What is Intermodal Transportation? An Introduction to One of the Best Shipping Ways in the Transportation Industry

This blog post was last updated on March 6th, 2022

Have you ever wondered what intermodal transportation is? You’re not alone.

The term “intermodal” derives from the words “inter” and “mode,” which in Latin would translate as something “between modes.”

But what does that mean in logistics and in practice? Let’s take a closer look!

Table of contents

  1. A Quick Definition: What is Intermodal Transportation?
  2. How Does Intermodal Shipping Work?
  3. Understanding Intermodal Transportation
  4. The When and Why of Intermodal Shippments
  5. Is it Time to Jump Into an Intermodal Freight Shipping Strategy?
  6. 10 Things to Ask Yourself if Intermodal Shipping Is Right for You?
  7. Getting Ready for Intermodal Shipping and Working With Intermodal Providers

A Quick Definition: What is Intermodal Transportation?

In logistics, what we’re talking about when we say intermodal transportation is the action of moving freight by more than one mode of transport for a single journey.

In simple terms, this means that goods are moved within the same container from one destination to another by a combination of two or more modes of transportation.

How Does Intermodal Shipping Work?

An intermodal load, unlike a truckload shipment, can use different intermodal providers to transport cargo loads from their points of origin to their final destinations.

This could mean moving freight by railroad, container ships, cargo aircraft, and trucks.

The Intermodal and Multimodal transportation differences

Now, it’s important to understand that even though they might look similar, intermodal and multimodal transport differ in some ways.

The key difference is that with the intermodal shipping process, the cargo is placed onto a unique sealed container, which will be the one that will be transferred onto the different modes of transport used. Shippers also have to negotiate every leg of the shipping journey with several carriers.

On the opposite, with multimodal transportation, the cargo could be unloaded and reloaded at every step of the journey, increasing risks of damage and breakage, as well as potentially human labour on site and inventory costs if it can’t leave the facility right away. Also, with multimodal, the shipper sign here one and only contract with one carrier. This is the same carrier that will take care of the full shipment from A to Z.

Read more about the differences between intermodal and multimodal transportation on our related blog post.

Understanding Intermodal Transportation

The importance of trucks in the intermodal service

Intermodal trucks are what most people think of when they hear the term “intermodal” transit.

Trucking companies handle around 71% percent of all intermodal transportation in the United States and in Canada; the trucking industry generates almost 39.55 billion Canadian dollars from almost 63.7 million shipments.

But while trucks do make up a large percentage of total intermodal transportation activity – they don’t do it alone.

Other major transportation modes in the intermodal shipping process

These vehicles can easily pick up and drop off containers that have been transported by plane, ship, or rail intermodal, making them “combination carriers” or “intermodal shippers” because they’re capable of carrying multiple types of freight on each trip.

This means a truck can drive away from a train after it’s been loaded and then, before completing its journey, back up onto another vehicle for the trip until its final destination.

A closer focus on the Rail Intermodal Transportation

The rail service is actually a great way to move large or heavy freight for a domestic long-haul portion.

Why? Because rail intermodal transportation is one of the most reliable and safest forms of freight transportation. Without dealing with truck drivers’ breaks, hazards, or congestion on highways, trains ensure that the container arrives on time.

It also allows reducing freight costs when it comes to long-distance shipments. With larger quantities moved at once and less fuel consumed than over the road intermodal transportation. If you want to reduce transportation costs, rail is the way to go!

The When and Why of Intermodal Shipments

The reasons as to why and when a company should consider intermodal transportation are many, including:

  • time savings due to reduced transit times through the use of multiple modes of intermodal freight transportation
  • reduced carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants due to the use of more than one intermodal shipping mode
  • lower costs because rail cars can cut out road transport completely or reduce it dramatically
  • delays and backlogs in the supply chain with truckload carriers and logistics companies
  • Increased transportation costs as a result of customer demand and current world events

When considering what modes of intermodal transport will be used, companies need to carefully consider their route.

For example: if the cargo travels through an urban environment where there is heavy congestion on major highways, then using intermodal shipments that travel by rail car might make sense as opposed to long haul trucking.

The key thing here is whether your shipment can avoid going onto roads at all, as this could result in time savings and environmental benefits for your business.

To ensure you’re getting what you pay for from an intermodal provider, always ask about transit times between origin and final delivery points.

Is it Time to Jump Into an Intermodal Freight Shipping Strategy?

Before you can answer if intermodal transportation is right for your business, first, let’s start with what it isn’t.

Intermodal transportation isn’t suitable for all businesses.

Companies that move dangerous products or environmental hazards may be at a higher risk by using several intermodal shipping modes.

Rail intermodal service may be inefficient and less durable than a full truckload freight transfer schedule for businesses that need rapid shipments or regular deliveries.

Of course, while every sector has its drawbacks, intermodal freight moving included, none are without their advantages as well.

Businesses that move an abundant quantity of low-value goods with longer transit times may also benefit from intermodal shipping.

As would businesses that move large value items at more regular intervals who value safety and security.

Intermodal transport integrates more efficiently by packaging cargo in standardized intermodal containers across multiple modes of transportation without being opened or manually handled from the point of origin until the final destination.

Because each leg connects seamlessly but still requires equipment specific for different types of cargo, there are many advantages of intermodal shipping.

For example, if your business moves a high volume of any kind of goods, including retail items, construction supplies, and other heavy cargo across the country, a domestic intermodal shipping strategy can cut costs on some routes through improved fuel efficiency.

And unsurprisingly, the cost is, without a doubt, one of the reasons why the intermodal movement is so popular.

10 Things to Ask Yourself if Intermodal Shipping Is Right for You?

Here are some questions to ask yourself when determining if intermodal shipping is the best option for you and your business:

  1. Does your company currently transport goods over 300 km (186 miles) in distance?
  2. What types of products or raw materials do you need to transport? Are they restricted items?
  3. What is the total weight of your average shipment?
  4. Do you transport high-value freight? Is security a concern for you?
  5. Where is the shipment point of origin? Final delivery? Are they near or close to rail terminals or an intermodal ramp?
  6. Can your products be packaged and shipped safely in an intermodal container?
  7. The railway system has its limitations; how important is flexibility in scheduling to you?
  8. What type of intermodal containers might you require?
  9. Is scalability a priority for you and your business?
  10. Is sustainability a concern for your business? Does your company value reducing its carbon footprint and environmental impact?

Once you’ve answered the questions and determined that intermodal transport might be the right move, it’s time to consult with a full load intermodal rail consultant.

qualified rail expert can help you choose the right intermodal shipping route and advise what type of equipment will be best for your cargo.

Now that you’re equipped with a bit of information on what intermodal rail shipping entails, are you ready to consider the benefits of moving your goods by train?

port employees counting and inspecting intermodal containers

Getting Ready for Intermodal Shipping and Working With Intermodal Providers

When shipping intermodal, what type of equipment you need is dependent on what your company will be transporting.

Competitive pricing, increased fuel efficiency, and improved security are just a few reasons why intermodal shipping might be the right move for your business.

Working with an experienced rail consultant can help guide what types of intermodal containers to use and what routes would be best for your cargo.

They can also help you determine what types of equipment might be required and assist with the logistics involved in setting up a domestic intermodal shipping schedule.

When getting ready to move goods by rail, it’s important to familiarize yourself with what is or is not allowed on board as well as when your cargo needs to be on board.

Here are some items that might not be allowed in an intermodal container: hazardous materials such as explosives, flammables, and corrosives; cars or trucks; live animals; perishables like food and other high-value cargo where time is of the essence.

A full load railway professional can also advise what days of the week are best to transport what types of goods.

When looking to partner with an intermodal provider, consider how long the business has been operating, what average amount of savings they can offer, and what supply chain routes they specialize in.

Whenever it comes time for your business or company to start shipping goods by rail, some considerations must be made before choosing the best route.

Whether you’re looking for cost savings and improved fuel efficiency on certain routes or if security and safety are a priority issue, an experienced full-load intermodal rail consultant can help determine if this is the right strategy for you.


Are you looking to make the jump into rail shipping in Canada? Head over to our blog for more information on how to get started with rail, or dive right in and request a rail quote here.