What is Intermodal Transportation — What Does Intermodal Mean

Posted On 26th June 2023

As a business owner, you’ve probably looked into the most cost-effective ways to ship freight from one location to another. In that research, you may have come across the term, “intermodal transportation”. But what is intermodal transport, and how is effective when compared to more traditional methods like trucking?

In this article, we will discuss everything you need to know about intermodal transportation, its meaning, benefits, examples, and more, to help you understand the concept and how it may benefit you as a business owner.

What is Intermodal Transportation

What Does Intermodal Mean?

So what is intermodal freight transport? Intermodal transportation - also known as intermodal shipping, is a type of cargo transportation that involves two or more modes of transportation. While this may include several different options, it typically refers to shipping that utilizes airplanes, trucks, freight train shipping, or cargo ships.

But what is intermodal shipping?

Primarily, there are two types of transportation in intermodal shipping. The first type is international intermodal shipping. This type of shipping utilizes 20ft or 40ft containers and may contain cargo transported from overseas. When shipping cargo through international intermodal transportation, the cargo will stay in the same container for the entire duration of the process.

The second method of intermodal transportation is domestic intermodal. This type of transportation utilizes 53-foot containers. Despite being “domestic:” cargo may still come from overseas in a 20ft or 40ft container. However, once arriving, the cargo is transferred to the 53ft containers.

So what is intermodal trucking and what does intermodal mean? Here is a concise intermodal definition.

Intermodal meaning: You can define intermodal transportation as a type of transportation that involves moving freight from one location to another by utilizing various shipping methods.

What is Intermodal Transportation and How Does it Work?

What does intermodal transportation mean and is it the same as other types of shipping? While there are many similar terms between intermodal transportation and other methods of shipping, it’s important to understand how intermodal transportation works when considering how to ship cargo. So how does intermodal transportation work? Here are some of the common questions associated with intermodal transportation.

What is an Intermodal Container?

So what is an intermodal container? What’s intermodal is a type of shipping container that can be transferred between multiple cargo carriers such as trucks, trains, and cargo ships. The container will typically be 20ft, 40ft, or 53ft depending on whether they are domestic or international containers. You can double stack containers of the same size to reduce the amount of space they take.

What is an Intermodal Carrier?

An intermodal carrier is a type of transportation used to ship intermodal containers from one location to another. Typically, this will refer to a large vehicle such as an intermodal train, flatbed intermodal truck, semi-truck, airplane, or cargo ship.

Intermodal Carrier Meaning: A type of transport designed to carry intermodal containers from one location to another, generally including trains, airplanes, cargo ships, and trucks.

What is the Difference Between Intermodal and Multimodal Transportation

While often used synonymously, there are key differences between multimodal and intermodal transportation. So what is the meaning of intermodal transportation as opposed to multimodal transportation?

The biggest differences have to do with contracts. With multimodal transport, a single contract covers the entire shipping journey and bill of lading. However, the intermodal transportation definition is a type of shipping where you will need multiple contracts for each carrier in the journey to ensure safe shipping. ,

What Are the Benefits of Intermodal Shipping?

So what are the benefits of intermodal transportation? As you might expect, there are several benefits to utilizing intermodal freight transportation. Some common benefits of this transportation method include:

  • Reduce transport costs
  • Fuel savings
  • Additional shipping space
  • Sustainability
  • Consistency
  • Fewer delays
  • Reduced carbon dioxide emissions, which reduces your carbon footprint
  • And more!

Compared to traditional truck shipping, there are many reasons why you would want to consider this mode of transport as a viable option for you and your company. What intermodal transport offers is a more reliable and easier-to-manage transport system in the long run when shipping large quantities of freight.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is an extremely beneficial option for moving freight. However, beyond simple benefits, there are also extreme advantages to intermodal shipping, as well as a few disadvantages you should be aware of. So what are the advantages and disadvantages of intermodal transportation? Here’s what you need to know.

Advantages of Intermodal Freight Transportation

One of the reasons that intermodal freight transport is favored around the world is because of the extreme advantages it offers. Some of the best advantages of intermodal transport include:

  • More efficient delivery times
  • Less noise
  • Reduced traffic
  • Fewer delays
  • Increased reliability
  • Simpler departure schedules
  • Simpler planning and logistics
  • No customs processes on highways
  • Large-scale project support

By tapping into these advantages, you end up getting far more for your money than you would through traditional shipping methods. Therefore you set yourself and your company up for success and get a leg up on your competition.

What Are the Disadvantages of Intermodal Transportation?

While there are indeed many advantages to intermodal transport, there are also some disadvantages you should be aware of.

Unreliable Service Providers

Since you’ll be working with multiple service providers as each leg of the journey will be handled by a different company, it’s more likely you’ll come across an unreliable provider with poor service. Unfortunately, depending on where the transportation of goods is happening, they may be the only ones available. This can result in delays, lost freight, or just an outright difficult process. Just because one service provider does well, doesn’t mean the others will, putting your whole shipment at risk.


There is a chance for problems to arise in any shipping method. However, with intermodal transportation, you choose to involve more people, meaning that there is a greater chance for delays or problems. While intermodal transport may be faster if everything goes smoothly, it can also be much slower if something goes wrong.

Increased Complexity

Similar to the previous point, the more complicated a process is, the greater the chance that something may go wrong. Intermodal Transportation requires detailed planning and preparation mapping out the origin and destination as you plan to ship over long distances. It isn’t a last-minute decision and you will need to spend a good amount of time making sure that everything is in order if you want your shipment to move quickly and efficiently.

Greater Chance of Damaged Product

Since your cargo will be moved from one carrier to another, there is a chance that the extra movement will jostle your product around and result in additional damage than if one carrier handled the whole shipment. This will likely be dependent on how efficiently each company is that’s handling your product., So be sure to do your research on anyone who will be handling your freight.

Who Should Use Intermodal Transportation?

Because of the many benefits offered through intermodal transportation, just about everyone has something to gain from it. It is a highly accessible method of transportation and be utilized virtually anywhere, However, one of the critical factors to consider when wondering if this is right for you is the length of your journey. This means the best candidates are large retail companies with worldwide locations.
Smaller journeys, such as a grocery warehouse that only ships to the surrounding states probably won’t experience the same benefits. If you have questions about the benefits or economics of intermodal shipping, contact one of our freight experts to help determine if intermodal trucking is right for you. We work with a large variety of clients to help find innovative and affordable shipping solutions. Let us help you take your business to the next level by ensuring an optimal shipping process!

What Products Can You Ship Using Intermodal Trucking?

Intermodal Transportation by a Train

For intermodal transport to be beneficial, you must ask, what is intermodal freight? When it comes to what you can ship using intermodal trucking, the list is long. It is only limited by what you can fit into an intermodal shipping container, as well as a few restrictions from the cargo carriers, such as railroads. For example, railroads won’t allow you to ship personal items, passengers, living animals, etc.

As was previously mentioned, the most common use for intermodal shipping is large retail companies, meaning clothing, furniture, electronic devices, and other similar items are great choices.

What does intermodal trucking mean?

Intermodal Trucking Definition: Another name for intermodal shipping or intermodal transportation, whats intermodal trucking? - Intermodal trucking meaning is a type of transportation utilizing trucks that take cargo from one place to another. At some point, it will utilize another method of transportation such as a train or cargo ship.

What Is an Example of Intermodal Shipping?

So what is an example of intermodal transportation? Since intermodal shipping is about optimizing the shipping process, it involves multiple legs in the journey. An example of intermodal shipping would be a company in Chicago that uses trucks to take their freight to a train where it’s loaded on a flat car, which takes it to the harbor in California, where it is put on a ship and sent to another country, only to go back on a truck.

In this intermodal transportation example, you can see how the cargo goes smoothly from one location to another despite being placed on several types of transportation.

Intermodal Industry in the US in 2024 - Market Size & Forecasts

The intermodal industry has grown exponentially and was estimated to move from $23.37 billion in 2022 to $26.49 billion in 2023. This transportation intermodal growth is forecasted to continue and if trends hold then the industry will grow to an estimated $41.59 billion by 2027.