What’s the difference between drayage and trucking?

When it comes to shipping, 3PL (third-party logistics providers) are sometimes called Architects of Transport. Like other architects, it’s our job to put pieces together to create a functioning system. 

One of the pillars of this system is trucking. Trucking happens everywhere. It’s generally the first and last step of a product’s journey. Matter of fact, trucking is probably the oldest form of freight forwarding, after a pack-mule. Although, in it’s ancient form, this kind of trucking was performed by said pack-mule and a cart. In fact, the term dray originally meant “to transport by a sideless cart”.

Today, the systems are a bit more complex, but the principle is the same: pick it up, move it, drop it off. When a modern-day mule (a semi-truck) does this with a container, specifically for import and export, it’s called drayage. Drayage is different than standard truck shipping in that it requires a few additional pieces to complete the puzzle.

First, containers must be separable from the truck itself. This is different than most intercontinental freight forwarding we see on U.S. highways. Next time you are looking at trucks on a road trip, try and count how many you see with a chassis and container. Chassis is a shorter word for a “big wooden or metal flatbed trailer”; containers are the multi-colored metal boxes you see on passing trains and cargo ships. This combination takes an extra step in the logistics process due to chassis management. Just like containers, they aren’t always where you want them. Even more fun, containers and chassis usually aren’t in the same place. This is where intermodal drayage companies find their management niche. 

Second, it takes a special permit to enter a port called a TWIC (transportation worker identification card). This is like the top-secret clearances for the trucking industry: not everyone gets one and they can be revoked immediately. They also come with a bigger paycheck. 

However, not every drayman (a drayage trucker) needs a clearance to haul internationally destined cargo. Enter intermodal facilities. These waypoints enable the exchange of cargo from one transport type to another between truck, barge, rail, air, and steamship. Unless it is defined as an inland port, intermodal facilities will connect to other facilities or ports for import and export. 

The last major difference in architecting the drayage cornerstone to other kinds of trucking is finding a foreign drayage partner. Once your container arrives at its destination port, who will know to pick it up? In the international freight forwarding community, 3PLs partner with their foreign counterparts who know the policies, laws, and systems of the destination country. If the 3PL doesn’t have a foreign counterpart, it is unlikely they will find a cost-effective transportation solution. 

Drayage is a specialty trucking niche that has demand all over the world. It’s one of the cornerstones of international shipping. It differs from other trucking niches because of the clearances, equipment, and management involved. If you want your international shipping to sail smoothly with no delay, make sure you don’t just truck, you dray!