What Is Intermodal Trucking And How Does It Work?

What Is Intermodal Trucking And How Does It Work?

Logistics is the heartbeat of global commerce, right? When people refer to the "world of logistics," they're talking about a global scale. Nowadays, the movement of goods and products involves a complex global supply chain more than ever before. But how does freight make its way from one end of the world to the other? The phrase "intermodal freight transport" refers to shipments that utilize more than one of these transportation methods. At the intersection of these four primary modes is a specialized area known as intermodal trucking.

If we were to imagine logistics as a family tree, it would have branches extending to almost every aspect of our lives. Generally speaking, the global supply chain relies on four primary modes of transportation for shipping:

  • Rail
  • Road
  • Sea
  • Air

In this discussion, we're set to delve deeply into the intricacies of intermodal trucking, a critical component of the logistics and transportation industry. We'll cover what intermodal trucking really involves, breaking down its operational framework, and examining both its advantages, like cost efficiency and environmental benefits, and its disadvantages, such as potential delays and complex coordination efforts. We aim to provide a comprehensive overview of why intermodal trucking is indispensable to the logistics sector, highlighting its role in enhancing supply chain resilience and efficiency. Additionally, you'll gain insights into the leading companies that dominate the intermodal trucking landscape, uncovering various job opportunities that this sector offers to professionals and the competitive rates that define this mode of transportation. Prepare yourself for an enriching exploration that promises to expand your understanding and appreciation of intermodal trucking's pivotal role in global commerce.

Intermodal Freight Transport vs. Intermodal Trucking

Intermodal freight transport refers to the movement of goods using two or more modes of transportation, including rail, ocean, air, or truck. It's a method that allows for the seamless transfer of freight from one mode to another, optimizing efficiency and reducing costs.

On the other hand, intermodal trucking specifically focuses on the trucking segment of an intermodal shipment, often referred to as drayage. In simpler terms, intermodal trucking is responsible for the initial and final stages of transporting freight that has been moved via rail, ocean, or air. It bridges the gap between these modes of transportation, ensuring that goods reach their final destination.

Intermodal Trucking and Ocean Freight

Here's an example to illustrate intermodal trucking in action. Imagine a container filled with T-shirts being shipped from China. Upon reaching a major seaport on the West Coast, a large crane lifts the container off the ocean vessel and places it onto a flatbed trailer. A truck then attaches to the trailer and transports the container to its intended destination. This process exemplifies intermodal trucking. The destination could be an intermediate stop, such as a cross-dock facility, or it might be the final destination, depending on the requirements of the shipment.

Have you ever seen a massive ship loaded with containers stacked high? It's interesting to observe how everything fits together on the deck of the ship, similar to how Legos interlock. The sizes of these containers are standardized to ensure compatibility.

All containers must adhere to specific standards set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This global uniformity in specifications allows for the efficient stacking of multiple containers on top of each other. This standardized sizing also facilitates the easy stacking of containers on railroad cars and on the trailers that trucks haul, contributing to the efficiency of intermodal transportation.

Standard ISO Sizes

The most commonly used standard ISO shipping containers are:

  • 8 feet wide
  • 40 feet long
  • 5 feet high

Approximately 70% of global container freight is transported in these standard 40-foot containers. However, 20-foot containers, 9.5-foot "high cube" containers, and longer containers measuring 45, 48, and 53 feet are also widely used.

The 53-foot containers are particularly popular because they match the length of standard over-the-road dry van trailers. In addition to these sizes, there are refrigerated (reefer) containers and various other specialized sizes. Generally speaking, most freight that can be shipped on a regular or reefer trailer can also be transported in an intermodal container.

Here's a tip for spotting containers on the road: If you're ever stuck in traffic and curious about which trucks are carrying containers versus standard reefer or dry vans, look at the trailer beds. Trailers carrying containers have flat bottoms, while over-the-road dry vans and reefers often have arched beds. Additionally, the side walls of containers are typically corrugated.

With a basic understanding of intermodal freight, let's now explore its advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of Intermodal Freight and Trucking

Intermodal freight and trucking offer several benefits, primarily in terms of cost-effectiveness. Ocean liners and railways are efficient for transporting large volumes of freight at a relatively low cost. A single ship or train can carry hundreds or thousands of containers, whereas a truck can transport only one. As a result, intermodal transportation can significantly reduce fuel consumption compared to over-the-road (OTR) trucking.

These cost savings are often passed on to the shipper, making intermodal transportation an economical choice. Additionally, intermodal containers are reusable and versatile, making them an excellent option for shipping various types of freight.

Carriers that specialize in intermodal freight also enjoy specific advantages. They can save on fuel and maintenance costs, reduce wear and tear on their equipment, and receive competitive compensation for hauling freight. Moreover, intermodal transportation is considered a secure way to ship goods, as the freight is not handled once it is sealed inside the container, minimizing the risk of damage or theft.

Home Cooking and Scheduling

One of the appealing aspects of drayage or intermodal trucking is that drivers often don't have to sleep in their cabs. Many intermodal routes are short-hauls between rail yards or shipyards and local warehouses, allowing drivers to return home each night for a home-cooked meal. This aspect of the job is a significant perk, but it also highlights the importance of scheduling.

Firm appointments can save time. Major railroads tend to be more organized than typical dry freight warehouses. In over-the-road (OTR) trucking, appointments might not always be set in stone. However, many railroads offer live tracking for specific containers through their websites and apps, ensuring that when a container is ready for pickup, it's genuinely ready. This technology usage reduces guesswork and wasted time in intermodal trucking. In summary, the advantages of intermodal trucking include:

  • Fuel savings for carriers.
  • Reduced wear and tear on equipment.
  • Drivers often get to sleep in their own beds.
  • Pickup appointments at railroads are more reliable than those at warehouses, leading to time savings and less stress.
  • It's a secure way to transport freight.

Disadvantages of Intermodal Freight and Trucking

While intermodal trucking has its advantages, there are also some drawbacks to consider:

  • Longer wait times for shippers: Deliveries can take more time compared to direct over-the-road (OTR) shipments.
  • Registration requirements: Carriers must register with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) as intermodal equipment providers.
  • Challenges at ports and rail yards: Drivers may face difficulties entering and exiting yards, especially when picking up or dropping off containers.
  • Lack of simple drop-and-hook operations: Unlike some OTR shipments, intermodal freight often requires more complex handling.
  • Additional paperwork: The complexity of intermodal transport can lead to more paperwork for carriers and drivers.

One specific challenge of intermodal freight is dealing with ports and rail yards. For instance, a driver at the beginning of an intermodal shipment must pick up an empty container, take it to a warehouse to be loaded, and then return to the rail yard for delivery. This process of entry and reentry can be time-consuming and frustrating, particularly if there are traffic issues.

Furthermore, intermodal freight generally takes longer to transport than straightforward OTR shipments. The added complexity of intermodal operations can also result in extra paperwork, adding to the administrative burden for carriers and drivers.

Managing Paperwork

In the freight industry, paperwork is essential for ensuring payment. The smoother and more organized the paperwork, the quicker the payment process. Forward-thinking carriers are now leveraging technology to streamline their operations. Tools like Vector can help manage document scans, compile load files, and automate billing, reducing the time and effort spent on paperwork. This technological shift can significantly improve efficiency and speed up the payment process.

Understanding Intermodal Containers

Intermodal containers are designed with precision to optimize the transportation process. An efficient container can lower labor costs, reduce handling time, cut packaging expenses, and enhance overall intermodal freight efficiency. Considerable effort has gone into creating intermodal containers that work seamlessly across rail, trucking, and air freight industries. It took years to develop containers that are suitable for both maritime and air transport. For instance, ship containers did not fit well into aircraft bellies during the 1970s.

Intermodal trucking containers, which are interchangeable between rail and air transport, are typically made of aluminum or steel. This combination of materials ensures that the containers are both flexible and durable. The most common intermodal container is the 40-foot container, which has a capacity of 2,400 cubic feet and can carry approximately 22 tons of cargo. The next most popular size is the 20-foot container, which can hold half the cargo of a 40-foot container and costs about 20% less to use.

The five most popular types of intermodal containers are:

  • Standard Container: Also known as dry containers, these are used for a wide range of cargo. They have double doors at the back for loading and unloading dry goods in bulk.
  • Open Top Container: As the name suggests, these containers have open tops to accommodate oversized cargo that doesn't fit through the double doors. Machinery is a common example of cargo for open-top containers. A tarp is typically used to cover the cargo and protect it from the elements.
  • Tank Container: Used for transporting liquids, tank containers can hold food liquids, chemicals, and more. They have a specialized structure within the container to safeguard the liquid. A 20-foot tank container holds the same amount of liquid as a standard 20-foot container.
  • Refrigerated Container: These containers are used for temperature-controlled cargo, often kept at or below freezing. They have heavy insulation to maintain the required temperature.
  • Flat Container: These are containers without walls or a roof, designed to carry heavy, oversized cargo that can endure outdoor conditions during transit.

Difference between Multimodal and Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is a multifaceted approach to freight logistics, designed to capitalize on the strengths of various transportation modes, including intermodal trucking, rail freight, and air freight, to move goods more efficiently, economically, and environmentally friendly across diverse geographic landscapes. This method is particularly advantageous for long-distance shipments, where it combines the extensive reach and environmental benefits of rail, the flexibility and accessibility of trucking, and the speed of air transport to create a seamless, integrated supply chain solution.

Each segment of the journey is meticulously planned and executed under separate contracts and bills of lading, ensuring that the specifics of responsibility, cost, and delivery expectations are clearly defined and legally binding for each transportation mode involved. This compartmentalization of the shipping process allows for greater flexibility in managing logistics, optimizing routes, and adjusting to unforeseen challenges. It also simplifies the tracking and management of freight, as each leg of the transport chain can be individually monitored and assessed for efficiency and service quality. This strategic use of intermodal transportation not only enhances the resilience and reliability of freight movement but also supports businesses in achieving sustainability goals by reducing the carbon footprint of their logistics operations.

On the other hand, multimodal transportation also uses different modes of transportation to move freight, but the key difference is that it operates under a single shipping contract. In multimodal transportation, all the transportation modes involved are covered under one bill of lading, making it more streamlined in terms of paperwork and contractual agreements. This unified approach can simplify logistics and often provide a more seamless experience for the shipper.

Eco-Friendly Benefits of Intermodal Freight Shipping

Intermodal shipping is not only efficient but also environmentally friendly. Utilizing trains as part of the intermodal shipping process can significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions. For instance, a train can move a shipment between 450 to 500 miles on just one gallon of fuel, thereby decreasing the greenhouse gas and pollution footprint of the shipment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shifting just 10 to 15 percent of freight from trucks to rail for a portion of the journey can save nearly 1 billion gallons of fuel annually.

Additionally, intermodal shipping helps alleviate traffic congestion and reduces the strain on the nation's highway infrastructure, particularly during peak traffic hours. This not only contributes to a greener environment but also leads to more efficient transportation networks.

Intermodal Terminals: Key Components of Intermodal Shipping

Intermodal terminals serve as the nerve centers for intermodal trucking shipments, ensuring that goods are handled properly and efficiently throughout the intermodal supply chain. Here are some basic details about the types of intermodal terminals:

  • Port Terminals: These are the busiest intermodal terminals in terms of traffic. They handle the highest volume and space consumption of goods. Within port terminals, there are container sea terminals, which act as intermediaries for maritime goods being transported and prepared for ground transport. Other types of terminals at ports include intermediate hub terminals and barge terminals, which are integral to vessel transport.
  • Rail Terminals: Intimately connected to port terminals, rail terminals signify the start of the ground transportation part of the intermodal network. These terminals require clearance for intermodal containers to enable the transfer of goods from ports to railcars. On-dock terminals support containers on flatcars, whereas near-dock facilities offer extra space for various container types that carry less bulky cargo. Rail satellite terminals transport intermodal freight from rail to trucks.
  • Distribution Terminals: Also known as distribution centers, these are the heart of the intermodal trucking industry. They include cross-docking, transloading facilities, and warehousing accommodations. Transloading facilities transfer ship goods into truckloads or truckloads into ships, using 40-foot to 53-foot domestic containers. During cross-docking, intermodal goods are prepared and sorted for their final destinations. Warehousing is used to store freight until it's ready to be moved to its final destination.

Reliability of Intermodal Trucking for Long-Distance Transportation

Intermodal trucking is a dependable choice for long-distance freight transportation, thanks to several key factors:

  • Minimal Handling of Freight: Your cargo remains in the same container throughout its journey, regardless of the mode of transportation. This reduces the risk of damage and loss that can occur during loading and unloading.
  • Reduced Property Losses and Damages: Since the freight does not need to be handled between different modes of transport, there is a noticeable reduction in property losses and damages.
  • Enhanced Security and Monitoring: Terminals, railroad depots, and ramps have robust security measures and monitoring systems in place to ensure the safety of goods.
  • Efficiency for Drivers: Intermodal trucking drivers can handle more loads in less time, as they are typically responsible for the first and last legs of the journey, while trains or ships cover the longer distances in between.

Overall, intermodal trucking stands out as a highly reliable and efficient method for transporting freight over long distances, effectively harnessing the combined strengths of various transportation modes. This synergistic approach not only enhances the flexibility and scalability of logistics operations but also significantly reduces transportation costs and environmental impact. By integrating the door-to-door accessibility of trucking with the long-haul efficiency of rail and the rapid transit times of air freight, intermodal trucking presents an adaptable and sustainable solution for meeting the diverse needs of modern supply chains.

Intermodal trucking is a vital component of the logistics industry, providing a seamless bridge between various modes of transportation. Its ability to combine the strengths of rail, road, sea, and air transport makes it a cost-effective, efficient, and environmentally friendly option for moving goods across long distances. As the global supply chain continues to evolve, the role of intermodal trucking will only grow in importance, ensuring that the heartbeat of global commerce keeps pulsing strongly. Whether you're a shipper looking to optimize your freight movement, or a carrier seeking to expand your services, understanding and leveraging the advantages of intermodal trucking can lead to significant benefits in today's interconnected world.