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What Is Intermodal Trucking?

November 13, 2023 Kevin Baxter

intermodal trucking

While the highest profile differentiator between intermodal and truckload freight is rail versus road as the primary thoroughfare for cargo movement, intermodal trucking means that trucks and truck drivers are still an important complement to the train when using this mode. Intermodal trucking - often referred to as drayage - involves trucks moving intermodal containers to and from rail ramps, making the door-to-door connection possible for intermodal freight. Without intermodal trucking, shippers would find it difficult to get their loads to and from trains in most scenarios, which would in turn greatly hurt the viability of intermodal as a freight mode.

The Intermodal Journey

The intermodal journey typically involves a few key steps. First, the manufacturing facility (or farm, or other point of origin) is where a shipper loads the intermodal container - already on an intermodal chassis - with freight. The intermodal truck driver then takes it over the road to the origin railroad ramp. Alternately, when it comes to imports, intermodal trucking can connect a port to a rail terminal or port to a destination facility directly. In any case, this journey is usually best when it's under 50 miles, though the longer the rail journey, the more wiggle room for a longer dray connection.

Once the container arrives at the intermodal ramp, workers lift it off the chassis and place it onto a wellcar using specialized equipment. The train then carries the intermodal container for the longest portion (in miles) of the shipment usually at least 600 miles (though if the origin and destination are close to rail ramps, some railroad lanes can be a bit shorter - in the 450 mile range). Upon arrival at the destination intermodal ramp, intermodal trucking comes back into play, as the container is transferred from the train back onto a chassis for a truck to get under it and deliver the load to its final destination (again, typically under 50 miles away).

Who Handles Intermodal Trucking?

When it comes to responsibility for intermodal trucking, it's usually split in two. From the shipper's perspective, the intermodal marketing company (IMC) handles the logistics behind the entirety of the intermodal journey, from the origin dray, to the railroad segment, to the destination dray. However, the carriers who handle the dray segments are known as intermodal trucking companies.

Intermodal trucking companies vary greatly in size and scope. Some are quite large - think J.B. Hunt, Hub Group or Schneider - while others can be as small as a single owner-operator of a drayage truck working in a specific market. The IMC determines the best combination for each intermodal journey, and the intermodal trucking company (or companies) plus the rail carrier make the moves.

Benefits of Intermodal Trucking Jobs

For drivers deciding between different truck driving opportunities, intermodal trucking has specific benefits that make it a good fit for many. As mentioned, an intermodal truck driver can work for a large company or for themselves if desired. The main criteria is proximity to a large railyard or port. Driving dray can offer a consistent schedule with fewer miles, meaning intermodal trucking can typically allow drivers to leave in the morning and come home each night, like many traditional jobs.

For those independent intermodal drivers, they have the flexibility to ramp up or ramp down that schedule - working at night and on weekends if desired. Loads tend to come at a fairly steady pace, though like any freight, there are ebbs and flows based on the overall market. The other key benefit is an important distinction between intermodal trucking and typical LTL or truckload shipping: the driver is simply moving a container and does not have contact with the actual goods. That means there is no additional manual labor beyond driving the truck - reducing wear and tear on the body.

If this explanation of intermodal trucking made you interested in shipping intermodal, we can help. Simply request a quote, and we'll get back with you to discuss how we can handle your intermodal freight needs and make the mode work for your business. For more information about InTek, or logistics and supply chain issues in general, check out our Freight Guides

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