intermodal trucking

What Is Intermodal Trucking? A Detailed Guide

Intermodal shipping containers have become essential to the global supply chain since their inception in the 1950s, by enhancing efficiency and promoting standardization in the transportation of goods. They have also enabled intermodality, having the ability to be moved through various modes of transport.

Intermodal trucking refers to the transportation of shipping containers (also called intermodal containers) typically using semi-trucks and trailers. This process is an integral part of intermodal transportation combining trucking with other modes of transportation, such as rail or sea, to optimize efficiency and reduce supply chain costs.

In this article, we will explore how intermodal trucking works, commonly used equipment, the benefits and challenges involved, as well as other important information about this topic.

How Intermodal Trucking Works

Intermodal trucking encompasses the majority of the land transportation aspect of intermodal transportation and is integrated with multiple transportation modes, including rail and sea freight to move shipping containers from point A to point B, often internationally. In order to understand how intermodal trucking works, we will elaborate on each touchpoint of intermodal transportation.

The process begins with transporting empty containers to shippers’ facilities, such as factories, and warehouses. Cargo is then loaded into the empty shipping containers by handlers using material handling equipment (MHE), such as forklifts and pallet jacks.

Following loading, the laden container is sealed and transported by trucks to an intermodal terminal, such as a seaport or rail terminal/depot (intermodal rail). This first leg of transportation is also called pre-carriage. 

At the port terminal, the port operators transfer the shipping container from the truck to a container yard, where it’s stored temporarily. Before the vessel is set to depart, it’s loaded onto a container ship. 

If the container is transported via rail, it would be transported to an intermodal rail depot or terminal. It is then loaded onto well cars, before being transported to their final destination. 

Once the container reaches its designated rail or sea terminal, it’s transported to another container yard within the port or rail terminal. A truck is then assigned by the shipper or consignee to deliver it to its final destination. The final leg in intermodal trucking is often referred to as on-carriage.

After the cargo has been unloaded into a warehouse, the empty container is returned to the carrier’s container yard, and the intermodal trucking leg is completed. 

Intermodal Trucking Equipment

Intermodal trucking utilizes a wide range of freight handling and transportation equipment, including but not limited to the following:

  • Intermodal Containers – Intermodal or shipping containers are enclosed metal boxes transporting cargo through different transport modes, including trucks, trains, and ships. These containers are suitable to withstand long-term storage and frequent handling due to their strength and durability. 
  • Semi-Trucks – A semi-truck, or semi-trailer truck, is a heavy-duty freight vehicle that combines a tractor unit and a trailer attached to a hitch called a fifth wheel
  • Container Chassis – Intermodal semi-trailers or container chassis are skeletal trailers designed specifically to hold and transport shipping containers between ports, container yards, shipper facilities, and railyards. 
  • Side-Loader Trailers – A side-loader trailer is a specialized trailer with two side-lifting cranes hooked to a semi-truck. These trailers lift containers from/to ground level and transfer them from/to an intermodal trailer or rail wagon. 
  • Flatbed Trailers – Flatbed trailers are among the industry’s most versatile open-deck semi-trailer types. They serve as a smart alternative to container chassis for transporting shipping containers. 
  • Forklifts – Forklifts are essential cargo handling equipment. They’re used for moving pallets into a shipping container. Heavy-duty forklifts can be used to load shipping containers on and off trailers. 
  • Cranes – Container cranes are typically used to load and unload containers from ships or other vessels. They’re typically found in terminals due to their sheer size and weight. 

Intermodal Trucking Transportation Modes

Intermodal trucking is typically the first and last leg of intermodal freight transportation, transporting the laden container from the shipper’s premises to an intermodal terminal and from the destination terminal to the consignee.

intermodal truck
An Intermodal Truck in New Zealand © 111 Emergency

Below is a detailed overview of each leg, as well as the container movement within facilities, which is referred to as shunting.

Drayage

Drayage refers to the transportation of shipping containers via a semi-truck through the use of a container chassis. As mentioned earlier, the transportation from the shipper’s premises to an intermodal terminal is called pre-carriage. On the other hand, moving the container from the intermodal terminal to a consignees/receivers facility at the destination is called on-carriage.

Shunting

Container shunting is also a recurring process in intermodal trucking. It involves moving containers within a yard (typically in a port, depot, plant, or warehouse). These movements occur to optimize yard space and maximize container movements in and out of the storage facility. 

Benefits of Intermodal Trucking

Intermodal trucking combines the advantages of various transportation modes, which ultimately reduces costs, minimizes environmental impact, and improves the overall supply chain efficiency. It also offers other benefits that we’ll further elaborate on below.

  • Loading Bays Are Not Always Required – Containers don’t necessarily require loading bays, unlike other shipment types. Handlers can offload them from trailers directly to the ground and handle the cargo inside using MHE and a skilled workforce.
  • Standardized Handling – Intermodal container handling, stacking, and cleaning are all standardized industry practices since all containers are built using the same design and specifications with two length variations (20-ft and 40-ft). 
  • Enhanced Cargo Security – Containers are made of strong and highly durable metal. More importantly, they’re enclosed structures that are closed using a container seal. The cargo inside is shielded from outdoor elements, including rain and debris. These benefits make intermodal transport relatively safer than other transport methods. 
  • Better Cost-Efficiency – Intermodal trucking offers better cost-efficiency compared to traditional trucking methods. By leveraging the use of various modes of transportation, such as trucks, trains, and container vessels, the overall cost is reduced (especially for long-distance shipping).
  • Wider Reach – Intermodal trucking complements rail and sea transport, enabling more cost-effective and efficient cargo movement across different countries. It unlocks international trade for shippers and receivers and adds more revenue streams for carriers.

Challenges of Intermodal Trucking

Like most trucking methods such as Less-Than-Truckload (LTL), Partial Truckloads (PTL), and Full Truckloads (FTL), intermodal trucking isn’t without a few challenges of its own. Below are some of them further explained.

  • Additional Handling – Intermodal trucking involves additional handling processes compared to direct trucking. Carriers have to transfer containers between different transportation modes making the supply chain more complex and introducing a higher risk of cargo damage. 
  • Cargo Size Limitation – Containers are standardized vessels in terms of weight capacity and dimensions. Therefore, they’re not suitable for transporting oversized or overweight cargo.
  • Dependency on Equipment – During the peak seasons, shippers and carriers can experience container shortages, which can lead to delays. The same goes for labor and handling equipment, such as cranes, forklifts, and side-loaders. 
  • Applicable to FCL Only – Intermodal trucking only applies to the transportation of full container load (FCL) shipments. Therefore, shippers looking to transport less-than-container load (LCL) shipments will have to consolidate shipments through a freight forwarder or co-loader.
  • Limited Applicability – Intermodal trucking has a limited client base compared to traditional trucking, as some businesses only ship domestically or within short distances. Intermodal trucking benefits from using other modes of transport such as rail and sea freight, which are typically used for international and long-distance transportation.

Andrew Lin

Co-Founder & Writer
at freightcourse

About the Author

Andrew is a multi-business owner with over 10 years of experience in the fields of logistics, manufacturing, operations, training, and education.

Being the co-founder of freightcourse has given him the ability to pursue his desire of educating others on manufacturing and supply chain topics.