What is Intermodal Transportation and Why Should You Use It?


intermodal definition

Intermodal transportation revolutionized the shipping industry. By combining multiple modes of transportation, the delivering and receiving of goods was made much more efficient. Moreover, it simplified the cargo handling process enabling businesses to reduce damage and loss costs. As such, it has become a popular way to convey freight from one destination to another. In fact, more than 25 million containers are shipped each year using intermodal transportation.

Here is a brief summary of intermodal transportation’s origins.

Intermodal transportation dates back to the 18th century in England, when it was primarily used on canals. It became even more widespread in the 19th century as railroads became the norm. By the beginning of the 20th century, covered containers were introduced for the transportation of products such as furniture. The United States adopted this practice as early as 1911.

Now that you have a brief history of intermodal transportation, let’s dig into the details. In this article, we'll explain the intermodal definition as well as the key benefits of intermodal transportation.

What is intermodal transportation and what does intermodal mean?

The easiest way to define “intermodal” is anything involving two or more different modes. Inter means multiple, and modal is referring to modes.

Here’s a simple intermodal transportation definition: a combination of two or more different transportation modes, such as a truck, rail, ship, or aircraft, used to move freight from the shipper to the final destination. Each carrier is responsible for a particular mode, so there are several freight bills from different carriers.. Intermodal transportation is also known as intermodal shipping.

However, to better understand the intermodal meaning, let’s consider an example:

Suppose a load of pineapples from the United States needs to get delivered to a grocery store in the U.K. The container of pineapples is loaded onto a ship containing hundreds of other products. Once they arrive in the U.K., a truck with an empty container arrives at the shipper to pick up the load of pineapples. Next, the freight is placed on a train and moved to its destination. Once it reaches its destination, the freight is removed from the train and delivered by truck to the consignee, where the content of the container is unloaded.  Once the container is empty and ready for another load, the process can start all over again.

The benefits of intermodal transportation

Some of the key benefits of intermodal shipping include:

Cost reduction

By utilizing intermodal containers, you can significantly reduce your transportation cost. This is because there is less cargo handling, leading to further damage loss costs, as well as more predictable shipping pricing.

Simplified handling

As noted above, intermodal transportation involves fewer people touching your cargo. As a result of less individual interference, the effort to move shipments is simplified.

Environmental friendliness

By implementing intermodal transportation, you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint. How so? Well, trains emit about a quarter of the carbon dioxide as compared to trucks.

Efficiency & convenience

Both of these characteristics are true of intermodal transportation as this method of shipping is more resourceful than other options and it has also proven to be more streamlined (and faster!) than typical over-the-road (OTR) deliveries. Convenience plays a factor, too, as containers are now equipped with track-and-trace technology allowing instant access to shipment status.


Intermodal transportation is thought to be safer than OTR shipping due to the safety initiatives enforced by the railroads, especially when the transportation of hazardous materials is concerned.

There are several types of fleet safety technology out there today that help intermodal shipping companies remain safe and in compliance with regulatory standards. Lytx’s fleet safety solutions help protect trucks that are part of the intermodal shipping lifecycle. Lytx technology can help fleets detect distracted driving, provide real time alerts to drivers in an effort to avoid collisions, and manage driver behavior. All of this allows fleet managers to have a greater peace of mind and trust drivers to make deliveries safely.

Intermodal Transportation Costs

Intermodal shipping costs are similar to those of linehaul as their rates are equal except for the cost of fuel. Typically, there are three types of pricing used:

1. Contract pricing: pricing is established at a rate promised by an intermodal service provider to move the shipper’s freight for a set lane (the typical route served by the carrier) over a set period of time, which is typically negotiated annually. This allows the shipper to lock in price and capacity over an entire year.

2. Spot rate pricing: pricing is negotiated at the time a shipper needs to move its freight. Spot rates fluctuate throughout the year based on seasonal patterns, along with economic or severe weather impacts.

3. Project pricing: pricing is negotiated for special projects that include shipments with an unconventional volume, allowing companies to take advantage of favorable prices over a shorter period of time.

Is intermodal transportation an option for you?

Now that we’ve answered your question: “what is intermodal transportation?” here are a few considerations to help you decide whether intermodal is a good choice for you.

Intermodal transportation might be a good option if:

  • Your load units are less than 25 tons and consist of intermediate and finished goods
  • Your freight is moving more than 300 miles
  • You have cargo with intermediate values
  • Your cargo flow needs to be continuous and in similar quantities.

Intermodal transportation best practices

To make your intermodal shipping a hassle-free experience, follow these best practices:

  • Recognize the opportunity: Intermodal works best when you are sending multiple LTL shipments to the same destination several times a week. Plus, it’s a great way to reduce your company’s carbon footprint.
  • Package cautiously: Intermodal consignments do not usually leave the container during transit. Yet, the container itself experiences quite a bit of movement throughout the process. So use blocking and bracing techniques to keep cargo from moving within the container.
  • Use a reliable intermodal provider: Work with intermodal shipping experts to make the process less nerve-wracking from start to finish. Choose a provider that can negotiate rates with Class 1 railroads.

Let Lytx Help

Looking to learn more about the various methods of shipping and transportation? Lytx works with thousands of fleets across different industries and has a variety of resources covering all things fleet management. In addition, we offer technology for fleet management and compliance solutions to help your business improve safety, productivity, DOT compliance, and efficiency. We’ll ensure you increase the safety of your drivers while streamlining your process. Contact us today.

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