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?
Now for the long version.
What Is Intermodal Shipping 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?
Intermodal shipping works by utilizing different modes of transportation to move freight. For example, a shipment may start by being transported via truck to a rail yard, where it is then loaded onto a train. From there, it may be transported by rail to another rail yard, and then loaded onto a truck for final delivery to its destination.
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 the US to Canada.
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?
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 Benefits of Intermodal Transportation?
There are several benefits to using intermodal shipping. Firstly, it allows for the optimization of transportation routes, reducing congestion on highways and railroads.
Additionally, intermodal shipping offers a more sustainable transportation solution, reducing the carbon footprint associated with freight movement.
Lastly, intermodal shipping can provide more reliable capacity and lower costs compared to traditional truckload shipping. More specifically though, the benefits of intermodal shipping come down to the following:
- Cost efficient
- Fuel efficient
- Fewer delays for longer distances
- 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 .
So, while OTR shipping has its advantages, intermodal transportation often provides a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative.
- Fuel efficient:
We’ve mentioned earlier that a gallon can take a loaded truck anywhere between 20–30 miles. Conversely, a single train can move one ton of freight over 400 miles on just a gallon of fuel.
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.
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.
When we talk about sustainability, we’re referring to reducing the consumption of fuel; our non-renewable source of energy.
Intermodal shipping has a positive impact on sustainability. By utilizing rail for longer distances, intermodal shipping reduces the carbon footprint associated with freight transportation. It also helps to alleviate congestion on highways, leading to reduced emissions and improved air quality.
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. This is why intermodal transportation significantly reduces the carbon footprint compared to traditional over-the-road (OTR) methods.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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:
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.
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.
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.
The agent would ensure quality service for your shipment. He will be responsible for your freight as it gets handled between different logistics companies.
What are the types of intermodal transportation?
A: There are several types of intermodal transportation, including truck and rail intermodal, where shipments are transported by both trucks and trains.
Other types include ship and rail intermodal, rail and air intermodal, and rail and barge intermodal. Each type offers unique advantages depending on the specific shipping requirements.
Here’s a breakdown of the logistics used:
1. Sea-Container Ships
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.
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.
3. Land Bridges
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The North American intermodal industry has seen significant growth in recent years, thanks to its ability to move large volumes of freight efficiently and sustainably.
With that being said, here are the best intermodal shippers available in 2024.
J.B. Hunt Intermodal
J.B. Hunt could be the best intermodal provider right now.
As of 2022, J.B Hunt’s revenue has exceeded $7 billion.
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 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.
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 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.
Then there’s also companies like IMCS that offer comprehensive intermodal marketing services, helping businesses optimize their transportation spend.
Who Should Use Intermodal?
Any company that delivers internationally should benefit from intermodal transportation. Additionally, if your business frequently ships large quantities of goods over long distances, you might be a good candidate for intermodal transportation due to the cost effiency.
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.
How long does intermodal shipping typically take?
The length of haul for intermodal shipping can vary depending on the specific lane and distance. Generally, intermodal shipping can be slightly slower than truckload shipping due to the additional time required for loading and unloading at different terminals. However, it is important to note that intermodal shipping is still a timely and efficient option for many shipments.
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.
What is the difference between intermodal shipping and truckload shipping?
Intermodal shipping involves the use of multiple modes of transportation, typically combining rail and trucking, to move freight. On the other hand, truckload shipping relies solely on trucks for transportation. While both options have their advantages, intermodal shipping offers the benefits of lower costs, increased capacity, and reduced carbon footprint.
How does intermodal shipping benefit the supply chain and logistics?
Intermodal shipping provides numerous benefits to the supply chain and logistics industry. It allows for the optimization of transportation routes, reducing congestion on highways and railroads. It also offers more reliable capacity and lower costs compared to traditional truckload shipping. Additionally, intermodal shipping provides greater visibility and traceability in the shipping process.
What is a lane in intermodal shipping?
In intermodal shipping, a lane refers to a specific route or transportation corridor between two points. For example, a lane could be from Chicago to Los Angeles. Lanes are important to understand and consider when planning and optimizing transportation routes.
What is the role of intermodal providers?
Intermodal providers play a crucial role in the intermodal shipping process. They are responsible for coordinating and facilitating the movement of freight using multiple modes of transportation.
This includes managing relationships with railroads, trucking companies, and shipping lines, and ensuring the smooth and efficient transportation of goods.
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.