Intermodal Services Explained

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Amylee Silva

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When it comes to the shipping industry, there are various ways to transport goods from place A to place B. However, as data has shown us, the most efficient method for cargo transportation is through intermodal transportation. What is intermodal transportation? How does it work? And when should businesses use it? 

To put it simply, you have a container on a ship, train, or truck. That’s intermodal transportation. But why does that matter? There are multiple modes of transport and combinations thereof.

Intermodal transportation is efficient because it takes advantage of the best features of each mode. A truck can drive on land, while a ship can transport cargo internationally, and a train provides the ability to move heavy-weight cargo over long distances quickly. 

When thinking about transportation this way, intermodal transportation is essentially an entire industry within an industry. Transportation is the backbone of most industries, so it’s important to understand how intermodal transportation works if you are in business.

Types of Intermodal Services 

1. Door to Door Intermodal Services 

Door-to-door (D2D) shipping involves picking up the product at the vendor’s doorstep and delivering it to the recipient’s doorstep. D2D services typically operate between a limited number of pick-up and delivery locations.

D2D intermodal Shipping provides combinations of services and modes of transport for an integrated door-to-door service. For example, a product may be shipped by truck or rail to a local depot, where it’s consolidated with other consignments destined for the same area before being loaded onto a ship. 

The vessel might then stop at other major ports to pick up consignments for an inland area before being delivered to the final destination. This term also covers a combination of services and other transportation modes that allow consistent end-to-end delivery.

To provide this door-to-door service, shippers and carriers often enter into a contract known as a “through bill of lading,” which defines all aspects of how the shipment is handled. The document serves as a contract of carriage between a shipping company and the carrier. 

2. Terminal Direct Intermodal Service

Direct intermodal service involves both the terminal and an intermodal yard. This is typical of a direct point-to-point or loop route with ISO containers or trailers loaded at shippers’ premises, transported to an intermodal terminal, and then delivered by rail or motor carriers to another location.

The most significant advantage of direct service is that it affords cargo owners to have their goods delivered directly from customer premises onto trains and trucks without any intervening transfer operations by shippers themselves. This reduces handling costs for both the railroad and its customers. It also provides flexibility in that if market conditions warrant, the railroad can substitute truck service when train schedules are interrupted.

Direct intermodal rail service is generally available in most areas served by Class I and Class II railroads in Canada. Intermodal shippers submit their load information to a central computer dispatch system that coordinates shipments, improving planning and scheduling capabilities.

3. Domestic Intermodal Service

Domestic intermodal service denotes the domestic movement of a container or trailer, using various modes of transportation and at least one connecting carrier.

Domestic intermodal service begins when the shipping customer delivers the cargo to a local pick-up location, such as a warehouse or rail yard. The carrier then reloads the cargo at a rail yard, port, airport, etc. This load is then delivered to a second location using another method of transportation. 

4.International Intermodal Service 

International intermodal service means global movement of a container or trailer, using more than one mode of transportation and at least one connecting carrier.

International intermodal service begins when the shipping customer delivers the cargo to a local pick-up. The carrier then reloads the cargo at a rail yard, port, airport, etc. This load is then delivered to a second location using another method of transportation such as ocean intermodal freight and delivery via truck to its final destination.

Pros and Cons of Using Intermodal Transport

While intermodal transportation is the most efficient method for shipping cargo, there are still some cons to using this type of transport. Here are some pros and cons of using intermodal transportation as a whole:


  • Efficient for shipping cargo of any size, shape, or weight.
  • This transportation mode reduces the carbon footprint of shipping by taking advantage of trains and ships which already exist.
  • Containers are often fitted with security devices to keep cargo safe.
  • Intermodal container transportation is cheaper, especially considering the long distances covered.
  • Convenient for people who deal in international trade; reduces the time it takes for products to reach their destination.
  • Containers can be used as self-contained storage that can withstand different environmental conditions.


  • There are high structural costs–ships, trains, and trucks are expensive.
  • Requires long-term planning to ensure that shipping schedules are met.
  • Requires large supply chains, complex financial transactions, complex service relationships, etc.

The Nature of Intermodal Transportation in Canada

Transport is integral to the Canadian economy. Goods transport has increased substantially because of North America’s open economies and Canada’s access to foreign markets. Goods represent a substantial part of the transportation process.

Intermodal transportation is an integral part of the transport picture in Canada. Containers and trailers play a major role in the domestic and international movement of goods by offering advantages such as flexibility, reliability, and economies of scale.

Companies are beginning to adopt intermodal transportation due to its benefits over other forms of transportation. This intermodal movement has a positive impact on the economy in Canada and abroad. And as global online trade and commerce grow, intermodal transportation and shipping will be a crucial element in the growth and success of the logistics industry.

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