On the move: What is Intermodal Transportation?

Have you ever wondered how your Amazon package arrives at your door? In a world where shipping can go across the globe, the logistics industry is always aiming to use the best balance between speed, efficiency, and cost.

For decades, the trucking industry has been used to cover long distances and cargo ships were the only means of shipping by sea.

The constant increase in supply and demand has called for a more organized approach when shipping goods, especially across different nations. This is how intermodal transportation was born. So, what is intermodal transportation?

Intermodal transportation is shipping a load internationally or domestically using two or more modes of transportation. The means of transportation include railway, land, air, and sea.

Now for the long version.

What Is Intermodal Transportation?

intermodal providers - multimodal and intermodal transportation

Intermodal shipping is using various modes of transport (intermodal services) to ship cargo from its origin to destination without needing to handle the cargo itself along the way. There are many advantages of intermodal transportation such as reduced damage/cargo loss, increased security, reduced costs, and faster travel time.

The intermodal shipping process starts by loading the intermodal freight inside special containers known as intermodal containers. Those containers can be easily attached to trucks, trains, and cargo ships.

Intermodal transportation uses various intermodal facilities to maximize the efficiency and cost of transportation. That’s done by simultaneously utilizing the fuel efficiency of rail freight transportation, the flexibility of truckload shipping, the increased capacity of cargo ships, and the speed of air travel.

How Does Intermodal Transport Work?

how intermodal shipping works - advantages and disadvantages of intermodal transportation

Intermodal transportation is often subdivided into two modes of transport; International intermodal or domestic intermodal transport. 

As a general idea, intermodal transportation starts when the shipping company receives an order from a customer. The product(s) is placed inside a container and loaded on a truck chassis. 

The truck will then drive to the intermodal ramp where the container is unloaded and placed on a train car for intermodal rail transport. At this point, the train will transport the container through to its destination.

Once the container arrives at the destination ramp, it gets unloaded from the train and onto another truck chassis. The truck will deliver the cargo to the retail or distribution centers. 

Now that you have a general idea about intermodal freight shipping and the combined transport involved throughout the intermodal shipping process, you should understand the difference between the two categories; international and domestic.

International Intermodal Shipping

International shipping involves long hauls and often includes sea or air shipping. The shipping company would transport the freight to the ramp normally just like we explained above. 

The train would then have two options. The first one is taking the freight internationally to its destination entirely through railway tracks. For example, freight transportation from America to Canada.

supply chain intermodal shipment

The second option is utilizing another intermodal ramp in a seaport. Let’s say that the freight needs to be transported from The United States to Great Britain. The freight would arrive at the intermodal terminal at the seaport, get loaded on a ship, cross the Atlantic Ocean and then reach Britain.  

The shipping process proceeds normally from this point onward. The shipping company loads the freight onto a truck to its end customer.

Domestic Intermodal Shipping

Domestic intermodal shipping often relies on railway and truck transportation. Although it’s domestic, sometimes it still utilizes sea transportation. So, if both types of shipping can use railways and seas, what makes domestic intermodal transportation different from international one?

The key difference here is the size of the intermodal container. International intermodal shipments utilize 20- or 40-foot containers while domestic shipping uses 53-foot domestic containers.

In domestic shipping, even if the products are transported overseas in 20- or 40-foot containers, they’ve transferred back again to 53-foot domestic intermodal containers until they reach their destination.

What Are the Advantages of Intermodal Transportation?

advantages of shipping intermodal

Advantages of intermodal freight transportation:

  • Cost efficient
  • Fuel efficient
  • Reliable
  • Sustainable
  • Fewer delays for longer distances
  1. Cost efficient:

Intermodal transportation will always reduce transportation costs. The cost of one gallon of fuel is over five dollars now. That gallon can either fuel a truck or an intermodal train. 

Let’s say that we’ll use that gallon for a truck. A fully loaded truck can carry approximately 40,000 pounds of cargo. That one gallon would take such a truck anywhere between 20 and 30 miles.

The average intermodal train can carry the same cargo using the same gallon to cover many further distances (more on that soon.) On crossing longer distances the cost savings of a train would be much better than a truck.

Even while considering the railroad fuel surcharge,  train transportation still costs 15–20% less than truck transportation .

  1. Fuel efficient:

We’ve mentioned earlier that a gallon can take a loaded truck anywhere between 20–30 miles. Conversely, that same gallon can take your typical intermodal train for over 400 miles. Additionally, the train can carry 280 trucks worth of cargo. That increased capacity of the train will reduce the one-gallon distance but it’s still far more efficient than using a truck.

  1. Reliable:
reliable capacity of intermodal service

Intermodal transportation provides better safety for transported cargo. Let’s say that freight needs to cover a distance of over 2,000 miles.

A truck driver can’t cover that distance in one go. He will need to rest, sleep, eat, and use the bathroom. That results in multiple stops that could jeopardize the safety of the cargo and provide more chances for theft.

Intermodal transportation eliminates or at least reduces the threat of theft to a minimum. It’s true that the first and the last few miles of the trip are done using trucks. Yet, the majority of the trip is either on transport ships, planes, or trains. A constantly moving object is much less susceptible to theft than a constantly stopping truck.

Additionally, stacking intermodal containers over each other (in the case of trains) reduces the chance of theft even more, especially for the top container.

  1. Sustainable:
sustainable intermodal providers

When we talk about sustainability, we’re referring to reducing the consumption of fuel; our non-renewable source of energy.

When an intermodal train takes a ton of cargo for over 400 miles using only one gallon of fuel, that’s less carbon dioxide emission and far less greenhouse gas effect.

The average transport truck in the U.S. emits around 160 grams of CO2  per ton-mile. On the contrary, a transport train covers the same ton-mile while emitting around 14 grams of CO2.

  1. Fewer Delays for Longer Distances

Intermodal transportation has the reputation of being slower than trucks. This isn’t wrong, especially with short-distance hauls. 

The multiple loading and unloading often add one or two days of delay in the transportation process before the final delivery. That being said, the longer the hauls are, the better it’s going to be for intermodal shipping. Regardless of how long the distance is, the train will cover it in one go, unlike the truck that will have to stop multiple times.

What Are the Disadvantages of Intermodal Shipping?

multimodal and intermodal transportation disadvantages
  1. More Delays for Shorter Distances

The multiple loading and unloading processes could take an entire day. Typically, freight would be loaded and unloaded at least three times before it reaches its destination.

Additionally,  intermodal transportation isn’t product-specific. When you use normal truck transportation, you could often have an entire truckload freight of your products alone. This minimizes any delays that could happen because of the goods of another client. 

Intermodal transportation doesn’t offer this luxury. The train is often loaded with goods from various clients. So, even if loading your intermodal container takes only a little time, organizing and loading all of the containers takes up to a day.

  1. Port Congestion

Port congestion isn’t a usual problem, especially if intermodal transportation doesn’t include sea shipping.

When port congestion happens, however, the freight containers will be put on hold until the congestion eases up. This could add to the already existing delay of one or more days.

  1. Limited Smaller Shipment Options

Any freight that’s less than a truckload (LTL) may limit your options with intermodal transportation. It’s best to use a full truckload (FTL) as your minimum when you consider intermodal transport. LTL shipments that don’t fill an entire container don’t usually ship as quickly as FTL shipments. 

  1. Restricted products

Intermodal transportation doesn’t allow for everything to be shipped. Most hazardous materials aren’t allowed, for example. It’s also difficult to transport some of the raw construction materials that need to be processed before use on the construction site.

Intermodal vs Multimodal

intermodal service vs multimodal service

Intermodal and multimodal transportation have the same concept behind them. They both utilize multiple methods of transportation to get a specific freight from point A to point B.

The main difference is in the number of contracts included in both of them. Let’s elaborate:

Intermodal 

When you ship your goods via intermodal transportation, you will have to sign different contracts with different logistics companies. You’ll also need some logistics coordination to keep up with your shipment as it gets handed over between different carriers. 

 For example, let’s assume that Company A will handle your truck transportation . Company A would be responsible for moving freight to the rail ramp to be shipped on a train. 

If your cargo won’t be taken directly to the rail ramp, Company B will come into play to store your product in a warehouse for a price. The warehouse is often close to the shipping train.

The shipping train may also belong to a third company. In this instance, let’s call it Company C. If you’re transporting by sea, then we also have Company D.

Once your cargo reaches its destination, it gets handled by the warehouse company (Company B) and then again by Company A until it reaches the retail or distribution center.

In conclusion, you may need up to four different contracts for intermodal transportation. This may seem like a hassle but if you prefer maximum money efficiency, this method is for you.

Despite the various contracts, intermodal transportation allows for negotiating the best contract with each company; a step that many business owners would gladly accept.

Multimodal

transport freight using multimodal

The multimodal transportation sequence is the same as we just mentioned above. The only difference is that one contract will take full responsibility for your shipment from handling until delivery.

Regardless of how many vehicles will carry your freight, you can always track your shipment efficiently without having to reach out to multiple contractors.

Since multimodal transportation saves you the hassle of logistics coordination, it’s often more expensive than intermodal transportation.

To sum this up, multimodal costs more than intermodal in exchange for only one contract. You can still get the benefits of intermodal shipping using only one contract if you hire a 3rd party agent.

The agent would ensure quality service for your shipment. He will be responsible for your freight as it gets handled between different logistics companies. 

Intermodal Transportation Types

Intermodal transportation could be done using land, railways, sea, or air. Here’s a breakdown of the logistics used:

  1. Sea-Container Ships
ISO containers at sea

Container ships are self-propelled cargo ships that are designed to cross long distances through water.  These ships are designed with a flat deck to carry the maximum possible amount of containerized cargo. 

Since they’re self-propelling, container ships are often used for international freight transportation. Their journeys often take days. Among all other transportation processes, cargo ships often carry the most cargo.

  1. Barges
Types of intermodal - barges transit

Barges have the same concept as container ships. They’re still large, flat, floating vessels that carry containerized freight.

The main difference is that barges aren’t self-propelling. They don’t have their own engines that can take them across the water. They often need the assistance of a pusher or a towing rug.

Because of this, barges often don’t cross international waters. They’re designed to carry more containers than cargo ships but they’re often used in domestic waters.

There are several types of barges available. Inland barges, deck barges, crane barges, shale barges, ocean barges — and more.

Ocean barges don’t cross oceans, they simply operate around the international shallow water shores where most cargo ships can’t navigate easily.

  1. Land Bridges
land bridges transit

A land bridge is a passage that connects from point A to point B. Land bridges in logistics are often used as a land-covered distance in a maritime support chain.

Land Bridge

In supply chains, land bridges often mean a much larger distance than the bridge you casually see on the streets. A land bridge is using a particular landmark (often a country) as a bridge for a foreign cargo that’s going to be delivered somewhere else.

Land bridges aren’t typically used on North American soil. There, however, is a more convenient transportation method in Europe.

Here’s an example of a land bridge. A shipment is coming by sea from Japan to England. The cargo ship would cross the Pacific Ocean and land in a port city west of America.

The cargo would then use North America as a bridge until it reaches the eastern shore where it gets loaded on another cargo ship to reach England.

Mini Land Bridge

A mini land bridge is quite similar in definition to a land bridge. The only difference is that the foreign cargo will be delivered at the end of that land bridge.

Let’s refer to our earlier Japanese cargo example. The difference is that the shipment won’t go to England. Instead, it’s going to Virginia.

 In this scenario, the cargo is using North America as a bridge but is also going to be delivered in North America , just at the far side of it.

Micro Land Bridge

Micro land bridges are very similar to mini land bridges. However, after the cargo arrives on the western shores of North America, it won’t travel through the whole country to reach an eastern state like Virginia.

Micro land bridges cover shorter distances than mini-land bridges and their point of delivery is often inland like in Idaho, for example.

  1. Truck

There are many types of freight trucks that cross the land bridges. Those trucks are designed to cover long distances and handle most types of cargo.

In intermodal transportation, trucks aren’t mainly used for long hauls. Instead, they’re often used for short-distance transportation between warehouses and loading stations.

  1. Railways
final destination of shipping containers using railroad tracks

Rail transport is the heart and soul of intermodal transportation. Intermodal trains are, by far, the most efficient means of land transportation. There are two methods of loading the train:

Container on flatcar or COFC

Loading a container on a flat car is the more commonly used method with intermodal trains. The goods are loaded inside the container which is carried by truck to one of the rail ramps.

The same container is then placed on the train. COFC is more common than TOFC (Trailer-On-Flatcar) because it allows double stacking. You can place two containers on top of each other and have them fixed in place.

Trailer-On-Flatcar or TOFC

Sometimes the goods can’t be transported from the trailer to a container for some reason. When that happens, the entire trailer is placed on the cargo train. TOFC is less space-efficient because we can’t place two trailers on top of each other.

  1. Air
types of transit - air freight intermodal load

Air freight shipping tops all other modes of intermodal transportation when it comes to global presence, quick delivery, and shipment tracking. These advantages would’ve made air transportation dominate over other intermodal methods if it wasn’t for three problems.

One, the cost-effectiveness of intermodal transport is pretty much thrown out of the window. Air transport is currently the most expensive method and it burns out the most fuel among all other modes.

Secondly, despite technological advances, around 2% of flights still get canceled because of bad weather conditions.

Last but not least is the weight limit. There’s only so much a plane can carry to be able to take off the ground.

The average transport plane can carry around 220 tons. In comparison, the average transport ship can carry around 25,000 tons and the average intermodal train carries 12,500 tons.

5 Best Intermodal Shipping Companies

Here are the best intermodal shippers available. 

J.B. Hunt Intermodal

J.B. Hunt could be the best intermodal provider right now.

J.B. Hunt started around 60 years ago in Arkansas with 5 trucks and 7 trailers. 6 decades later, it grew to be the biggest international intermodal transportation company.

As of 2022, J.B Hunt’s revenue has exceeded $7 billion.

Hub Group

Hub Group is a decade younger than J.B Hunt but it’s arguably the best national intermodal freight shipping company in North America. Although it’s not an international shipping company, Hub Group’s total revenue has exceeded $4 billion.

XPO Logistics

XPO Logistics is your go-to shipping company if you seek long-haul trucking and LTL freight transportation.  The company is famous for being more green than other companies. Their cutting-edge trucking industry also makes them stand out. Many of their trucks are now electric. XPO Logistics currently has a total revenue of over $15 billion.

Evans Delivery 

Evan’s Delivery may not have a gigantic revenue like the aforementioned companies. As of writing this article, the company’s revenue is slightly more than $300 million. However, it has a fleet of over 2,200 power units and 150 rail terminals across the United States.

Knight Swift

Knight swift is the largest full truckload carrier in the United States. It has over 10,000 drivers, 30 terminals, and 200 on-site locations. Much like Evan’s Delivery and Hub Group, Knight-Swift operates only in North America with over $5 billion in total revenue.

FAQ

Who Should Use Intermodal?

Any company that delivers internationally should benefit from intermodal transportation. Additionally, companies that deliver long hauls can also use the cost efficiency and benefits of intermodal.

What Products Can You Ship Using Intermodal?

You can ship almost anything using intermodal. Construction materials, household goods, food, vehicles, and pretty much anything in large quantities. 

 However, hazardous materials, pets, and living things can’t be shipped using intermodal.  

Does Intermodal Provide Shipment Visibility?

Most large-scale intermodal companies provide real-time tracking of your shipment. Because of the various contracts, however, it will be up to you to select the companies that provide you with better shipment tracking to avoid delays.

What Is an Example of Intermodal Shipping?

An example of intermodal shipping is transferring 20 tons of construction materials from Missouri to London. The shipment would travel by railroad until it reaches a port city/airport, then it travels by sea/air until it reaches its final destination. 

The Verdict

We hope that by now, you are no longer asking: what is intermodal transportation? 

As a whole, it’s simply hiring an intermodal service provider to use multiple modes of transportation to reduce the costs of moving freight between two points. The provider would then transport the shipping containers using various transportation modes to provide you with quality service.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

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