Intermodal Shipping

Intermodal shipping is the transportation of goods using multiple modes of transport, such as air, sea, rail, and truck. It involves moving cargo from one location to another via containers that can be easily transferred between different types of vehicles and carriers.

Intermodal shipping offers several advantages over traditional freight services because it reduces the time and cost of transferring goods from one carrier to another.

Additionally, intermodal shipping makes for more efficient overall delivery since a single container can be used for multiple shipments across various modes of transportation to reach its final destination. As such, this type of logistics allows companies to reduce overall costs by consolidating shipments, cutting down on fuel consumption, and reducing overall transit times. 

This mode of shipping has significantly changed the shipping industry as a whole and generated innovation and growth in global trade and economy worldwide. 

It’s important to note that in intermodal shipping, multiple contracts are signed with different carriers for each transportation mode. This is a crucial point, as many businesses, when referring to the convenience of intermodal shipping, are actually referring to multimodal shipping, in which a single contract, usually with a freight forwarder, effectively covers all multiple modes of cargo transportation.

 

What Are the Primary Freight Transportation Modes Used Within Intermodal Shipping?

Intermodal shipping involves combining different transportation modes, utilizing each one’s unique characteristics to create an efficient and effective global shipping process.

The following are the four main transportation modes used in intermodal shipping operations:

  • Container ships (Ocean Freight): Modern containerships can carry thousands of containers, making them the backbone of the international economy. According to current estimates, 80% of the world’s merchandise is shipped using container ships. 
  • Rail: Railways play an important role, especially in incredibly large countries like the United States, where rail intermodal traffic has significantly increased over the decades. Adopting double-stack cars has been a game-changer, allowing for higher cargo volume and more efficient land transportation.
  • Trucking: Trucks provide the most flexible and straightforward transport, crucial for both the first and last stages of almost any international shipping process. Their ability to transport various container sizes makes them indispensable despite being affected by inefficiencies like traffic congestion.
  • Air freight: This mode is optimal for urgent, time-sensitive cargo, offering the fastest transportation. It utilizes specialized Unit Load Devices (ULDs) designed for aircraft, not standard intermodal containers. While primarily supported by trucking for initial and final journey segments, goods are often transferred between different container types or moved via a dry truck when integrated with other transport modes like sea, land, or rail.

 

Frequently Asked Questions about Intermodal Shipping

 

What is the Benefit of Intermodal Shipping for Businesses?

Intermodal shipping is particularly beneficial for businesses with the right expertise and personnel to handle complex logistics. This method efficiently moves cargo through different transportation modes, such as rail, ship, and truck, enabling effective use of each mode’s strengths. The key advantage is the seamless coordination of these modes, which can optimize the overall transport process.

However, for businesses looking to benefit from the use of multiple transportation modes, as in intermodal shipping, but without the associated logistical complexities, multimodal shipping is an ideal alternative. It simplifies the shipping process by assigning a single service provider, typically a reliable freight forwarder, to orchestrate the entire journey under one contract, thereby reducing the operational challenges and making it a suitable option for businesses that prefer a more streamlined approach.

 

What Are the Challenges of Intermodal Shipping?

Despite its many benefits, intermodal shipping presents challenges due to its highly complex operational logistics. Negotiating transport contracts across different carriers can result in communication issues and time-consuming administrative tasks. This method also involves complex documentation and careful attention to regulations for each mode of transport locally and internationally. Furthermore, any mismanagement in logistics coordination can extend transit times due to the involvement of multiple transfers between different modes. 

Overall, the success of intermodal shipping relies on the quality of regional infrastructure and logistics expertise. Due to these challenges, many companies choose to work directly with freight forwarders to coordinate and manage this process on their behalf. Learn more about this process.

 

What is the Difference Between Intermodal and Multimodal Transportation?

It is important to understand the difference between “Intermodal” and “Multimodal” transportation, as both terms can sometimes be used interchangeably, despite the fact that their differences have significant impacts on logistics planning.

  • Intermodal Transportation: This approach transports goods in the same container using various transportation modes (such as rail, ship, and truck), each managed under a separate contract. This method gives businesses more control over the shipping process, but it also necessitates their active involvement in managing and coordinating with multiple service providers for each transport segment. It is best suited for businesses that prefer direct oversight of each stage of their shipment and have the skills and the personnel capable of handling it. Alternatively, it is possible to hire a freight forwarder to handle part of the cargo journey, but the business will still need to coordinate a part of the overall process.
  • Multimodal Transportation: This practice also involves using multiple transport modes to move cargo, but the key difference lies in its implementation under a single contract. The key advantage of multimodal transportation is its simplicity and efficiency from the client’s perspective. A single provider, often a freight forwarder, coordinates the entire shipping process, navigating the complexities of different transport modes. This arrangement significantly reduces the management and logistical burden for the business, making it an ideal choice for those who prioritize an easy, seamless shipping experience. It offers the convenience of a one-stop shipping solution where the challenges of moving cargo efficiently between various modes are efficiently handled by a single provider.

As stated earlier, it is important to note the fact that, in many cases, when individuals or businesses use the term intermodal shipping, they actually mean multimodal since they are really looking for an all-in-one shipping solution that will allow them to move their freight using multiple transport modes efficiently.

 

What is the History of Intermodal Shipping?

Intermodal transportation has revolutionized the movement of goods, significantly evolving from the labor-intensive break bulk cargo process, where goods are packed and handled individually. 

The history of intermodal container shipping dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries when early English coal was shipped in wooden boxes and lifted from boats to horse-down carriages and early railroad cars using specialized cranes. 

Intermodal container shipping showed potential in the early 20th century with the adoption of covered containers for furniture and intermodal freight transport between road and rail. 

The lack of standardization initially prevented the widespread adoption of this service, which led to efforts to establish uniform container dimensions and handling mechanisms. In the United Kingdom, the Railway Clearing House (RCH) did manage to standardize containers in the 1920s, enabling the seamless transfer of goods between railway-owned and privately-owned vehicles. Unfortunately, this standard was not adopted outside the UK, which resulted in its failure.

Within a few years, during one of the darkest periods in history, World War II, pallets gained popularity as a means to facilitate efficient freight movement across various transportation modes. Truck trailers were also integrated into railway transportation, laying the foundation for the modern intermodal container shipping system.

A significant transformation began in the 1950s, inspired by the US military’s logistical approaches during World War II and the innovative contributions of American entrepreneur Malcolm McLean. McLean’s development of standardized containers simplified cargo handling, laying the groundwork for modern container shipping. This shift led to an increase in intermodal transport popularity by the 1960s, significantly reducing loading and unloading costs. 

As a result of this practical application, in 1961, the ISO/TC 104 technical committee of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) introduced international standards for containers, which simplified logistical operations even more. This innovation drastically helped to cut shipping costs and expanded global trade access, significantly impacting consumer choice and market availability.

By the 1980s, further advancements took place with the introduction of “double-stack cars” in rail transport, the further development of specialized container ships, and other advances in infrastructure that contributed to global trade’s growth. 

Today, intermodal freight shipping continues to evolve with advanced ramp systems and sophisticated tracking technologies, ensuring smoother transitions between transportation modes and more accurate delivery times.

 

How Was the Intermodal Container Developed?

Before the development of containerization, goods were traditionally shipped using break-bulk methods, which involved the individual loading and unloading of cargo pieces. While there were intelligent methods of moving cargo more efficiently, including the use of pallets and crates, along with earlier attempts at international standardization, none of them was successful enough to drastically change global trade.

Containerization, a key innovation in intermodal transport, was revolutionized in the 1950s by Malcolm McLean, who introduced standardized shipping containers. McLean’s concept, while not the first instance of using containers for transport, was groundbreaking in its standardization and systemization approach, significantly impacting the efficiency of cargo transport. Following this innovation, the International Standardization Organization (ISO) played a crucial role in establishing global standards for these containers, with significant standardization developments occurring in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Today, containers come in various standard lengths, the most common being 20-foot and 40-foot  units, while maintaining a standard width of 8 feet. Heights typically are 8.5 or 9.5 feet. They are designed to handle a maximum weight, including the container itself. This standardization, along with the variety of specialized container types like refrigerated or flat rack containers, has been pivotal in streamlining the intermodal transport process, allowing for the seamless movement of goods across global shipping networks.

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