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What Is the Meaning of Intermodal in Shipping?

August 3, 2022 Kevin Baxter

Intermodal Three Across

The term intermodal in shipping means the transportation of shipping containers and truck trailers via freight railroad. Intermodal in essence refers to the use of multiple modes of transportation with a notable distinction being the freight remains in the same container - unhandled - throughout its journey. The key difference between intermodal and general rail freight is that intermodal specifically involves containers and trailers carried on trains via special chassis that can be transferred directly to and from trucks and/or ocean liners as well, while rail - which intermodal falls under - also includes options like boxcar, covered hoppers, flatcars, gondolas, open top hoppers ... and more. Intermodal shipping is optimized for freight lanes of 700 miles or more, and obviously over land. Domestic intermodal encompasses all of North America, as there are Class I railroad lanes heading as far south as Mexico City and as far north as Prince Rupert in Canada, with plenty of locations throughout the U.S. being served as well.

complete guide to intermodal transportation service

What is shipped in intermodal containers?

Intermodal containers carry most types of cargo, the most common of which are dry - also known as - non-perishable goods. However, intermodal also offers temperature-controlled reefer container options which can carry perishable foods, beverages, medicines, etc. while keeping them at a constant temperature. And intermodal can transport hazardous materials, too. In other words, just about anything can be shipped in intermodal containers. While intermodal tends to be slightly slower and a bit less flexible than other forms of transport, it offers greater capacity, a lower environmental impact and often better prices than other modes. So  shippers of any stripe can consider either supplementing their truckload shipping or moving most of their operations over to intermodal with the right strategy in place.

What is an example of intermodal transportation?

The primary examples of intermodal transportation are container on a flatcar (CoFC) and trailer on a flatcar (ToFC) railroad. In either case, trailers or containers are loaded onto specialized intermodal well cars, which are a modified type of flatcar that feature a "well," or depressed section that allows containers to sit lower and fit into the car with less opportunity to shift around. CoFC is more purpose-designed for trains, as it allows four containers to be loaded onto a well car. ToFC only allows for two trailers to fit on a single well car, so as far as the best intermodal transportation example for capacity, CoFC comes out ahead. CoFC also wins out on price. However, ToFC offers the advantage of not requiring a specialized well car (traditional flat cars will do in a pinch) and typically faster transit times than CoFC.

If you're ready to take the next step, at InTek Freight & Logistics, we can help. Just tell us what you need and we'll discuss how our expertise can help with the unique shipping challenges your business faces. Rather do a bit more research first? View our Freight Guides for comprehensive articles and eBooks on all things freight and logistics.

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