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What is Intermodal Transportation and When is it the Best Choice?

Jul 18, 2017

Intermodal transportation is the use of two or more modes, or carriers, to transport goods (freight) from shipper to consignee. Special standardized containers are used for intermodal transport of cargo on trucks, freight trains, and ships. These containers are large rectangular boxes, capable of being secured to special trailers. These durable, steel containers are built so they can be transferred between different modes of transportation easily. This eliminates the risks of directly handling shipments. 

Intermodal-cycle of delivery.jpgIntermodal transportation isn’t new. The practice was first used in 18th century England. In the 1950s the steel intermodal container became the standard. It was based on design specifications developed for the US DoD. 

A typical example of intermodal freight transportation is rail, truck, ship, and then truck. The truck transport used between the rail terminals and the ocean ports, is a specialized form of trucking often called drayage. This is usually provided by dedicated companies who provide only this type of service.

An example of how this type of transportation scenario would progress, would be with a truck bringing an empty container to a shipper to pick up a load. The container would be loaded with freight by the shipper and then taken by the truck to a railroad yard. It is then put on a train and moved to its destination. At the destination city it is removed from the train and delivered by truck to the consignee, where the contents of the containers are unloaded. The container is then empty and ready for another load. 

gitan100 / 123RF Stock Photo

How do you know when intermodal is the right choice for your shipment? 

Here’s a few things to consider when deciding whether intermodal is a good fit for your shipments.

  • Intermodal transportation is most suitable for intermediate and finished goods in load units of less than 25 tons.
  • The longer the distance a shipment needs to travel, the more likely it is that intermodal will be a good choice. Freight moving more than 300 miles, or longer than one day by truck, are great candidates for intermodal transportation.
  • Cargo with intermediate values are most likely to be moved via intermodal. Those with high values are often sent via the most direct methods, such as air cargo, and low value shipments frequently travel via rail or ocean.
  • Intermodal transportation is a good selection when cargo flow needs to be continuous and in similar quantities. For example, if you’re sending multiple LTL shipments to the same location throughout the week, you may want to consider using intermodal instead.

Should you be considering intermodal for your next shipment? We’ll be looking at the benefits of intermodal transportation in an upcoming post. Stay tuned to learn more. In the meanwhile, to receive help managing your shipments and selecting the best methods, contact American Group by phone, 866-553-6608 or email, We are Shipping.Simplified®.