Intermodal freight involves the transport of freight in a single unit using two or more forms of transportation. There are two types of intermodal freight: international and domestic. In the former, goods stay in 20 or 40-foot containers for the duration of transportation. In the latter, goods are transferred to larger containers and transported inland to domestic locations. The standardization of shipping containers means intermodal freight has various advantages such as reduced costs, faster delivery times, and safer and more secure transportation of goods.
Understanding intermodal freight
Intermodal freight involves the transport of freight in a single unit using two or more forms of transportation.
Intermodal freight utilizes a combination of two or more transportation modes such as road, rail, air, or sea. In this form of shipping, the goods are sealed in cargo transport units (CTUs) whose dimensions are standardized to allow the goods to remain in the same unit across multiple modes of transportation.
This means that when a CTU is moved from one form of transport to another, it is the CTU itself that is handled and not the goods that are contained within. However, as we will explain later, there are some exceptions to this rule. Transfers occur in an intermodal station or terminal which contains specialized equipment.
It’s also worth noting the difference between the intermodal form of transportation and two related concepts in transloading and multimodal freight:
- In general, intermodal transportation does not involve the handling of goods until they arrive at a final destination. During transloading, however, goods are routinely consolidated or reconsolidated as required.
- In intermodal transportation, there are multiple contracts for each separate carrier. Conversely, multimodal transportation is characterized by a single contract where the same carrier is responsible for moving goods across different transportation modes.
According to research conducted by Technavio, the intermodal freight transportation market is expected to grow by $46.55 billion in the four years to 2025.
The two categories of intermodal freight
There are two categories of intermodal freight:
- International intermodal – these shipments travel in 20 or 40-foot containers between bulk carriers, trains, and trucks. Note that the products stay in the container for the entirety of the process.
- Domestic intermodal – these are shipments that arrive at a port in the same 20 or 40-foot containers which are then transferred into 53-foot domestic containers. This occurs at a transload facility, cross-dock facility, or distribution center. From there, the goods travel inland to a “domestic” location.
Advantages of intermodal freight
The standardization of shipping container dimensions has clear benefits for companies and the industry as a whole:
- Rapid service – containers result in the more efficient transfer of goods from one transport mode to another. Delivery times are reduced since the shipping company needs to spend less time loading and unloading.
- Lower and more predictable costs – with less time spent on handling, costs tend to be lower. Many shipping companies also utilize rail transport for the longest distances to further reduce costs, with railroads in the United States able to move one tonne of freight more than 470 miles on a single gallon of fuel. Rail transport also tends to make costs more predictable as there are fewer unforeseen delays when compared to transporting goods by road.
- Safety and security – intermodal rail freight tends to be a safer option for transporting flammable or hazardous materials because there is less chance of an accident. This also contributes to faster delivery as there are fewer restrictions that dictate how these materials can be transported. Intermodal freight is also inherently more secure than some other types. Since there is no requirement to handle individual items, there is less chance for opportunistic theft. What’s more, containers that are loaded onto railway cars are dropped into a well which makes them impossible to open.
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