Guide To Intermodal And Multimodal Transportation in 2024!

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Mona Sohal

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Editor’s note: This post was initially published  on December 19th, 2021 and has since been revised for comprehensiveness

When faced with the task of transporting goods across vast distances, whether within Canada or across the globe, utilizing intermodal and multimodal transportation modes often emerges as the most efficient and cost-effective solution.

Understanding the key difference between these two methods is crucial for determining the optimal option for your specific business needs. As it might get confusing whether to choose intermodal or multimodal services. 

So without any more delays, let’s take a deep dive into this specific world of Rail transportation method!

What Is Multimodal Transportation?

Multimodal transport facilitates efficient cargo movement from origin to destination, utilizing multiple modes like trucks, trains, and ships. This railway method is managed by specialized Multimodal Transport Operators (MTOs). As it offers cost-effective solutions for both domestic and international freight, Multimodal has been a go to for businesses.

How Does Multimodal Transportation Work?

In international multimodal transport, a single document known as a bill of lading governs the entire shipment. A single carrier, the Multimodal Transport Operator (MTO), handles the movement, with payment made through a flat-rate fee.

The MTO plays an important role in:

  • Planning the route: Determining the most efficient and cost-effective path for your goods.
  • Contracting with carriers: Arranging transport with individual companies for each leg of the journey.
  • Calculating costs: Accurately estimating the total cost based on the services involved.
  • Taking full responsibility: Ensuring your goods reach their destination safely and securely.
  • Managing transportation: Overseeing the movement of goods across different modes (sea, rail, road, etc.).
  • Terminal leasing: Securing specialized facilities for handling and storage.
  • Customs clearance: Handling all necessary paperwork and procedures.
  • Additional services: Providing further support like auditing and equipment leasing.

The process typically involves:

Customer request 

Contacting a multimodal transport company with relevant information about your goods and desired destination.

Cargo inspection and planning 

Company representatives verify the cargo, documentation, and plan the route, calculating costs.

Contract and cargo collection 

Signing the contract and handing over your goods to the carrier.


Smooth and efficient movement of goods as per the planned route.

The Advantages and Disadvantages Of Multimodal Shipping

Like every mode of transportation available, multimodal shipping has many advantages and disadvantages. 

The Advantages of Multimodal Shipping Are

Centralized Control

By offering multimodal transportation, your company takes charge of the entire logistics process, providing a one-stop solution for customers. This centralized control gives you a competitive edge and allows you to manage and plan operations according to your expertise.

Competitive Fares

Multimodal transportation often enables you to negotiate better prices with individual carriers due to your broader perspective of the entire shipping process. This translates into more competitive fares for your customers, making your services more attractive.

Increased Agility

Multimodal transportation significantly reduces shipping times by streamlining the entire process under one roof. This agility is particularly beneficial for customers who prioritize speed and efficiency in their supply chains.

The Disadvantages of Multimodal Shipping Are

Specialization and Partnerships

While many forwarders excel in specific areas like air or sea freight, offering multimodal transportation requires expertise in organizing solutions across all modes. This often necessitates significant investments in staff, infrastructure, and equipment. Additionally, building strong partnerships with reliable international logistics providers is crucial for seamless overseas operations.

Increased Bureaucracy

Each transport mode has its own regulations and distinct documentation requirements. Providing a comprehensive logistics service encompassing multiple modes demands extensive customs knowledge to navigate the complexities of multimodal transportation. Depending on the operation’s complexity, managing this bureaucracy can be a significant undertaking.

What Is Intermodal Transportation and how is it different?

Intermodal transport differs from multimodal transport in two key ways. First, multiple providers handle different segments of the shipment, each with its own bill of lading and responsibility. Second, it typically uses trucks and trains for the entire journey, offering flexibility through multiple handoffs.

How Does Intermodal Transportation Work?

An intermodal shipment typically involves three distinct stages:

Origin Drayage

A specialized intermodal driver, known as a drayman or drayage carrier, retrieves an empty container from the origin rail ramp and delivers it to the shipper.

Once loaded by the shipper, the drayman returns the container to the rail ramp.

Rail Linehaul

The railroad transports the container from the origin rail ramp to the destination rail ramp.

Destination Drayage

The destination drayage carrier picks up the container from the ramp and delivers the shipment to the final receiver.

The Advantages and Disadvantages Of Intermodal Shipping

Just like multimodal shipping, Intermodal has its fair share of advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s look into it –

The Advantages of Intermodal Shipping Are:

Cost Reductions

Combining the efficiency of rail and truckload transportation leads to cost advantages and improved operational efficiency. Utilizing rail for long-distance hauls and trucks for short-distance drayage provides shippers with increased flexibility, better service, and lower costs.

The less drayage involved in a specific route, the more competitive the intermodal rate becomes compared to truckload rates.

High Capacity

Intermodal transportation offers rapid access to a large pool of truckload solutions due to its operational flow. Drayage typically stays below 100 miles, allowing a single driver to make multiple turns delivering loads to and from intermodal ramps. Compared to truckload, where a driver might travel 2,000-3,000 miles before picking up a new load, this significantly improves turnaround times, particularly beneficial in times of driver shortages.

Enhanced Visibility

Contrary to a common misconception, intermodal transportation offers excellent visibility throughout the journey. Each container is scanned upon entering and leaving intermodal ramps, and its location is tracked during rail transport. This allows for real-time monitoring from origin to destination.

Reliability and Security

Intermodal transportation provides a safe and secure method that minimizes cargo handling during transport. This reduces the risk of damage and loss while enhancing security at terminals, rail tracks, and ramps.

Environmentally Friendly

Intermodal transportation boasts significant environmental benefits, contributing to sustainability. Rail is a highly fuel-efficient mode of transport, requiring less fuel per ton of freight compared to trucks. This translates to reduced greenhouse gas and carbon emissions during long-distance shipments.

Ideal for High-Value Products

Standard CORGI liability coverage for intermodal transportation provides up to $250,000, offering significant protection for valuable goods. Additionally, with minimal drayage, the cargo remains within the container for most of the journey, minimizing opportunities for theft.

The Disadvantages of Intermodal Shipping Are:

Transit Times

Intermodal shipments typically require more planning and are slower than traditional truckload transportation. Expect transit times to be one day longer than a truckload shipment, and even longer if multiple railroads are involved.

Blocking and Bracing

Securing cargo within intermodal containers can be complex and time-consuming. The specific requirements can vary, and the cost of proper blocking and bracing may outweigh the potential savings.

Commodity Restrictions

Certain commodities may be restricted or even prohibited for intermodal transport. Prohibited items require special agreements with the railroad, and restricted commodities often have lower liability coverage than standard shipments.

Weight Limitations

Intermodal shipments have a maximum load weight of 42,500 pounds. While the container and chassis are lighter than some truck trailers, this may limit the amount of cargo you can load compared to a truckload shipment.

Limited Reach

Intermodal transportation is not available for every origin and destination combination. The finite number of intermodal railroad ramps and the typical 100-mile drayage range limit the reach of this method.

Small Shipments

Intermodal transport may not be suitable for smaller shipments due to the volume required to obtain contractual pricing. Securing guaranteed pricing and capacity for a year often requires a minimum of three loads per week on the specific route.

A Summary Of The Points Talked About

FeatureMultimodal TransportIntermodal Transport
Managed ByMultimodal Transport Operator (MTO)Multiple carriers
DocumentationSingle bill of ladingMultiple bills of lading
ControlCentralized control by MTODecentralized control by individual carriers
FlexibilityHighly flexible.
Can use any mode of transport.
Less flexible.
Primarily uses trucks and trains.
ComplexityMore complex due to multiple modes and regulationsLess complex due to focus on trucks and trains.
CostPotentially more competitive faresCost-effective for long distances.
SpeedFaster due to streamlined processSlower than truckload transport.
VisibilityGood visibility throughout the journeyExcellent visibility with real-time tracking.
SecurityMinimizes cargo handling, reduces risk of damage and lossSecure method with minimal drayage.
SustainabilityEnvironmentally friendly due to efficient rail usageMore eco-friendly than truckload transport.
Suitability for High-Value GoodsWell-suited with standard liability coverageIdeal due to minimal drayage and secure containers.
DisadvantagesRequires expertise and partnerships.
Increased bureaucracy.
Slower transit times.
Complex cargo blocking and bracing.
May not be suitable for some special cargo.
Weight limitations.
Limited reach.
Unsuitable for small shipments.

So, What To Choose Between Intermodal And Multimodal Transportation?

In the world of shipping goods, two main methods dominate the landscape: intermodal and multimodal transportation. Understanding these options is crucial for ensuring your products reach their final destination efficiently.

Both intermodal and multimodal transportation offer distinct advantages, making the ideal choice dependent on your specific needs and the characteristics of your cargo. Ultimately, the best method hinges on your priorities, such as speed, cost, or flexibility.

So, review your business and select the one that best suits all your needs.


In conclusion, both intermodal and multimodal transportation offer significant advantages for businesses. However, for those seeking a streamlined approach with a single point of contact, multimodal transportation reigns supreme. The reason for it is because a single contract manages the entire shipment, multimodal transportation simplifies logistics and reduces administrative burdens.

With all this information at your fingertips, are you ready to explore how multimodal transportation can benefit your supply chain? 

Contact us today to discuss your specific needs and learn how we can help you achieve greater efficiency and cost savings.


What Is The Difference Between Intermodal And Intramodal Transportation?

In simple terms, “inter” means between different places, while “intra” means within one place. However, transporting things over long distances often involves using multiple methods, even if the starting and ending points are different locations. This applies to both passenger and cargo transportation.

What Is An Example Of Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation offers an efficient way to travel by utilizing two or more modes of transport for a single journey. This can enhance the travel experience by leveraging the strengths of each mode. For instance, a trip might involve a comfortable bus ride between cities, followed by a high-speed train journey to reach the final destination. The train segment exemplifies intermodal transportation in this scenario.

What Is An Example Of Multimodal Transportation?

Multimodal transportation encompasses a diverse range of travel options, including walking, cycling, public transit, rail, cars, and trucks. It essentially refers to the movement of both people and goods across various transportation networks. This includes, but is not limited to, motorists, passengers utilizing public transit, freight carriers, cyclists, pedestrians, and those with disabilities.

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