What Is Intermodal Transportation? Unlocking The Potential

What Is Intermodal Transportation? Unlocking The Potential

Intermodal transportation, a pivotal strategy in modern logistics, entails the movement of large goods in uniform steel containers across diverse modes of transport, such as trucks, railroads, and ships. This seamless method, prevalent in today’s supply chain operations, allows for the cargo to be transported without the necessity of unloading and reloading at each junction, thereby significantly reducing handling costs and risks of damage. This approach not only ensures enhanced safety for the transported goods, facilitating their integrity but also contributes to more efficient and expedited delivery times. By leveraging the strengths of each transportation mode, intermodal transportation offers a flexible, reliable, and cost-effective solution for moving goods over long distances.

The concept of intermodal transportation can be traced back to 18th-century Britain, where it was used to transport coal in containers via canal networks. However, it wasn't until the 1960s that intermodal transportation became the preferred method for maritime transport.

Efforts by logistics companies and international organizations to integrate various modes of transport led to the rise of intermodalism. The standardization of container sizes further boosted the appeal of intermodal transport by facilitating easier transfers between different modes. Today, intermodal transport is a key component of the global supply chain and logistics industry.

Understanding intermodal transportation is crucial for anyone involved in the logistics sector, as it plays a significant role in international shipping and trucking. In this article, we'll delve into the characteristics, advantages, and current trends in the intermodal transport market.

How does it work

Intermodal transport involves the movement of goods using multiple modes of transportation, such as trucks, trains, and ships, without the need for direct handling of the goods when switching modes. Here's how the process typically works:

  • Loading: The process begins with an empty truck arriving at the consignor's location. The goods are loaded into a container on the truck. Once loaded, these goods typically remain untouched until they reach their final destination.
  • Road to Rail: The truck transports the container to a nearby rail yard. At the rail yard, the container is transferred from the truck to a train. This train may take the container directly to the destination city or to a seaport for further transport.
  • Maritime Transport: If the goods need to be shipped overseas, the container is transferred from the train to a ship at the port. The ship then carries the container across the sea to the destination port.
  • Inland Transport: Upon arrival at the destination port, the container may be unloaded and transferred to another truck or train for further inland transport. This final leg of the journey brings the container to the destination modal station or directly to the consignee.
  • Drayage: The trucks used for transferring containers between different modes of transport are known as drayage trucks. Drayage services are specialized and provided by specific companies.
  • Unloading and Delivery: Once the container reaches its final destination, the logistics company unloads the goods from the container. The container is then ready to be reloaded for a new journey. The logistics company completes the last-mile delivery, ensuring the goods reach the end user.

Companies opt for intermodal transport to leverage the benefits of each mode of transportation. Rail is often more cost-effective for long-distance inland transport, shipping is faster for international travel, and trucks are indispensable for local pickups and last-mile deliveries.

Pros and cons

Intermodal transport is a popular choice in the trade and logistics industry due to its numerous advantages. However, it also comes with certain challenges, especially over long distances. Here are some of the pros and cons of using intermodal transport:


  • Rapid Service: Intermodal transport can lead to faster delivery times by utilizing the most efficient mode of transport for each leg of the journey. The use of containers allows for seamless transfer between modes, reducing loading and unloading times.
  • Lower Costs: Shippers often benefit from lower transportation costs due to reduced handling expenses and more predictable pricing. Opting for rail transport over long distances can further reduce costs due to lower fuel consumption.
  • Increased Capacity: The widespread use of intermodal transport facilitates economies of scale, leading to increased capacity. Additionally, reverse logistics can be employed to optimize the use of large containers.
  • Safety: Goods are stored in containers throughout the journey, minimizing the need for handling and reducing the risk of damage. The use of containers also lowers the likelihood of theft, as the goods are not accessible during transit and are under constant supervision.
  • Eco-Friendly Service: Intermodal transport can reduce a shipment's carbon footprint, thereby minimizing environmental impact. For example, trains emit significantly less carbon dioxide per ton-mile compared to trucks.


  • Structural Costs: The cost-effectiveness of intermodal transport can vary depending on the structure of your product. If your container is heavy and requires specialized equipment, like a crane, to move it between trucks and trains, this can lead to increased costs. This is especially true in some developing countries where there may be a lack of standardization in infrastructure.
  • Delays: While intermodal transport is often chosen for its cost savings, it can sometimes be slower than other methods. For example, railroads may not offer direct routes to all destinations, which can increase delivery times. Additionally, if there are delays in unloading at the destination, this can further slow down the process.
  • Reliability: Since intermodal transport relies on multiple modes of transit, there's a higher chance of disruptions in the supply chain. Different companies may be responsible for each mode of transport, which requires more logistical coordination and increases the risk of delays. Factors such as weather changes and equipment failures can also contribute to unpredictability.

When considering intermodal transport, it's important to carefully evaluate your specific requirements and weigh the pros and cons. If executed properly, intermodal transport can significantly improve your logistics performance indicators (KPIs). It is often a good choice for its high-quality service and relatively low costs, despite some level of unpredictability. In many cases, intermodal transport can offer a more efficient and effective delivery system compared to other transportation methods.

The growth

Intermodal transportation is experiencing significant growth, with millions of containers and trailers moved across North America each year and over 20 million intermodal containers in use worldwide. This growth is driven by the numerous advantages of intermodal transport, such as increased efficiency, reduced costs, enhanced security, and faster delivery times. As global trade routes expand and infrastructure improves, the use of intermodal transport is expected to continue rising.

Technological advancements are also playing a crucial role in the evolution of intermodal transport. With the rise of online businesses and the increasing demand for shipments, there is a growing need for efficient intermodal transport solutions. In developing countries, the transportation industry is shifting towards a more technologically advanced landscape, further boosting the appeal of intermodal transport. The digitalization of records and processes in intermodal transport makes it easier to access and manage information, enhancing the overall efficiency of the system.

Market Dynamics

The popularity of intermodal transport is influenced by various market dynamics, and several factors are expected to drive its adoption in the coming years:

  • Containerization: The widespread adoption of standardized containers has revolutionized the transport industry, making intermodal transport more efficient and reliable.
  • Reliability and Safety: Intermodal transport is perceived as a reliable and safe mode of transporting goods, which encourages its use.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: The cost savings associated with intermodal transport, particularly for long-distance shipments, make it an attractive option for businesses.
  • Market Demand: The growth in global trade and the increasing demand for efficient logistics solutions are driving the expansion of intermodal transportation networks.
  • Regulatory Environment: Strict government regulations regarding tank transportation, cargo, and containers can impact the growth of the intermodal transportation system. Compliance with these rules can enhance safety and environmental sustainability, further promoting intermodal transport.
  • Expansion into New Markets: Logistics companies are continually exploring new markets and opportunities for growth. Economic expansion in various regions can lead to increased demand for intermodal transportation services.
  • Environmental Concerns: With a growing emphasis on sustainability, intermodal transport's lower fuel consumption compared to other modes of transport makes it an appealing choice for environmentally conscious businesses and consumers.

Overall, the combination of technological advancements, economic growth, regulatory changes, and environmental considerations are likely to drive the increased adoption of intermodal transportation in the foreseeable future.


The history of intermodal transportation traces back to a time when shipping cargo was a labor-intensive and costly process known as "break bulk cargo." In this method, logistics companies and shippers would manually pack cargo into small packages for transport via ships, trucks, and trains. Without standardized intermodal containers, each package had to be individually loaded and unloaded at every transfer point throughout the journey.

This process was fraught with challenges, including frequent loss of packages. The speed of rail travel or the efficiency of supply chains had little impact on the overall cost-effectiveness of transportation, as the majority of expenses were tied to the slow and cumbersome loading and unloading process.

A significant turning point came when logistics companies began to adopt practices used by the United States Military and English rail car owners. They developed containers that could streamline the transportation process, reducing costs and enhancing the efficiency of intermodal shipping. These innovations laid the groundwork for the modern intermodal transportation system, revolutionizing the way goods are transported across different modes of transit.


The development of containers that facilitated intermodal freight transportation evolved from existing practices and was refined over time. In the late 19th century, English rail companies began using large containers to transfer luggage between trains and ships. This practice marked an early form of intermodal transport, especially when English companies also started using rail and ships to transport coal in large containers.

The concept of containerization took a significant leap forward during the Second World War when the United States Navy developed steel containers to efficiently transport ammunition and supplies. This innovation demonstrated the potential of using standardized containers for secure and streamlined transportation across different modes.

In the 1950s, the idea of containerization gained further momentum as logistics companies began designing larger steel containers. These containers were specifically engineered to keep cargo secure and undisturbed as they traveled through a combination of rail, truck, and ship transport. This marked the beginning of modern intermodal freight transportation, setting the stage for the global container shipping industry that we see today.


The 1960s marked a significant period in the history of intermodal shipping, particularly in its popularity on the seas. The development and standardization of containers in the late 1950s played a crucial role in this transformation. By standardizing the size of steel containers to 8 feet by 8 feet 6 inches, shippers gained a reliable capacity that they could anticipate, making intermodal transport more feasible and popular.

The rail industry and many logistics companies quickly recognized the potential of intermodal transport to reduce costs significantly. The need for unloading and reloading cargo at each transfer point was eliminated, as containers could simply be moved from one mode of transportation to another.

The emergence of container ships specifically designed for more efficient shipping further fueled the growth of intermodal transport. Although the first container ship debuted in 1931, it was not until the 1950s that containerization began to take shape, with the United States repurposing old oil tankers from the Second World War for container shipping.

By the 1960s, the advent of container ships and standard-sized containers revolutionized international bulk shipping, making it more efficient and allowing railroads like Union Pacific to expand their reach. The introduction of regional manufacturing facilities and hubs into the supply chain further enhanced the possibilities of intermodal transport. These hubs, linked to rail yards at specific points along the route, facilitated the transfer of freight between different modes and allowed trucks to add more cargo along the shipping route, reducing congestion at seaports and larger ports.

With these developments, intermodal transport emerged as the premier means of transit for freight on the seas and railroad tracks by the late 1960s, setting the stage for the global intermodal transportation system we see today.


In the 1980s, the field of intermodal freight transportation witnessed further advancements, building on the progress made over the previous two decades. Despite the improvements in intermodal processes and containers, industry innovators felt that there was still room for increased efficiency and the potential to transport more freight at lower costs. In 1977, Malcolm McLean, a key figure in the development of containerized shipping, began advocating for the use of "double stack cars" on rail lines.

Although these double-stack cars did not become standard until 1984, they have since become a staple in intermodal transport. The primary distinction between double-stack cars and traditional rail cars lies in their design. Double-stack cars, also known as "well" cars, can carry two stacks of intermodal containers, as opposed to flat cars. This design lowers the overall height of the containers and concentrates the center of gravity more effectively, enhancing safety and stability.

The introduction of double-stack cars significantly boosted the efficiency of intermodal transport. By allowing for the transportation of more cargo in a single shipment, these cars helped to bypass highway congestion entirely. As a result, final delivery times were reduced, and rail transportation emerged as an increasingly efficient means of moving cargo over long distances.


Today, the development of intermodal freight shipping ramps has addressed some of the lingering challenges in the intermodal transport sector. Historically, the underdeveloped intermodal ramp system and the lack of technology for proper data analysis regarding freight transportation were significant obstacles to the efficiency of intermodal transport.

In the early days, ramps used in intermodal transport were known as "circus-style" ramps. These ramps were less efficient compared to modern ramps because they required trucks to manually pull containers down, and they did not have the capability to move containers using cranes. This manual process was time-consuming and limited the speed and efficiency of transferring containers between different modes of transport.

However, significant improvements were made in the 1980s with the introduction of more advanced intermodal ramps that allowed for the use of cranes. This advancement made it much easier to remove containers from trains and move them seamlessly between two or more modes of transport. The modernization of intermodal ramps has played a crucial role in enhancing the overall efficiency of intermodal freight shipping, contributing to the continued growth and development of this mode of transportation.

Environmental Impact of Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is considered a sustainable means of shipping due to several factors:

  • Fuel Efficiency: It leverages the fuel efficiency of trains for long-haul transportation, significantly reducing fuel consumption compared to truck-only transport.
  • Reusable Materials: Intermodal containers are designed for repeated use, minimizing the need for disposable packaging materials.
  • Reduced Truck Use: By relying on trains for the majority of the journey, intermodal transportation reduces the number of trucks on the road, leading to lower emissions and decreased traffic congestion.

Intermodal vs. Multimodal Transportation

The main difference between intermodal and multimodal transportation lies in the contractual arrangements and planning:

  • Intermodal Transportation: Requires separate contracts and planning for each mode of transport involved in the journey. Each segment of the journey is handled independently.
  • Multimodal Transportation: This involves a single contract with one company that organizes all modes of transportation. The logistics provider coordinates the entire journey from start to finish.

Intermodal vs. Transloading

The distinction between intermodal shipping and transloading is based on how cargo is handled:

  • Intermodal Shipping: This involves moving entire steel containers without opening or sorting through the contents. The containers are transferred intact between different modes of transport.
  • Transloading: This entails unloading the contents of a container and sorting them for transfer onto different transportation methods. This process is often used when cargo needs to be consolidated or redistributed for the final leg of the journey.

Intermodal transportation stands as a testament to human ingenuity and our relentless pursuit of efficiency in the face of ever-growing logistical demands. From its humble beginnings in 18th-century Britain to its pivotal role in today's global supply chain, intermodal transport has revolutionized the way we move goods across land and sea. Its ability to seamlessly integrate multiple modes of transport, while minimizing handling and maximizing safety, has made it an indispensable tool in the logistics industry. As we look to the future, the continued growth and technological advancements in intermodal transportation promise to further enhance its efficiency, reduce its environmental impact, and strengthen its position as a cornerstone of global commerce. Whether it's navigating the complexities of international trade or meeting the challenges of an ever-changing world, intermodal transportation remains a shining example of innovation in motion, driving us toward a more connected and efficient future.