Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Rise of Shipping Transportation

When pioneers trudged along the Oregon Trail, they planned to travel for about six months. They walked with their handcarts or guided their oxen westward, toward gold, adventure, and better lives—all as they wore out their shoes and grappled with harsh weather. While it took nearly 180 days for the pioneers, we can take the same 2,000 mile trip in about three days.

Transportation technology does more than make our cross-country trips faster and more pleasant. It bolsters the United States’ economy. Now, manufacturers can transport their cargo in a short time over long distances using large shipping containers. As Marc Levinson states in his book The Box, “The container made shipping cheap, and by doing so changed the shape of the economy.”

In a previous blog, we discussed how Malcolm Mclean’s shipping container influenced the world, and we will continue that conversation here. However, this time we’ll move away from ocean freighters to focus on planes, trains, and automobiles.


The cargo or freight aircraft isn’t your everyday plane. Most contain multiple wheels, a high tail and wings, and a larger fuselage. In 1910, the first cargo pilot flew between Dayton and Columbus, Ohio to deliver 200 pounds of silk. The next year, the Indian postmaster approved the first airmail flight, which transported over 6,500 letters across 8 miles. From that time on, planes continued to carry low weight materials throughout the world.

While freight aircrafts remain a common option for shipping, many manufacturers use passenger planes instead. In fact, about half of all air cargo travels along with other passengers. This “belly cargo” takes leftover space in the baggage hold.

Air transport is useful but tends to be less effective than other shipping methods because weight and space capacity limit it. Large planes will carry cargo on a regular basis, but those containers need to weigh as little as possible and have a consistent weight distribution. However, with the rise of commercial shippers such as FedEx and UPS, air cargo plane use has increased over the last 15 years.


When Governor Leland Stanford drove the golden spike that connected the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railway in 1869, he formed the First Transcontinental Railroad. The line stretched 1,907 miles and connected San Francisco, CA to Council Bluffs, IA. Before that, trains had no way to cross such monumental distances.  

Since then, improved railways and locomotive technology have made trains one of the most efficient shipping methods in the United States. According to Union Pacific, one train can transport a one ton load for 480 miles and only burn one gallon of fuel. If every vehicle had that kind of fuel efficiency, you’d likely never hear complaints about high gas prices.

In addition to high fuel efficiency, trains reduce the number of shipping trucks on the road. This alleviates road congestion and air pollution.

While weight limits air transportation, trains can carry nearly any load. You can choose among three main train cars for your shipping service: boxcar, flatcar, and well car.


Boxcars are the most versatile railroad car. Its enclosed design allows it to carry loose loads such as coal or even large shipping containers. While engineers have improved the design, boxcars tend to take longer to load and unload, which makes this railway car’s popularity dwindle every year.  

Flat Car

As the name suggest, flat cars have a flat design. They are basically a boxcar without the walls or ceiling. Without that enclosure, flat cars can fit larger or odd-shaped loads.

Well Car

Well cars (or double-stack cars) allow shippers to stack containers. Each car uses a low, hollowed out car that provides a solid foundation for the high load. Because the United States railroad system does not use a much electrification as other countries, American engineers use well cars on a regular basis. Here, overhead electrical wires don’t pose frequent problems.


If you transport smaller volumes, you may want to use a truck instead of a train. Or, use trucks as a way to transport your shipment where ocean freighters, planes, and trains can’t.

Semi-trucks and tractor-trailers connect ocean, air, and rail freights together. While some truck drivers need to drive across the country, many simply load and unload their containers from a port to the closest railway yard.

Each driver must check his or her vehicle’s weight at official weigh stations. For example, if you use an 18-wheeler to ship your materials, your weight limit hovers around 80,000 pounds. You cannot overstep that limit, or your truck will violate the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) regulations. However, the DOT does approve permits for trucks that exceed their limits. You can apply online, but you must receive the permit before your container ships.

Intermodal Transportation

We separated these transportation technologies, but they work together to form the modern shipping system we use every day. For more information on how you can improve your business with shipping containers, contact a local storage and rental service. Their professionals will give insight into the industry and advice on which containers and transportation method will suit your needs.