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  • Allen Czermak

What Is Intermodal Transportation?


In order for consumer products to get from the manufacturing facility to a customer’s doorstep a serious logistics game plan needs to be executed. One of the main elements that makes it possible for the successful transport of goods across the globe is called intermodal transportation. The term “intermodal” means two or more methods of transportation to get a shipment from one point to the other. The modes of shipping containers via intermodal transport consists but is not limited to truck, rail, ship, and then truck again. In today’s competitive logistics climate, large shipping containers are now being shipped via air by airplanes like the giant Antonov An-225. All of these transportation mediums help expedite the delivery of products and goods all across the globe.


The basic idea of intermodal transportation is to use more than one means of transport to get a container to its destination faster. From an elementary point of view, if one needs to get an item from point A to point B one would simply look at the fastest routes between the two points. Then they would hire a mode of transportation to trek this route until the product arrives at its final destination.


Sounds kind of simple but there are many fallouts to this method of being limited to one mode of transport. For example, taking a single route by truck might be shorter in distance but will often take longer and be more expensive. Truck drivers are limited to how many hours they can clock on the road and will need to break for the night or at least a certain amount of hours until they are fully rested. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration limits short haul driving to 14 hours and will require a 30 minute break for every 8 hours of driving. Other things like weather can impact a truck driver's journey especially during the winter months. All of these hauling impediments will cause a shipment to take longer to reach its destination via one method of transport.

Intermodal - The Smarter & Faster Means Of Transportation

Though intermodal transportation has been around ever since the Industrial Revolution and helped the British facilitate coal, it wasn’t until the 1960’s when this particular method of hauling goods was fully developed. Since the United States already had the infrastructure for shipping via train it only made sense to expand these rail terminals to be able to accommodate trucks that would pick up and drop off shipping containers. Eventually these rail yards were converted into modern intermodal terminals that would make the haul to the final destination much shorter and faster. Instead of trucks driving across the United States, containers were placed on rail cars that would do most of the haul. Each freight train would be able to carry up to 200 cars that would typically require one truck per each container. Intermodal transport was a major breakthrough at the time and sped up the delivery times while bringing down the cost of shipping. As time went on water ports like the Port of Houston brought transportation by ship, rail, and truck all together. The major cities in the USA that hosted intermodals terminals had begun to flourish and were examples for other states and countries around the world.


As the shipping containers began to flow in from countries like Asia, the intermodal terminals had become overwhelmed and unable to handle the massive influx of imports. At the same time, the United States was seeking to export its natural resources like corn, soybeans, and wheat to countries that needed them. All this traffic caused the local municipalities to rethink if their terminals would be able to handle such a load. Eventually the water ports and rail yards were expanded and heavy cranes would be brought in to do the work. Instead of laborers engaging in the actual loading and unloading of cargo, operators would begin to use cranes and expensive machinery to speed up the process. With the advance of technology these intermodal terminals are equipped with some of the most modern and sophisticated pieces of equipment to keep operations running smoothly.


The Process Of Intermodal Transportation

It all starts with a single shipping container that is attached to the chassis and scheduled for pickup. Often the container is full at the pickup location while other times it can be empty. Recently the demand for empty containers has gone up as shipping companies need them available for shipments coming from Asia. Such a situation hurts the United States economy as there are no goods that get exported to countries around the world. Once the container and chassis are hitched to the truck they will travel to a nearby railyard and get removed by a crane and loaded onto a railcar. At that point the truck operator will park the chassis as it will wait for a new intermodal transport. Back to the container on the train, it will travel to another railyard or water port depending on where the final destination is. Once it reaches the terminal nearest to its point of delivery another chassis will be there to receive the container which hauls it a relatively short distance where it is received by the customer. The last leg of the journey is done by a local logistics company that offers short haul deliveries and is referred to as a drayage. The intermodal process is not limited to two or three methods of transportation but can consist of many touch points until the goods are delivered to the customer.


Why Intermodal Freight Transportation Works

There are many reasons but we will focus on two primary ones as to why intermodal transportation works. It's cheaper and faster. Since the freight is always moving it will get to its location faster than a shipping method which stops and goes. In the economical sense, intermodal shipping uses methods of transport that consist of hundreds if not thousands of containers on a daily basis. Naturally this will bring the cost for shipping freight down as the cargo value is greater making it more lucrative for all the logistics companies that play a role in transport. Think of it like a wholesale club but for shipping. Stores like Costco and BJ’s are able to offer their customers lower pricing because they are doing a greater volume of sales. Intermodal shipping uses the same methodology by making use of multiple means of transport until the container reaches its final destination.

Intermodal Transportation Is Safer & Better For The Environment

Besides for the benefit of being a cheaper means of transporting goods, intermodalism is safer and better for our environment. It’s safer because it means shorter hauls for truck drivers and it's more environmentally friendly because intermodal produces less carbon emissions than the classic method of long haul deliveries. Even if the containers will be hosted aboard a ship or train it will still not produce as many green gases in proportion to every container being delivered by a single truck. In regard to being employed by an intermodal trucking company, drivers can have a regular day job and return to their families at the end of a day's work. This is important to truck operators' psyche as it’s not uncommon for them to get burnt out from being away from family as they are on the road for weeks at a time. Intermodal provides a happy medium where truck drivers can do what they love while being close to home. This also helps them be more productive at their jobs and better spouses and parents to their children.

When Should You NOT Use Intermodal Shipping

If you are in desperate need of inventory and need to get a container express shipped it would be wise to use another means of transport. True you're going to pay significantly more to the logistics company but as a business owner that decision is up to you. Many businesses in the United States are short on inventory and will ship the products via air to expedite delivery. There is a significant price increase and businesses will often pass these costs on to the customer. Unfortunately, there are stories where the customer will pay for the item to be shipped by air and pay a premium price only to find out that the item was actually shipped by boat. In such a scenario there is no way to recoup the money as the manufacturer overseas currently has the upper hand. Something business owners should begin to think about is becoming independent from countries like China who are taking advantage of us.


Final Words

Intermodal transportation has helped global and local economies grow ever since its expansion during the 1960’s. In a competitive economy every dollar counts and this method of transporting containers can help reduce the cost of shipping containers from overseas. In addition, it’s a safer and greener way to transport products and goods to their final destination. With the cost of shipping containers being at an all time high this might be the method of transport your business has been waiting for. Good Luck!

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