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When Would a Shipper Consider Using Intermodal Transportation?

June 12, 2023 Rick LaGore

Intermodal Transportation

When to use intermodal over truckload shipping is a question companies are asking themselves for cost, capacity, service, diversification and sustainability. In this article, we'll explore what elements to consider when selecting the ideal 53' shipping method for your cargo, comparing intermodal and truckload transport.

We'll start by understanding the problems intermodal shipping addresses and how it differs from traditional truckload shipping. Next, we'll discuss how to consider your freight's distance, destination, weight, time sensitivity, sustainability and service level requirements when deciding between these two modes of transport.

Furthermore, we will provide guidance on researching available carriers for both options. By evaluating these aspects thoroughly, you can make an informed decision on when should shippers choose to use intermodal over truckload shipping for maximum efficiency in your logistics operations.

Intermodal Shipping Benefits vs Truckload

Shipping freight comes with a number of logistics challenges.  While there is never a "silver bullet" to slay all supply chain issues, intermodal freight services do check off a number of concerns for logistics professionals. 

Listed below are initiatives intermodal transportation helps:

Cost Savings

Intermodal shipping is more cost-effective than truckload shipping, thanks to fuel efficiency and economies of scale associated with rail transport. An industry publication assembled by the Journal of Commerce, JOC, is a great resource to judge the competitiveness of intermodal to trucking every quarter

Supports Corporate Environmental Goals

Choosing intermodal services contributes towards government and corporate goals of pushing sustainable supply chains, as trains emit far fewer greenhouse gasses per ton-mile compared to trucks. More specifically, intermodal reduces greenhouse emissions by two-thirds when compared to truckload.

Reduces Highway Congestion

The topic of highway congestion continues to be an issue as population density increases in major cities across the US.

One intermodal train can transport the equivalent of 280 truckloads, thus improving the environment by not contributing additional hydrocarbons because of traffic just sitting on city streets and highways.  

In addition, intermodal reduces wear and tear on roads and bridges where the US is behind other countries on enhancement and maintenance.

Provides Additional 53' Capacity on Freight Lanes Greater than or Equal to 650 Miles

Diversification within a company's supply chain is one of many strategies that help improve the strength and competitiveness of a company’s supply chain and 53’ domestic intermodal is that for truckload.

The intermodal versus truckload does not have to be an all or nothing decision.  Intermodal can either enhance the capacity required on a particular freight lane or fully support all the needs on a particular freight corridor.

Easy to Track and Trace

One of the biggest misconceptions of intermodal is it is difficult to track and trace where an intermodal shipment is on its journey from origin to destination.. The rail control room looks very much like an air traffic control room, which safely routes trains, but built into the process is providing traceability to those using intermodal rail solutions. The result is shippers have visibility of their intermodal shipments that are similar to small parcel shipments as their intermodal container passes over numerous checkpoints across the country.

  • Consistency reliable freight capacity:  InTek has been a leader in 53' domestic intermodal shipping since 2007 and our experience has shown us that the reliability is equal to, in not better than that of its rival shipping mode, truckload. The backbone of intermodal service is the railroad, which provides a consistent service level. With that said, the key to high level intermodal service comes through a strong dray network, which is where an intermodal service failure typically occurs.

To determine if your shipment could benefit from these advantages, consider factors such as destination location and time sensitivity. Additionally, analyze your freight's size and weight requirements, since not all cargo types are suitable for this mode of transportation.

Consider Origin and Destination

When deciding between intermodal and truckload shipping, it's crucial to consider your freight's destination.

Intermodal shipping is ideal for long-distance shipments that cross multiple states or regions, while truckload shipping may be more suitable for shorter distances with direct routes. More specifically, any freight lane that is 650 miles or more is a candidate if its origin and destination is close to the intermodal ramps. The number of miles either the pick-up and / or delivery location extends as the miles of the intermodal train miles traveled increases. 

Intermodal transport can provide access to locations similar to trucks, since the origin and destination of a delivery is via a truck carrying the intermodal container on a chassis. While there is flexibility in intermodal the service is reliant on the network of intermodal rail ramps.

Shippers will find their domestic intermodal shipments, meaning shipments traveling between United States, Canada and Mexico have a more simplified customs clearance processes.

  • Rail Access: Check if both the origin and destination points have nearby intermodal rail ramp access.
  • Distance: Longer distances favor intermodal shipping due to cost savings from fuel efficiency and lower per-mile rates on rail transport.
  • Cross-border Shipments: Intermodal services offer smooth border crossings with fewer delays compared to traditional trucking methods.

Analyze Payload Weight

Choosing between intermodal and truckload shipping depends on your freight's weight, so it's crucial to consider these factors.

  • Container Sizes: Shippers will find their cargo will convert well into a 53' domestic intermodal container, as the dimensions are very similar.
  • Weight: The total weight for truckload and intermodal is the same 80,000. Where the difference lies is in payload. The total amount that can be loaded via an intermodal container is 42,500 versus trucking's 44,000. The reason for the difference is the combination of the intermodal container and chassis is heavier than a truckload trailer. One point to make is it's key to ensure weight is properly distributed across the intermodal container to remain legal.  The topic of weight distribution an important topic because to load shifts in transit can cause an intermodal shipment to be legal on gross and across the container at origin, but off on the distribution of weight at delivery. To avoid the headaches and surcharges one must understand how to properly block and brack their shipment.

If your freight's weight exceeds the constraints in intermodal transportation, then truckload shipping might be a better option than reducing the amount of freight to make for a legal shipping weight. The calculation to look at here is whether the savings obtained via intermodal over truckload covers the reduction in freight hauled.  

Evaluate Transit & Time Sensitivity

When choosing between intermodal and truckload shipping, consider your freight's time sensitivity.

Intermodal transportation typically has a longer transit than truckload shipping, but it can still be a viable option for time-sensitive shipments when planned for in daily shipping load plans. As a rule of thumb, intermodal transit is typically truck transit, plus one day for shipments staying on the same class I railroad and plus three days when the intermodal shipment is being interlined between two class I railroads. Of course these are a rule of thumb, so consult your intermodal service provider when considering intermodal for your business. 

Consider Requirements and Weigh Options 

Don’t forget about industry-specific regulations, such as food safety guidelines and hazardous materials rules, that are options with intermodal.

  • Transloading: Consider transloading international containers for both truckload and domestic intermodal containers for more accurate forward positioning of product to better match sell through and save freight cost. Shippers will find that this strategy often creates one free intermodal or truckload shipment for every three to four-forty foot international container.
  • Temp Controlled: Refrigerated options are available for both intermodal and truckload services, but it's important to evaluate which method will meet your customers' requirements in each origin - destination situation. The number of wins temp-controlled intermodal may have over your current refrigerated truckload may surprise you because of the latest slim-line temp controlled intermodal containers.
  • Safety & Security: Research each carrier's track record to ensure the safety and security of your cargo and remember the inherent security intermodal brings a payload.

Research Available Intermodal Transportation Providers

There are a few resources we recommend to those looking to change, expand or just starting their buying process for intermodal transportation services:

  • Understand the provider types: There are two types of intermodal providers: asset and non-asset IMC’s (intermodal marketing companies). IMC’s work directly with the railroads, which is far superior than working with a freight broker for intermodal solutions because of the missing link with the railroads and they are adding in an additional margin so their pricing will be higher than going direct with an IMC. 
    • Do not get hung-up on asset versus non-asset IMC’s. Unlike the truckload brokerage model the only differentiation between asset and non-asset is who owns the intermodal containers. They both have direct relationships with the railroad for the rail segment of the intermodal freight move.
  • Check online resources: Use sites like Journal of Commerce (JOC) to compare intermodal provider and railroad rankings, based on factors like reliability, capacity availability and transit times that are reported by their customers.
  • Contact local associations: Reach out to regional transportation associations or chambers of commerce for recommendations or connections with reputable carriers in your area.
  • Audit current provider(s): Evaluate existing carrier relationships to see if there's room for improvement in cost savings or service enhancements when switching providers or modes of transport.
  • Understand the railroads used: Not all intermodal providers have service on all class I railroads. As an example, JB Hunt utilizes BNSF for its western US moves while InTek has capacity options on Union Pacific and BNSF.


So, when should shippers choose to use intermodal over truckload shipping options depends on your freight's destination, weight, time sensitivity, costs, service level requirements and available carriers before making a decision.

Need more info on intermodal? Check out these articles for more details on specific topics within intermodal freight solutions:

And if your looking for an article that covers just about everything about intermodal services, we recommend reading The Complete Guide to Intermodal Transportation.

If you're looking for help incorporating intermodal into your shipping strategy, let us know by filling out our brief Request a Quote form. We'll be happy to get back to you to discuss your unique needs. If you need more information about this or other freight topics, browse our Freight Guides for free eBooks and comprehensive articles, or check out more of our blog.

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