Fertilizer and Rail Transportation

TFI and its members work to promote the safe distribution of fertilizer by rail. Over sixty percent (60%) of fertilizer moves by rail year-round in the United States. The safe and secure handling and transportation of fertilizer products is a top priority for the fertilizer industry. An efficient and competitive freight rail system is also essential to ensuring that fertilizers are available to U.S. farmers during key application windows.

Many fertilizers are transported by rail carriers in railcars and rail tank cars. Fertilizers are transported:


  1. In a solid form called prill (e.g., urea, ammonia nitrate, calcium nitrate, potassium nitrate);
  2. In a liquid form (e.g., urea ammonium nitrate, ammonium nitrate solution, ammonium polyphosphate solution, aqua ammonia); or
  3. As a compressed gas (e.g., anhydrous ammonia)


Some fertilizer products qualify as hazardous materials under U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulations, which set forth safety requirements for the transportation of these products. The type of railcar used by the fertilizer industry is dependent on the product being transported and applicable PHMSA requirements.


Ammonia, which PHMSA identifies as a hazardous material, is the building block required to produce all nitrogen fertilizers and most phosphate fertilizers. Beyond fertilizer, ammonia-based products have several important industrial applications, such as Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) for trucks and emissions abatement at power plants. Ammonia also has an important role to play in accelerating a clean energy economy with its potential as a low-carbon fuel.

Read more about Fertilizer Distribution by Rail.


Rail is a Critical Transportation Mode

Fertilizers can be transported by train, pipeline, inland waterway barges, oceangoing sea vessels, and, particularly for short distances, trucks. Where pipelines and waterway transportation is not available, trains may be the only way to ship these products long distances from certain locations. Trains are often one of the most efficient ways to ship essential commodities, such as fertilizers, long distances. On average, freight railroads are three to four times more fuel efficient than trucks. According to the Association of American Railroads, rail carriers “have approximately 10% of the hazmat accidents trucks have.” And “more than 99.9% of all hazmat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by a train accident.”

A single rail tank car is equivalent to four tank trucks. Trucks are used, but typically for shorter distances, especially for the last miles of a journey to agricultural retail facilities and farms. Trucks are essential for fertilizer transportation, but they are not ideal for long distances because they are less efficient than other transportation modes and, if used over long distances, add significantly to roadway congestion alongside existing vehicle traffic, which can cause safety and logistics challenges.