Modes of Transportation / Modal Characteristic



The basic modes of transportation are rail, highway, water, pipeline and air.




India has amongst the largest railway network in the world. Every city, town, village has a rail connection. Through railways very large volumes of goods can be transported economically over long distances to remote places in the country. But railways in general incur high fixed costs because of expensive equipment (i.e. railways must maintain their own rail track meant exclusively for them) switching yards and terminals. However the railways experience relatively low variable operating costs. Railways help to transport raw materials from extractive industries which are located at considerable distances. Besides this railways also transport massive amount of steel, automobiles, war equipment, across the country.


Railroads basically concentrate on the container traffic and are becoming more responsive of the customer needs, emphasizing bulk industries and heavy manufacturing. They have expanded their intermodal operations through alliances and motor carrier ownership. Railroads are even concentrating on development of special equipment. There are unit trains which are entire train carrying the same commodity, which are bulk products such as coal or grain. Unit trains are faster, less expensive to operate and quick as it can bypass rail yards and go direct to the product’s destination.


There are also various different types, such as articulated cars for extended Rail chassis, double-stack railcars, have 2 levels of containers, thereby doubling the capacity of each car. It also reduces chances of damage because of their design. These technologies have are being applied by railroads to reduce weight, increase carrying capacity, and facilitate interchange.


The above examples show the attempts being made by the railways to retain and improve their share of overall transportation market.


Road Transport


Road transport forms an essential part of any transport activity, whether rail, sea or air. It is essential as a supplementary and complementary mode of transport to complete movement by other modes of transport. Eg. From one terminal i.e. the railway station the goods have to be carried to the destination by road.

Highway transportation has increased rapidly since the end of World War II. This is because Motor carrier industry results from door-to-door operating flexibility and speed of intercity movement. They are even flexible because they can operate on each and every kind of roadways.

In comparison to railroads, motor carriers have relatively small fixed investments in terminal facilities and operate on publicly maintained highways.

The variable cost per mile for motor carriers is high because a separate power unit and driver are required for each trailer or combination of tandem trailers. Labor requirements are also high because of driver safety restrictions and the need for substantial dock lobor. Motor carriers are best suited to handle small shipments moving short distances.

The characteristics of motor carriers favor manufacturing and distributive trades, short distances, high-value products. Motor carriers have made significant inroads into rail traffic for medium and light manufacturing. This is also because of delivery flexibility that they have captured a major chunk of the market.

This industry even has a few problems, and one of the primary difficulties relate to increasing cost to replace equipment, maintenance driver wages, and platform and dock wages. Although accelerating, labor rates influence all modes of transport motor carriers are more labor-intensive, which causes higher wages to be a major concern.

Since 1980, the industry segments have become more definitive since deregulation, and include truckload (TL), less than truckload (LTL), and specialty carriers. TL segment includes loads over 15,000 pounds that generally do not require intermediate stops for consolidation. LTL segment of the industry loads less than 15,000 pounds that generally requires stops at intermediate terminals for consolidation. Because of terminal costs and relatively higher marketing expenses, LTL experiences a higher percentage of fixed costs then TL.

Specialty carriers include package haulers such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. These firms focus on specific requirements of the market or product. It is quite apparent that highway transportation will continue to function as the backbone of logistical operations for the foreseeable future.


In short Road transport offers certain advantages like

i.            Door to door service to customers which neither rail nor neither sea nor air transport can offer.

ii.            On per unit basis, the cost of making a road is 1/6`h that of laying a railway line.

iii.            Capital investment in case of railways is much less then railways designed to carry equivalent quantum of traffic.

iv.            Road transport provides employment to many people.


Road transport faces a number of problems. This is evident from the following facts:


1)      There is an occasional storage of diesel fuel in the country.

2)      Vehicle availability in the country has been problematic. With the recent entry of a number of manufacturers, the situation has improved to some extent.

3)      The cost of components and accessories, such as tyres and batteries, has escalated tremendously.

4)      The Octroi and police check posts are to many, resulting in heavy detention to road vehicles,

5)      The present Motor Vehicle Act regulating the issue of licenses and permits and movement of vehicles is very restrictive.

6)      Conditions on Indian road are very bad and hazardous. They tend to reduce speed of vehicles, which leads to wastage of natural transport capacity.

7)      Roadside maintenance and service facilities have not developed through fund necessary.

8)      The system of national, zonal and state permits restricts free, growth of road transport but the system has to be followed.


Water transport


One of the oldest modes of transportation is water. In terms of time factor, they may be slow. But, they Water transport could be of inland can carry more shipment, at reduced cost over longer distance. Water transport could be of inland type or oceanic transport.


Inland water transport

Inland water transport is used mainly for transport within a country. In our country Inland water transport through rivers and canals is quite popular because of the low cost and bulk transport. But here, the inland water transport system heavily depends upon the rain and in many places on the tides. So, in our country we cannot guarantee the functioning of inland water throughout the year at the same efficiency.


Oceanic Transport

Oceans act as huge waterways for transport of goods form one country to another. Oceanic transportation includes import and export of crude and bulky commodities like materials which are removed from mines, cement, chemical, crude oil, iron ore, coal, chemicals like sulphur, crude petroleum, and selected agricultural products, etc.

The capability of water to carry large tonnage at low variable costs makes it in demand. When a company desire low freight rates and the speed and the time of transport are secondary, it has the option of selecting water as a mode of transport.

The main disadvantage of water transport is the limited range of operation and speed. Unless the origin and destination are adjacent, supplement haul by rail or truck is required. Water transport isn’t all that flexible. Labour restrictions on loading and unloading at docks create operational problems and tend to reduce the potential range of available traffic. Also, a highly competitive situation has developed between railroads and inland water carriers in areas where parallel routes exist.



Primarily, pipeline is used for the transport of crude petroleum, refined petroleum and natural gas. Pipelines are also used for the transportation of certain types of chemicals, Pulverized dry bulk materials such as cement and flour via hydraulic suspension system, and sewage and water in cities. A significant fixed cost is incurred while setting up the pipeline and related infrastructures. Thus, given the nature of costs, pipelines are the best suited when relatively large and stable flows of materials are required. E.g.: pipeline may be best suited to transport crude petroleum from the port to the refinery. But, to transport refined petrol to a gas station does not justify the use of a pipeline and this is better done by a truck. There is a talk going on between India, Iran and Pakistan regarding the transportation of crude oil from Iran to India with the help of a pipeline which will pass through Pakistan. This will reduce the cost of transporting crude oil from Iran to India.

In comparison with the other modes of transport, pipelines operate on a 24 hour basis, seven days a week. They stop functioning due to change in the commodity to be transported, or due to maintenance. Unlike other modes of transport, pipeline does not have any ’empty containers’ or vehicles’ which are to be returned to the origins.

A high fixed cost for pipelines normally results from the right of way construction and requirements at the control stations and pumping capacity. Another disadvantage of ‘pipeline is that they are not flexible. Once the route of a pipeline is fixed, it is not changeable. Again pipelines are restricted with respect to the types of commodities which can be transported through them. Only products in the form of gas, liquid slurry can be handled by the pipelines:’


One advantage of pipelines is that, once they.01aye been constructed, they are not labour intensive for operational purposes as other modes of transport so their variable operating cost is low.


Air Transport


Air transport though new as compared to other modes of transportation, has gained large popularity in transporting various commodities. The basic advantage of Air transport is its high speed. By air, the time required may be just a few hours, which may be days by other modes of transport. However this being a major advantage, air transport also has various disadvantages. These are:


  • Air transport is a costly affair.
  • Air transport is limited by ‘lift capacity’ i.e. goods upto certain load (weight) can be transported by aircrafts.

Air freight variable cost is very high due to fuel, maintenance and labour intensity of both in flight and ground crew. The fixed cost of air transport is low as compared to rails, water and pipeline. In fact, air transport ranks second only to highway with respect to low fixed cost. Airways and airports are maintained by public funds and terminals are by local communities. The fixed costs of airfreight are associated with aircraft purchase and the requirement for specialized handling systems and cargo containers. But the air freight variable cost is extremely high as a result of fuel, maintenance, and labour intensity of both in-flight and ground crews. Even though it has all these disadvantages, High speed of air transport often helps in compensating its other disadvantages. No particular commodity dominates the freight carried by air transport. E.g. big courier companies such as DHL, Fed Ex have their own air crafts to transport couriers between different countries within a short time.


Rope ways

A ropeway is a form of naval lifting device used to transport light stores and equipment across rivers or ravines. It comprises a jackstay, slung between two sheers or gyps, one at either end, from which is suspended a block and tackle, that is free to travel along the rope and hauled back and forth by inhauls (ropes attached to the pulley from which the block and tackle are suspended).



Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is the use of more than one mode of transport to move a shipment to its destination. A variety of intermodal combinations are possible depending upon the type and amount of goods, the time of delivery, the pricing factor, etc. the most common combination is that of the motor carrier and railway.

Intermodal combination of transport has also helped to increase the revenue of each of the modes of transport. On land it has been found that a combination of truck and rail mode of transport offer a better deal in terms of cost and time rather than transport by truck alone. In general, therefore intermodal means of transport helps to bring together different modes of transport to create a price and /or service offering that may not be matched by any single mode transport.


Various Intermodal combinations

Piggyback / railroad

It is a specialized form of containerization in which rail and and road transport co-ordinate. In piggyback, the carrier places the motor carrier trailer on a rail flatcar, which moves the trailer by rail for a long distance. A motor carrier then moves to trailer for short-distance pickups and deliveries.


Containership / Fishy back / trainship :

Containership, Fishy back, trainship and example of the oldest form of intermodal transport. They utilize waterways, which        e of the least expensive modes for product movement. The Fishyback, trainship and containership concept loads a truck trailer, railcar, or container onto a barge or ship for the shipment.


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