Intermodal Definition: Your Go-To Guide for Terminology and Definitions

This post was last updated on March 31st, 2022

Do you know the definition of intermodal? How about breakbulk, or even drayage? If not, then this is the post for you.

We built this handy go-to guide to define and explain all the terms that anyone would need to know regarding intermodal transportation

Whether you’re a seasoned pro at intermodal shipping, just getting started in freight logistics, or want a better understanding of what intermodal means, read on!

The RailGateway Dictionary to Intermodal Transportation

20 definitions for anyone getting started in intermodal freight shipping.

One of the most challenging parts of intermodal freight transportation is that there are so many terms and acronyms to know. This can make it hard for anyone, no matter how experienced they are, to understand what’s going on. 

That’s why we created this intermodal glossary. We define all the words you need to know when working with intermodal freight transport.

* The following definitions are not in alphabetical order but rather mimic the flow of an intermodal freight shipping process.

Intermodal

The word intermodal refers to a transportation method that involves more than one form of transport during a single trip.

Intermodal broker

An intermodal broker is a company that helps shippers and receivers connect with carriers to move goods.

They act as the go-between, facilitating the process and taking a commission or fee while providing discounts and preferred rates.

Freight forwarder

A freight forwarder is a company that books shipments and manages intermodal transport.

They manage intermodal shipping logistics by providing access to rail lines, trucks, cargo vessels, and warehouses. A good intermodal partner will also provide you with regular updates on your shipment and provide additional services such as insurance for your cargo.

Consignee

The party to which freight is delivered. The consignor delivers the freight to the consignee (recipient).

Consignor (or shipper)

The individual or organization shipping freight to a consignee.

logistics workers in container shipping yard

Containerization

Containerization is a means of intermodal freight transport that uses container-sized units for handling cargo. This system allows intermodal transportation to function more smoothly.

Intermodal container

Intermodal containers are intermodal freight transport units that can be used across different modes. They’re reusable and interchangeable and come in a range of standard sizes. The most common intermodal container is the 20 ft equivalent unit (TEU).

RaileGateway specializes in 53′ and 40′ high cube dry van intermodal containers. Request your free quote here on how we can help you save on your rail transportation costs.

Container interchanges

A miscalculation can happen, and sometimes a carrier can end up with a surplus of containers at a certain location while other carriers have free space and active requirements.

In that way, a container interchange is an agreement where a carrier transfers one or more of his extra containers to be shipped onto another’s carrier vehicle.

Breakbulk

Breakbulk cargo refers to goods that are not shipped in containers. This type of cargo is usually handled and transported individually, as opposed to being consolidated into a container.

Intermodal ramp

An intermodal ramp is a loading dock at an intermodal facility that allows cargo transfer between rail or road vehicles.

When a container arrives at an intermodal ramp, it is unloaded from either the train or truck it was on to be put onto another one and be shipped to another ramp or directly to the final destination.

Intermodal vehicle

An intermodal vehicle is specially designed for intermodal transport and may include features like: multiple axles, front or rear-mounted cranes, or multiple floors, allowing for double-stacked containers.

They can either be trucks, container ships, trains, or cargo aircraft, which cover the four modes of transportation used by intermodal freight logistics companies.

Full truckload shipment

In the trucking industry, a full truckload shipment is one in which the whole vehicle is used to transport a given quantity of goods.

In intermodal rail transportation, full load is a shipment where a single shippers’ cargo is transported in the same container.

Less than truckload intermodal shipments

A less than truckload shipment is when the quantity of goods does not fill an entire truck or container (rail).

Last-mile

The last mile delivery is the final leg of a product’s journey to the customer and is typically the most expensive. With more flexibility on the road, truck drivers are usually the ones that ensure the last-mile delivery during an intermodal service.

Accessorial Charges

An accessorial charge is an additional fee included in an intermodal transport invoice by logistics companies for services over and above a standard pick-up.

They include but are not limited to storage, scale fees, and detention. Check out our blog post here for a complete guide to accessorial charges.

Drayage

This is the total cost of transporting intermodal freight containers a short distance and includes accessorial services and expenses such as receiving, loading, unloading, and other transport terminal and rail yard costs.

Dry bulk cargo

Dry bulk cargo in intermodal shipping involves the transportation of commodities such as coal and grain in large quantities. Other examples of dry bulk freight are sand, gravel, salt, sugar, cement, etc.

Raw materials

Raw material intermodal shipments often refer to dry bulk cargo.

Dangerous goods (Environmental Hazards)

A dangerous good is a cargo with special requirements regarding transport and packaging for safety reasons and environmental damage prevention.

Good to Know Intermodal Transport Acronyms

(AAR) – The Association of American Railroads

(APGCI) – Asia–Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative Canada

(ATAC) – Air Transport Association of Canada

(BTS) – Bureau of Transportation Statistics

(CAGR) – Compound Annual Growth Rate

(COFC) – Container on a flatcar

(CTA) – Canadian Transportation Agency

(CTA) – Canadian Trucking Alliance

(FTA) – Free trade agreement

(FTL) – Full truckload

(IANA) – Intermodal Association of North America

(ISO) – International Organization for Standardization. ISO is technically not an acronym. It refers to the ancient Greek term “ísos,” which means equal or equivalent to. For a complete list of ISO general purpose containers, click here.

(LTL) – Less than a full truckload

(MTO) – Multimodal transport operator

(RAC) – Railway Association of Canada

(TAC) – Transportation Association of Canada

(TEU) – Twenty-foot equivalent unit. This is a calculation based on the measurements of a 20ft standard shipping container.

(THC) – Terminal handling charges

(TOFC) – Trailer on a flat car

Intermodal Transportation: FAQs

Why is it called intermodal?

The term intermodal is derived from the Latin words “inter” (meaning between) and “modus” (meaning way). The intermodal definition can then refer to a way of moving goods easily, changing modes of transportation.

What are the four intermodal means of transportation?

Rail, water, road, and air are the four intermodal transportation means.

What are the intermodal transportation advantages?

Shipping intermodal containers using an effective and thoughtful combination of those four transportation methods for domestic and international shipments can significantly reduce costs, be more ecological, protect your cargo better, and show great fuel efficiency, especially if rail service is involved.

What is the difference between intermodal and multimodal transport?

Multimodal transport is the transportation of goods using more than one mode of transport with a single carrier. While intermodal shipping specifically refers to shipments are handled by several different shipping companies.

What is intermodal shipping vs. transloading?

Intermodal shipping is when containers are moved between trucks and trains to transfer goods. Transloading, on the other hand, involves moving individual items from one container to another between two or more modes.

What role does a cargo ship play in intermodal transportation?

Cargo ships are merchant vessels that carry goods, supplies, and materials between ports handling international shipping trade between one country and another. Ocean carriers are often the first step in the receiver’s intermodal freight journey. Or as the last step in a sender fulfilling their shipping obligations.

Why is intermodal transport necessary for economic growth in the shipping industry?

From automobiles to food to luxury items such as toys and electronics are frequently delivered via ocean freight. Maritime shipping accounts for 53% of U.S. imports and 38 percent of U.S. exports — more than any other logistics shipping method. 

Once a shipment arrives in port, it is the role and responsibility of the intermodal carrier to move and distribute products and goods effectively to prevent congestion and delays.  

Want to know more about RailGateway? Looking for a competitive intermodal freight transportation quote? Request your FREE, no-obligation offer here.