Intermodal Transportation: How It Works

Discover how intermodal transportation can improve your business’ sustainability and adaptability and enable it to expand.

fleet workers discussing intermodal transportation logistics

What is Intermodal Shipping?

Intermodal shipping refers to transporting goods using different modes of transportation, such as ships, trains, and trucks. It involves using standardized containers, also called ISO containers, to quickly transfer cargo between different modes of transport without unpacking and repacking.


People transported goods on horse-drawn wagons in the 18th century and transferred them to boats for further transportation, marking the long history of intermodal transportation. In the 19th century, the development of railroads led to the creation of containerized shipping, which allowed for more efficient and standardized transport of goods.

The concept of intermodal transportation as we know it today, involving the seamless transfer of goods between different modes of transportation, emerged in the mid-20th century with the development of containerization and the rise of trucking as a significant mode of transportation.

Today, intermodal transportation plays a critical role in global trade and commerce, with technology and automation helping further improve the system’s efficiency and reliability.


Intermodal transportation offers numerous benefits for core transportation concerns, including the following.

Cost Reductions

The combination of rail and truckload operations offers advantages in pricing and efficiency. Rail can handle long hauls, while trucks make shorter moves, resulting in increased flexibility, improved service, and reduced costs. As the amount of drayage decreases, intermodal rates become more competitive with truck rates.

Big Capacity

Intermodal provides fast truckload solutions with streamlined operations. Drayage usually involves less than 100 miles, allowing drivers to make multiple trips to the intermodal ramp and have more turnaround time. It’s more efficient than truckload, where drivers may need to travel 2,000 to 3,000 miles before receiving a new load.


Intermodal freight transportation provides enhanced visibility, despite perceptions that visibility decreases after a container is loaded onto a train. During the loading process, all containers undergo inspection and are subsequently loaded onto railcars. Tracking is performed throughout the intermodal ramps from origin to destination and must be re-evaluated during the outgate process.


Intermodal transportation is a reliable way to transport freight safely while minimizing handling. It can lead to fewer damages and losses and increased security at terminals, rail tracks, and ramps.


Shippers should know some disadvantages to intermodal transportation, such as the following.

Intermodal Transits

Intermodal transportation may require more planning from shippers due to slower transit times compared to typical truckload shipping. Additionally, intermodal shipments usually include a day of truck transport. If a consignment involves two railroads, shippers should anticipate an additional two or three days of shipment time.

Blocking and Bracing Requirements

The blocking and bracing requirements for shipments can be challenging and time-consuming, and the cost may outweigh the potential savings. Moreover, intermodal containers may encounter harmonic vibrations that can cause the contents to shift horizontally and vertically during transport.

Commodities Cannot All Be Shipped

Knowing any restrictions or prohibitions on certain goods is essential when utilizing intermodal transportation. If a shipper is transporting prohibited products, it’s important to note that rail transportation is not exempt from compliance with regulations and cargo liability coverage. As a result, a signed agreement between the shipper and the railroad is necessary to ensure compliance with requirements.

Not the Best Choice for Small Shipments

Contractual pricing for intermodal transportation requires a minimum volume of three loads per week on the freight lane, which may pose challenges for smaller shipments. A possible work-around to overcome this is to consider cargo consolidation.

Intermodal vs. Multimodal Transportation

Multimodal transportation involves a single contract that holds one carrier accountable for the entire journey, including door-to-door delivery, even if multiple carriers are utilized. On the other hand, in intermodal transportation, each leg of the journey has a separate contract, resulting in various entities responsible for the cargo’s successful delivery.

Intermodal vs. Transloading

Transloading and intermodal shipping are two distinct methods of transporting goods. Transloading involves the transfer of products between different modes of transportation, whereas intermodal shipping involves transferring entire shipping containers.

How Does Intermodal Transport Work?

There are two types of intermodal transport: international and domestic. Below are brief descriptions of both.


International intermodal transport begins with the shipment of goods from the origin point to a port. Ships load the goods at ports and transport them across the ocean to the destination countries. Upon arrival at the destination port, the containers are loaded onto a train or truck and transported to the final destination.


The transport and logistics begin with a company or individual booking their shipment with an intermodal provider. The provider will then arrange for the shipment to be picked up by a truck and transported to a rail yard. The cargo will be loaded onto a train and transported to the destination city’s rail yard. When the shipment arrives at the destination rail yard, the truck will transfer it to its destination.

Who Should Use Intermodal?

One of the primary groups that should consider using intermodal transportation is businesses that transport large quantities of goods over long distances. It includes industries such as manufacturing, retail, and agriculture. Intermodal transport can help these businesses reduce transportation costs.

Another group that can benefit from intermodal transportation is businesses that need to transport goods internationally. Intermodal transportation can help these businesses navigate the complex logistics of international shipping, reducing costs and improving delivery times.

Finally, businesses looking to reduce their carbon footprint and improve their environmental sustainability should consider intermodal transportation. This mode of transportation is much more environmentally friendly than traditional shipping methods because it reduces truck traffic and uses more fuel-efficient forms of transportation.

What Products Can You Ship Using Intermodal?

Below are some of the most common products that can be shipped using intermodal:

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Modes of Transportation

The four standard methods of intermodal transport vary significantly depending on the countries that utilize this form of cargo transportation.

Rail Intermodal

Rail transport involves transporting packages in containers on existing railroad tracks to move cargo between destinations. It’s commonly utilized for efficient transportation between distant ports and moving freight from one hub to another, where cranes can transfer the loads to truck-based carriers.

Container Ship

Shipping goods via ships is the most adaptable approach among intermodal transportation methods. Ships can transport cargo across various bodies of water, allowing domestic and international trade between major ports.


The development of aircraft as an intermodal transportation method is rapid, but it still has limitations in terms of container fitting.


Trucking is one of the intermodal transportation sectors and is considered the easiest to comprehend. However, it’s also the most prone to inefficiencies. Trucks can transport all sizes of containers but can only carry one container at a time. Their primary purpose is transporting packages and goods overland on highways, roads, and streets.

Rob Paredes
Article by
Rob Paredes
SafetyCulture Content Contributor
Rob Paredes is a content contributor for SafetyCulture. Before joining SafetyCulture, he worked as a financial advisor, a freelance copywriter, and a Network Engineer for more than a decade. Rob's diverse professional background allows him to provide well-rounded, engaging content that can help businesses transform the way they work.