarder has the licence to do so.

Air freight is the safest mode of transportation compared to land and ocean freight, as the risks of accidents and theft are extremely low. The aviation industry has very high standards for safety, and airport customs and security are monitored strictly.

How to choose the right type of freight transport for your business

Here are some points to consider before you decide on whether to send your cargo by road, rail, sea or air:

  1. Type of cargo
  1. Weight of cargo
  1. Timeline of delivery
  1. Special customs clearance and safety measures
  1. Cost efficiency
  1. Seasonal factors


Freight forwarding, especially in international trade, can involve a massive amount of logistical arrangements including customs clearance and all the accompanying shipping documentation.

Many considerations must be made in order to determine the best mode of freight transportation, which is the most economically viable for your business. The more areas of the supply chain that are involved in your business, the more complex it will be.

Therefore, it is possibly more viable to engage a freight forwarder with multimodal transport abilities. This will drastically reduce the man hours, manpower and costs involved in making arrangements with multiple freight forwarders for land and ocean freight.

A lead logistics provider or freight forwarder with multimodal transportation service provides a single point of contact and contract for all the modes of freight needed. Another advantage is the fixed rate which can be offered by such a company.

All the shipping documents will be handled by one company. This can eliminate any errors or mishaps which may delay or endanger the delivery of your cargo.

Land, air and ocean freight have their own benefits and disadvantages. A freight forwarder company with an extensive network and planning expertise will be able to develop an optimal cargo delivery route for you.

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