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

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Amylee Silva

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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 anyone would need to know regarding intermodal transportation. You need to know the terminology’s meaning to ensure you get all the important details of cargo 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 many terms and acronyms to know. This can make it hard for anyone to understand what’s happening, no matter how experienced they are. 

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 mimic the flow of an intermodal freight shipping process.


Intermodal refers to a transportation method involving 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 regular updates on your shipment and additional services, such as insurance for your cargo.


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.


Containerization is a means of intermodal freight transport using container-sized units to handle cargo. This system allows intermodal transportation to function more smoothly.

Intermodal container

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

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 particular 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 cargo refers to goods that are not shipped in containers. This cargo is handled and transported individually instead of 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 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 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, a full load is a shipment where a single shipper’s cargo is transported in the same container.

Less than truckload intermodal shipments

A less-than-truckload shipment is when the quantity of goods fills only part of the truck or container (rail).

Shipping consolidation

Shipping consolidation is a freight transportation strategy that combines multiple shipments into a larger shipment, eliminating the need to pay for multiple smaller shipments.


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 typically responsible for the last-mile delivery during an intermodal service route.

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.


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.

Other Terms That You Can Come Across in Intermodal Shipping Are:

Agent- a person with limited or complete authority who handles a business on behalf of another company.

Bill of Lading- a legal contract between the carrier, broker, agent, and shipping company.

Classification- this is a technique used for shipments that are less than truckloads.

Transit time- the total amount of time spent from the distribution centre to the delivery point

Axle Load- this is the weight of the axle put on highways

Brokerage license- A legal document that a broker should have before making any freight shipping arrangement

Cartage- cargo that is transported within the same city or locality

Concealed damage- damage that is seen when the package is opened

Interline- This is where the primary carrier transfers the shipment to another carrier before it reaches its destination.

Adjustments- these are expenses that arise after delivery of the cargo. It is also the difference between the first figure quoted at the distribution centre and the final amount paid in the final delivery.

Blind shipment- In a blind shipment, the shipper and receiver are strangers. They get all the information needed from the Bill of Lading document.

Bulk Freight- This is the intermodal cargo that isn’t in a container ship. This freight could be sand or crude oil.

Nested- Loading of materials so that one item gets inside another. Nesting is mainly done in less than truckload shipping and helps reduce the total space occupied.

Volume rate- this is the term used to measure intermodal cargo if they are less than truckload.

Beneficial Cargo Owner- the actual owner of the intermodal freight that is being shipped.

Outgate- this is the process of checking a container out of an intermodal facility

Tank car- This is a car that is used in intermodal shipment of compressed or liquid cargo

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

(BoL) – Bill of lading

(BCO)- Beneficial Cargo corner

 (eBL) – Electronic bill of lading

(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 excellent 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 handled by several different shipping companies.

What Is Intermodal Shipping vs. Transloading?

Intermodal shipping involves moving containers between trucks and trains to transfer goods. Transloading, however, 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 carrying goods, supplies, and materials between ports, handling international shipping trade between countries. 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, luxury items such as toys and electronics are frequently delivered via ocean freight. Maritime shipping accounts for 53% of U.S. imports and 38% 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. We ensure the highest level of privacy and security for your cargo. 

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