Intermodal Transportation Guide: What Is It and When Should You Use It?

intermodal transportation

You don’t have to be a filmmaker looking to show a passage of time to love the idea of intermodal transportation. When you deal with enough goods and need them transported swiftly, you don’t want to see them waiting at depots and ports while being unpacked and repacked.

The simple elegance of intermodal containers has been in development for over a hundred years and led to where we are today. Container quality, durability, and standard sizes of has made them ever more convenient for shipping.

Intermodal logistics isn’t just a nicety, in today’s world it is a necessity. In 2018 over 230 million TEU of cargo passed through the busiest ten ports globally. A delay of any kind along a supply chain among those millions of tons in movement can wreck havoc on shipping schedules.

Read on to get a comprehensive understanding of how this transport method works and when you want to use it for your own goods.

Intermodal Transportation Explained

As you already suspect, the purpose of intermodal transport is to move items faster and cheaper by cutting down transitional times and turnover. The containerization and consolidation of freight accomplishes this by housing the smaller shipping packing/containers within larger standardized container sized. Then moving the larger units themselves via all modes of transport.

This allows a container to be packed once at the origin point and not need to be unpacked a single time until it arrives at its termination point. Less hands involved in freight and faster transit times.

Intermodal by definition is the ability of one cargo container to move through multiple transport methods-in between modes. These containers are standardized to be transported on ships, trains, and trucks all equally.

The use of intermodal transportation logistics, cargo moves faster through every aspect of a supply chain.

The What

Consider the example of a car. In 2018 $1.4 trillion worth of vehicles were transported around the world.

A vehicle is relatively easy to unload and reload, as it has it’s own power source and is designed to move. One way to get a car from New York to Los Angeles would be to simply drive it the distance.

Of course, that’s very inefficient and when a vehicle ships from an Asian or German factory, you can’t exactly drive it the whole distance-unless looking to take a deep-sea dive. Plus putting a car on the deck of a ship is like driving it through a couple of heavy rainstorms and snowstorms put together. That’s hell on the paint and puts wear on the seals.

Placing the same automobile in a locked, padded box protects it from all of those elements-the beauty of containerization.

For goods that aren’t as durable, like a few thousand pounds of bananas, a container is a must. Heck, containers can even offer temperature control across the globe for more sensitive products.

The How

The containers are designed to be stackable, sortable at a glance, and rated to hold a listed net weight safely for global transport.

Each of these benefits shaves time off the loading and unloading of goods, which is the most cost heavy on transit time within the transportation process. It almost takes more time to load a cargo ship than it does for it to make a trip across the Atlantic!

In the case of rail travel and trucks, you already factor in that the goods will be moving in a trailer or a boxcar. An intermodal container weighs a bit less than a boxcar and a bit more than a trailer. Just a factor to consider when loading total weight in your chosen mode of transport.

Ships rely on everything not shifting in choppy waters, and square containers fit together easily without wasting space. It costs the same (roughly) to send a full ship or a half-full ship across an ocean, so maximizing space saves resources. Consolidation is key and getting the most bang for your buck is universal across the logistics industry.

The Why

The best way to move anything, if one has the means, is all a single shipment. You move the largest amount possible the farthest you can, then break it down into smaller pieces as your endpoints multiply.

This is the basics of any logistics program that accumulates and then disperses. Mail programs, points of entry, and even computer files organize and move within this framework.

The standardization of container types allows resources to be dedicated along multiple dimensions without trouble. You know what rating of crane lifts what category of container. You know how long it takes to move each container, and you know how much space each occupies. Knowledge and planning is power to cut costs.

Even if you have many smaller objects that need delivery to many locations, the closer you get the goods to a branching point, the more effort, time, and most importantly money you save.

Each time an assorted grouping of goods needs to be unpacked and moved, you lose time to that process. You also risk damage and loss as it becomes harder to track each individual piece over one container with more hands on the freight.

The Catch

There is a caveat to intermodal freight. It depends on the precise movement of several interconnected parts-timing is everything. Space must be allotted on a ship, rail, and truck in tandem (depending).

When a leg on the journey is thrown off schedule, the next leg can be a problem which leaves your cargo waiting for the next train, truck, or ship with available space.

Key consideration is comparing mode chosen and the transit time offered vs cost. Sea transit is obviously slower than air travel but a much cheaper option.

The Unseen Benefits

In addition to saving time from the unpacking and packing of individual boxcars, trailers, and the like, you also increase security. It’s easier to track the location of a single container with RFID or GPS locators. It’s also easier to seal a container and spot if it’s been tampered with.

Most criminals are hardly capable of running off with a multi-ton container and they’re a lot harder to cut open than a wooden or cardboard box. That a cargo container looks identical from the outside also means without a shipping manifest, nobody knows what is or isn’t worth hitting.

All of these elements combine to provide enhanced security for your goods.

Ship it Right

Every type of shipping has its place in creating the best logistics solution. That said, intermodal transportation is quickly becoming one of the best ways to move the most cargo the further, faster, and most importantly cheaper.

Contact us with your transportation problems and see what solutions we create for you.

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