Commercial cargo can be transported locally and around the world through several different methods, including by roadways, air, water and railroad tracks. Most of these transportation methods can be defined by truck or tractor trailer, airplane, barge and train.
Illinois is second in the nation in both rail freight loaded and rail freight received per year. Chicago has been the busiest rail center in the country for the past 125 years, and roughly 25 percent of all U.S. freight traffic either passes through or ends in the Chicago area. Illinois loads over 125 million tons of freight each year while receiving 107 million tons. Wyoming loads the most freight at over 270 million tons, and Texas receives the most at over 200.
One of every four U.S. freight trains passes through the Chicago region. The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program (CREATE) is a public-private partnership that has worked since 2003 to improve the way passengers and goods move over rail. This program is stepping up to help modernize the rail network to better handle freight and passenger needs now and into the future, with $4.6 billion being invested in 70 projects.
Over 67 percent, or 12 billion tons, of total domestic freight was shipped by truck in 2019. Nearly one-tenth, or 925 million tons, of that freight moves through the Chicago region every year. In addition, the Chicago region has experienced explosive growth in air freight, jumping 83 percent from 2000 to 2014 at O’Hare Airport. Illinois’ waterway system transports over 90 million tons of goods every year, or nearly 10 percent of total freight traffic.
All roads in Illinois have standardized weight limits based on what is called the Federal Bridge Formula. Vehicle dimensions are also restricted. Commercial cargo can be transported on roadways by semi truck or by a vehicle towing a trailer. The number of axles and their spacing determines the allowable gross weight, and the width limit is 102 inches on all roads unless a narrower restriction is posted. The Federal Bridge Formula allows for a maximum 80,000 pounds of Gross Vehicle Weight. Semi trailers include vehicles from one to six axles, with one axle vehicles having a weight limit of 20,000 pounds. That rises to 40,000 pounds for two axles, 54,000 for three axles, 66,000 for four axles, and 80,000 for trailers with five or six axles. Semi trailer length is generally limited to 53 feet, and the overall vehicle length is capped at 65 feet. Farm wagons have a limit of 36,000 pounds.
The main types of planes that carry cargo include Boeing 737 and 747 and Airbus 320 and 340. The Boeing 737-300 has a capacity of 13 tons and the Boeing 747-200 has a capacity of 12 tons. The Airbus 320 has a smaller capacity of 1.5 tons and can be used to transport lines of pallets, while the Airbus 340-300 has a maximum capacity of 16 tons. Other airplanes that carry much larger cargo include the Boeing 747 F Freighter, Boeing 747-400 ERF, Antonov 225 Mriya and Airbus 300-600 ST. The Mriya is the world’s largest cargo plane and can carry up to 80 vehicles and has a capacity of 250 tons. The Airbus 300-600 ST is designed to transport large and oversized cargo, including a plane or helicopter, and has a capacity of 47 tons. The Boeling 747-400 ERF has a capacity of 112 tons, and the Boeing 747 F Freighter has a capacity of 107 tons.
Barges provide a very economical form of commercial cargo transportation, with rates nearly 95 percent lower than semi trucks and 50 percent lower than trains. Barges can be utilized on various rivers, waterways and oceans. In the U.S., the typical barge size is 195 feet by 35 feet and can hold up to 1500 tons. New barges can be up to 209 feet by 50 feet and can hold up to 3,000 tons. Barges are towed, pushed, or guided by tugboats. Barge transportation produces far fewer emissions than traditional trucking and reduces traffic congestion on roadways. Barges are commonly used for transporting fuel and coal.
Trains also reduce highway congestion and rail cars can handle very heavy loads, up to 315,000 pounds. The means each rail car can hold three to four truckloads of weight, and that translates to less wear and tear on roads and bridges. It also means a single train can carry the same amount of freight as 300 trucks. And while roads and highways are largely funded and maintained by tax dollars, freight railroads spent $780 billion on capital expenditures and maintenance expenses from 1980 to 2022. Trains can move one ton of freight more than 480 miles on a single gallon of fuel, generating a carbon footprint up to 75 percent less than trucks and making them the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land. Freight rail shipments in the U.S. can travel on seven Class I railroads and approximately 630 Class II and III short line railroads. Class I railroads operate over approximately 92,000 route miles in 47 states, and short line railroads operate over approximately 45,000 route miles in 49 states.
With Illinois’ role as the nation’s crossroads for freight and logistics, it is important to understand how cargo moves through the State of Illinois.