Good To Know

Getting the Most from Intermodal Transportation

Getting the Most from Intermodal Transportation


For any business, one of the key questions involved in shipping involves the most effective and efficient means of getting goods from one place to another. This is true whether it is a supplier that is shipping raw materials or a manufacturer of finished goods that is wanting to ship their goods to valued customers around the country, continent or anywhere in the world.

The variety of options with supply and shipping chains mean that it can be hard to navigate through the different options and know what is best for your best business.

What is Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation is a means of moving goods through different methods (or modes) of transport with minimal disruption to how the goods are shipped. In practice, what this usually means is that the goods are shipped in the same shipping container, but across two or more different methods of transportation. It is worth mentioning that shipping here does not necessarily mean that the goods will be transported by sea on a ship, as shipping here uses the more generic meaning of the word to mean transport and delivery using any suitable means.

The main advantage of intermodal transportation mean is that the goods being transported, whether raw materials or finished goods, remain in the same shipping container from the beginning to the end of the process, even though they may be shipped by different methods, e.g., by sea or by land, or even by different specialist shipping companies.

Having everything remain in one shipping container means that the risk of damage to the goods by moving them between different containers is eliminated.

It is likely that when using intermodal transportation that different shipping companies will be used for different stages of the process, and this will be done using different documents and paperwork for each stage of the process. The advantage of this approach is that it enables businesses to shop around for the best price at each stage of the journey, which although it may take more time and research can significantly reduce costs.

This is different from multimodal transport, where although the goods will still be transported via different methods, the whole shipment will pass through the different modes of transport under one document, or contract. Sometimes, intermodal and multimodal transportation are seen as different methods of transportation, whereas sometimes intermodal will be seen as a form of multimodal transportation. 

This terminology generally does not matter to the business owner who is responsible for shipping their goods, other than if your preferred shipping companies are using this terminology, make sure that you are clear as to what they mean. You will want to know whether one shipping contract is required for the entire journey, or whether you will need different contracts for each stage.

Methods of Intermodal Transportation

As intermodal transportation is generally facilitated using standard size shipping containers, the main methods of transportation are those which are most suited to such containers. This then means shipping by sea on a ship, or by land on a train or truck.

Standard size shipping containers are not generally carried on planes due to their size and weight making them cost prohibitive. However some planes can carry shipping containers, either through design or through adaptation, although they often remain expensive for day-to-day freight needs, although some companies are trying to change this.

An example of intermodal transportation therefore may be as follows:

  • Goods are loaded into a shipping container at the factory.
  • The shipping container is transported by truck to a local railway freight depot.
  • The shipping container is loaded onto a train, where it is transported across the country.
  • At the other end of the process, the shipping container is removed from the train and back on to a truck, where it is driven to its end destination.

At all points in the journey, the goods remain in the shipping container. There may be three different shipping contracts (one each for truck, rail and then once again, truck) which cover the journey of the goods across the country.

Another example could be:

  • Goods travel by train from a rail depot to a nearby port.
  • Goods then travel by sea from one country (or continent) to another.
  • Goods then travel by truck to their final destination.

Intermodal transportation will almost always involve working with specialist shipping companies that are able to navigate the complexities of international trade and help your goods to get where they are going efficiently.

Issues to Consider

There are then several issues to consider when deciding your intermodal transportation needs. The most important to consider is what options are right for your product. This will depend on whether there are any specific issues with regards to your product, such as:

  • Fragility – how fragile/breakable is your product?
  • Temperature-sensitive – does your product have specific temperature-controlled requirements?
  • Demand – how soon is your product needed at the other end of the process?
  • Popularity – is your product a popular product for which product will decline over time?
  • Seasonal – does your product have seasonal sensitivity (for example, Christmas decorations)?

Any sensible business owner will also want to consider cost. What is the cheapest way of shipping your products from one place to another? The advantage of intermodal transportation over multimodal transportation is that it enables you to shop around, looking for the best prices and options for each leg of the journey.

Considering different options for intermodal transportation also allows your business to consider shipping methods that are compatible with your sustainability policies and requirements, examining environmentally friendly options for your shipping at each stage of the process.

Intermodal transportation is particularly appropriate for longer journeys, either across large countries or between countries and continents, whereas short journeys are only likely to involve one method of transport rather than many.


Intermodal transportation is a flexible method of shipping goods and services across large distances using a variety of different methods, that you can tailor to the needs of your business as well as the shipping requirements of your products.


Samantha hails from Virginia and is a proud wife to a retired Deputy Sheriff and mother to two amazing little boys named Jack & William. A veteran product reviewer; Samantha has been reviewing products for 12 years and offers high quality product reviews with original photography.

Samantha hails from Virginia and is a proud wife to a retired Deputy Sheriff and mother to two amazing little boys named Jack & William. A veteran product reviewer; Samantha has been reviewing products for 12 years and offers high quality product reviews with original photography.

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