The Intermodal Container: Everything You Need to Know About Containerisation!

This post was last updated on October 2nd, 2023

The intermodal container has been a fixture in the shipping industry for decades. Being one of the pillars of the success of intermodal shipping seen as the best way to transport goods over long distances, intermodal cargo containers are now being used more than ever!

Even though there are many different types of intermodal containers, they all serve one purpose: to make transporting goods easier and more cost-effective.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss what an intermodal container is, how it works, its average life span, the different types of intermodal containers, and much more!

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The Container Industry

The industry has been rapidly expanding over the past few years.

What was once a laborious and slow shipping process, intermodal transport is now streamlined and efficient, spreading across industries including automotive, food and beverage, retail goods, manufacturers, and much more.

The invention of the intermodal cargo container

The first successful intermodal shipping container is said to have been designed in 1956 by an American trucking entrepreneur named Malcom McLean.

One morning in the late 1930s, after driving his truck from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Hoboken, New Jersey, McLean was informed that he would have to wait until the terminal crew would unstack the pallets from his truck.

Why? Because they first had to unload all of the trucks that arrived before him.

Malcom soon recognized that he was watching both time and money wasting away, and the idea of containerization was born. But, it would still take McLean nearly 20 years to start seeing the first intermodal containers in action.

The evolution of containerization

Since its modernization, intermodal transport has been a leading industry in the country and across borders.

The use of intermodal containers has revolutionized global trade and transportation by allowing cargo to be transferred seamlessly between different modes of transportation, such as trucks, trains, and ships, without repackaging the goods.

In 2012, 20.5 million intermodal containers were in existence. Today, there are said to be 600 million shipping containers in use at any given time.

So, what is an Intermodal Container?

The container (or cargo container) is an intermodal freight transport system used primarily in international trade.

They can come in different shapes and sizes and are often outfitted with refrigerated units, heating, and ventilation.

So what is an intermodal cargo container? And what good are they to you? These are two questions that might be on your mind.

Intermodal containers, or shipping containers, are used in many ways and can hold anything from goods to liquids to heavy machinery. They can move around the world quickly and, in general, with ease. 

What is intermodal containerization?

Containerization, in short, is the process of transporting goods in ISO standard containers.

The rise of International shipping containers with the ISO standardization

The ISO standardization for intermodal cargo containers considerably improved the importation and exportation process through seamless international shipping of goods.

Indeed, intermodal ISO containers respect specific international standardized sizes fixed by the International Organization for Standardization. This system helped the carriers optimize their fleets and transport containers for several logistics industry sectors.

Container characteristics and regulations

The most common type, dry freight containers, is commonly referred to as intermodal or shipping containers. They are usually 8 feet wide by 8.6 feet in height.

However, in recent years, high cube containers measuring 9.6 feet high have become more popular.

Containers come with a door at either end to be quickly loaded and offer weather protection and security against theft.

The average life span of an intermodal container is 25 years.

8 Different Types of Intermodal Containers

Dry freight container

At 90%, dry freight or general-purpose intermodal containers are the most common type in modern-day intermodal shipping.

Refrigerated containers

Intermodal cargo containers with refrigeration systems make up 6% of the world’s cargo shipments.

Open-top container

Compared to a solid roof, open-top containers have an open-top covered by a tarpaulin. This allows big and bulky items to be shipped and loaded from the top by a crane.

Flat rack container

A flat rack container is used to transport or store goods that have a specific size. The container, as the name implies, is flat, and cargo is loaded from the top or side.

Tank container

Intermodal tank containers are used to safely store and transport liquids and gases, including corrosive or flammable liquids, such as acids and gasoline.

Heated Intermodal Shipping Container

Heated containers are temperature-controlled intermodal containers designed to carry temperature-sensitive goods, offering better protection in severe weather/climates situations.

Insulated containers

Intermodal containers are insulated to protect the cargo from external elements and maintain the initial temperature.

Ventilated Containers

Ventilated intermodal containers are designed with a special ventilation system that prevents the buildup of condensation/moisture inside.

Shipping Container Specifications

What is the standard size of a shipping container?

The standard intermodal container is a 20-foot long shipping container

Note that a standardized unit was born out of that standard: The Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit or TEU. It’s used as an inexact size reference for any container ship or intermodal container. One could say, “It is a 1 TEU or a 2 TEU”.

The twenty-foot containers have an internal floor area of 146 sq. ft. and 1,172 cubic ft. of volume and are either 8.6 feet to 9.6 in height.

The weight capacity for this size of intermodal container is approximately 55,126.9 lbs or 25,000 kg.

What is the biggest shipping container size?

The largest container you can find on the market is the 53-foot High Cube Container.

Those fifty-three-foot containers are made for general purposes and specifically for international trade.

Indeed, these larger-sized shipping containers have 60% more capacity than standard 40-foot containers. Especially among rail and intermodal marine container transportation, this gain represents a significant advantage when shipping merchandise abroad.

The pallet wide containers’ sizing

You might have also heard of “pallet-wide” containers.

These are primarily European freight containers that are slightly wider than the ISO containers, built for optimal use of the internal capacity.

Indeed, the standard size of Euro-pallets is different from the ones in North America. Depending on the dimensions of the container (20-foot, 40-foot, or 45-foot), these might carry up to 7 extra Euro-pallets, representing a significant benefit for the haulers.

RailGateway’s own intermodal containers’ specifications

At RailGateway, we specialize in 53′ and 40′ high cube dry van containers with maximum weight loads of up to 59,000 lbs.

For more details, visit our container details & specifications page.

3 Types of Cargo Shipped in Intermodal Containers

Intermodal shipping containers transport a variety of cargo, including those main ones:

1. Consumer goods

Intermodal containerization is an excellent solution for companies looking to consolidate their inventory and ship it overseas or across the country quickly and easily.

2. Heavy machinery

Intermodal shipping containers are a safe and effective way to transport construction equipment, helping companies save money in the process.

3. Dry bulk cargo

Intermodal containerization is one of the safest, most cost-effective ways for dry bulk shippers to move their products around. This includes materials such as ore, coal, grain, etc.

Do you want to know what other types of cargo a container shipping enterprise could transport? Have a look at our dedicated blog post!

The basics of intermodal transportation pricing

The price of intermodal transport is generally characterized by the linehaul charges and fuel costs. Intermodal carriers determine pricing by breaking them down into these two main components.

Fuel Surcharge – This is the cost of fuel incorporated into intermodal transportation pricing and is subject to change due to fluctuations in oil prices.

Drayage – This is the cost of moving intermodal containers from short distances and includes accessorial services and costs such as receiving, unloading, loading, and other transport terminal charges.

How do I manage intermodal container costs and shipping?

Intermodal transportation rates are generally negotiated on a per-move/ per project, on the spot or one-off, or pre-determined contracted rates. Contact us for more information about intermodal pricing or to get a quote.

If you’re looking to transport goods more efficiently and cost-effectively, intermodal shipping containers are a great solution.

These large-scale steel freight containers offer businesses the opportunity to consolidate their inventory and ship it overseas or across the country quickly and easily. They also provide protection for heavy machinery items such as construction equipment that would be difficult to move by other means of transportation.

For dry bulk shippers who need an efficient way to transport materials like sugar, grain, coal, etc., intermodal containers are one of the safest, most affordable ways available today.

Contact us to help manage intermodal costs with pricing negotiation strategies tailored specifically for your business needs.

We’ll work closely with you every step of the way, and our team will be more than happy to create a great intermodal shipping plan that drives sales by considering your needs!