An Introduction to Intermodal Transportation

What is intermodal transportation? The term “intermodal” is derived from the word “mode,” which means a particular way of doing something. 

In this case, what we’re talking about when we say intermodal transportation is moving freight by more than one mode of transport at the same time.

So what does that mean in practice? Let’s take a closer look!

A Quick Definition: What is Intermodal Transportation?

Have you ever wondered what intermodal transportation is? You’re not alone. Intermodal transportation, also known as multimodal transit, refers to the use of more than one type of transport for a single journey. 

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

How Intermodal Shipping Works

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

This could mean moving freight by rail and ship, air and truck, or train and barge.

Understanding Intermodal

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 these vehicles do make up a large percentage of total intermodal transportation activity – they don’t do it alone.

These vehicles can easily pick up and drop off containers that have been transported by 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 to its final destination.

Multimodal transportation is what makes possible all kinds of transactions that might otherwise be prohibitively difficult or expensive to carry out.

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 footprint and 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 just 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 using 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 to 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 cost is, without a doubt, one of the reasons why intermodal movement is so popular.

5 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.

A 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?

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 as well as 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.

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 quote here.