Which Countries Dominate Rail Freight Transportation?

02 February 2022

Rail freight is frequently one of the fastest and safest ways to transport cargo. In a 2019 report the International Energy Agency stated that about 7% of global freight transport activity, as measured in tonne-kilometres, goes by rail. The Global Economy estimates for 2019 based on 50 countries was 124 898 metric tons times kilometres.

Read: Railway transport of goods – Country rankings

According to the OECD, in 2019, goods transported by railways in China was 3 018 200 million ton-km. Russia and the United States transported 2 602 493 million ton-km and 2 364 144 million ton-km respectively.

Source: The Global Economy, 2019

In a Railway Technology Analysis of 2014 the world’s longest railway networks are said to be in the United States,  with an operating route length over 250,000km. This is followed by China and Russia with 100 00km and 85 500km respectively.

Source: Railway Technology, 2014

Whilst rail is recognised as an important pillar of passenger and freight transport to this day, it is recognised that other motorised modes of transport are piling pressure and there may very well be a decline in its use by 2050. Autonomous car technologies and electric vehicles are certainly expected to be a real threat in the not distant future. This is also on the back of data by the International Energy Agency which notes that growth of rail lags behind that of maritime and heavy truck freight activity. Consequently, the share of rail in overall freight activity will decline from 7 percent in 2017 to 5 percent by 2050.

The vulnerability of freight transportation was exposed by lockdowns as a result of the pandemic. On the contrary, Eurostat highlights that the Covid- 19 pandemic seems to have had a lower impact on rail freight transport than rail passenger transport in the EU, with rail freight transportation declining by 5.9 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. The same trend is noted in the US and Russia which recorded 2 105 254 million ton-km and 2 545 349 million ton-km respectively. This represents a 2.2 percent decrease for Russia compared to 2019 and a 11 percent decrease for the USA compared to 2019 figures. Interestingly a similar trend is observed in South Africa.

The freight transportation results for September 2021 by StatsSA state that the volume of goods transported (payload) increased by 3,3% in September 2021 compared with September 2020.

Read: Land Transport (Preliminary)

There is no doubt which nations dominate rail freight transportation on this front. Arguably China, USA and Russia are leading nations.

Source: OECD (2022), Freight transport (indicator). doi: 10.1787/708eda32-en (Accessed on 31 January 2022)

A closer look at the world’s Quality of Railroad Infrastructure Index also reveals an interesting picture. The USA, Russian Federation and China may lead in tonne-kilometres in rail freight transportation, but not necessarily the quality of railroad infrastructure. This is as per World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. The very top three countries are Switzerland, Japan and Hong Kong SAR as shown below:











Hong Kong SAR





United States






Russian Federation





South Africa











This is a rating based on an Executive Opinion Survey reported by the World Economic Forum, on a railroad system with 1 being extremely underdeveloped – among the worst in the world; 7 being extensive and efficient – among the best in the world.

Like all the other modes of freight transportation rail has its fair set of challenges. In the USA, the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC) highlights several challenges facing the sector and these will surely cut across as supply chains become integrated in a globalised world. These include:

  • Advancements in trucking which threatens railroads
  • The decline of coal means billions of dollars in revenue lost in the years ahead for railroads
  • Threats of increasing regulation


Read: Industry Challenges

As we have seen, climate change is also a major threat contributing to the increased cost of not only maintaining available infrastructure but replacing that which is destroyed by extreme weather events such as elevated temperatures, flooding, storms, intense winds, sea level rise to mention but a few.

Countries that currently dominate this sector look to continue at the top as they have the resources to remain competitive globally.









Written by Staff Content Writer, Raymond Moyo.