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Intermodal Transportation and Why Should Shippers Care?

In today’s modern times, intermodal transportation is the way most companies move goods. Intermodal transport moves containers and trailers approximately 25 million times all over North America each year. Globally, more than 20 million intermodal containers are currently in use. It has become the backbone of the logistics industry because of its many benefits. If a company wants to ship products long distances and reduce transportation costs, intermodal transportation is a great option.

What Is Intermodal Transportation?

Technically speaking, intermodal transportation involves moving large-sized goods in the same containers through two or more modes of transport. Instead of shifting the goods from one vehicle to the next, this process handles the goods in the same standardized containers. Typically, the different modes of transport include road, rail, and shipping.

Intermodal trucking is often used several times for the same shipment. The truck might deliver the container to the train or the ship. Then, the truck will again perform the last-mile delivery service.

How Does Intermodal Transportation Work?

Intermodal carriers

The process begins with an empty truck arriving at a destination where the shipper or transporter will load the goods into the container on the truck. In most cases, a person will not handle these goods again until they reach their final destination.

From here, the truck may travel to a rail yard where the container moves onto a train. This train could head to another railroad station or a port for shipping. The shipping company will move the containers to the destination port. Then, the container will be unloaded and put on another truck. This intermodal trucking step may also be known as drayage, a special service provided by just a few companies. From here, it might need to go back on a train to be delivered further inland or continue on its journey in the truck.

Once the truck reaches its destination modal station, workers remove the goods from the container. To get the product to the end-user, a logistics company will carry out last-mile delivery.

Benefits of Intermodal Transportation

Shippers should be familiar with intermodal transportation because it brings many benefits to the customer and shipper alike. The main reason logistics companies like using intermodal transit is that they can benefit from each mode of transport. For example, rail service is often cheaper than trucking for inland transport. Shipping will allow for faster international travel, and trucks are great for last-mile pickups and deliveries. Some other benefits include:

Quick Service

Generally, intermodal shipping allows companies to reduce delivery time to customers because they can choose the fastest mode of transportation for a long distance. The reduction in loading and unloading times also helps speed up delivery. In addition, the use of a single container throughout the entire process allows for easy and efficient transfer between modes of transport.

Lower Costs

Shippers using intermodal transportation enjoy lower prices than other approaches, partly thanks to low handling costs. For example, the railway mode reduces costs because it consumes less fuel even while traveling a large distance.


The same container stores the goods throughout the entire shipping journey. In essence, they act as small warehouses that protect goods during shipping and limit the amount of damage. They also don’t need to be handled when switching modes of transport. Plus, people do not have direct access to them while they’re in transit. 

Potential Problems With Intermodal Transportation

As with everything, there are inevitably some problems with intermodal transportation. They largely arise because of the long distance products have to travel. 

Structural Costs

Whether intermodal transportation can truly lower your costs depends greatly on the type of product you are shipping. If the container is heavy, requiring a crane to move between modes of transport, you can experience higher costs. Shippers can manipulate the costs to compensate for this, which is common in some developing countries where there might be a lack of standardization.


In some situations, intermodal transportation can be slower, particularly when a specific mode of transport does not offer a direct route. Perhaps instead of one train route, it needs to be transferred to a new train in order to reach its final destination. Transfers cause delays, and so does the time it takes to unload the carrier.


Because of how many different moving parts go into intermodal transportation, it may not be exceptionally reliable. Think about it in terms of a chain. The more links you keep adding to the chain, the higher the likelihood of one of the chains breaking. If different businesses are in charge of the various modes of transport, more coordination is required, which opens up another opportunity for risk.

When Should You Use Intermodal Shipping?

Intermodal shipping

Just about any company needing to ship something can use intermodal transportation. It is extremely accessible because trucks handle both the first and the last mile of the shipment. This form of transportation might be more appealing in certain situations, like the ones below.

Long-Distance Shipments

The rule of thumb is that loads that need to travel more than 750 miles can benefit from intermodal shipping. If the goods were to travel this distance in a truck, it would lead to high fuel consumption. But, traveling partly by rail can reduce this issue with much less fuel required to travel the same distance.

Low and Medium-Value Shipments

For most low or medium-value shipments, intermodal transportation is adequate. Sometimes when dealing with high-value goods, you might prefer a more direct and quicker method. However, you can safely send most lower-value shipments using intermodal transport.

Why Should You Care About Intermodal Shipping?

Ultimately, intermodal shipping is an affordable option for most businesses. In general, if you are shipping products more than 750 miles or you would like to reduce your costs, you may prefer intermodal transport. Delivering products on time and within budget provides benefits to any business.