Accurately quantifying sediment transport rates in rivers remains an important goal for geomorphologists, hydraulic engineers, and environmental scientists. However, current techniques for measuring long-time scale (102–106 years) transport rates are laborious, and formulae to predict transport are notoriously inaccurate. Here we attempt to estimate sediment transport rates by using luminescence, a property of common sedimentary minerals that is used by the geoscience community for geochronology. This method is advantageous because of the ease of measurement on ubiquitous quartz and feldspar sand. We develop a model from first principles by using conservation of energy and sediment mass to explain the downstream pattern of luminescence in river channel sediment. We show that the model can accurately reproduce the luminescence observed in previously published field measurements from two rivers with very different sediment transport styles. The model demonstrates that the downstream pattern of river sand luminescence should show exponential-like decay in the headwaters which asymptotes to a constant value with further downstream distance. The parameters from the model can then be used to estimate the time-averaged virtual velocity, characteristic transport lengthscale, storage time scale, and floodplain exchange rate of fine sand-sized sediment in a fluvial system. The sediment transport values predicted from the luminescence method show a broader range than those reported in the literature, but the results are nonetheless encouraging and suggest that luminescence demonstrates potential as a sediment transport indicator. However, caution is warranted when applying the model as the complex nature of sediment transport can sometimes invalidate underlying simplifications.