Freight data are collected from both shippers and carriers, but no record follows a shipment through its entire trip. Shippers often have only partial information on the mode and routing of the shipment. The carrier knows the routing for its portion of the trip but may have little information on other portions of the trip or even the type or value of commodities carried. No records are available to tie together the information that is known by the shipper and the various carriers.
A universal bill of lading could record all the needed data and be sampled to provide a comprehensive freight database. Currently, a bill of lading accompanies all shipments, but the data on it are not standardized. Surface Transportation Board regulations (49 CFR 1035) specify certain requirements for bills of lading on rail and water shipments, as do the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requirements for truck shipments (49 CFR Part 373). The bills of lading list the weight of the shipment but may provide no information on the type of commodity (which may be recorded simply as "Freight All Kinds"), the true origin or destination, the routing, or the mode or modes of transportation used. The carrier with whom the shipper contracts may be shown on the bill of lading, but if the carrier subcontracts all or part of the carriage, those other carriers will not be listed.While a universal bill of lading might be a long-term solution to the freight data problem, it would be important to develop consensus within the transportation community that costs of implementing such a concept would be justified by the benefits of the data made possible by it.
As information technologies advance, the potential grows to capture data collected automatically as freight passes through electronic interchanges, although many institutional barriers exist in using such data for public purposes. In theory, such a data-collection approach could replace most surveys and carrier reports. Barriers, such as the proprietary nature of this data and incompatible systems, constrain use.