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Intermodal and Special Carriers

Reasons for the growth of Inter-modal rail transport (TOFC & COFC) since the 1980’s

Inter-modal transport is primarily transporting goods by containers using more than one mode of transport. The development of this type of transportation traces its roots to the mid 1950s when Malcolm Mc Lean (a truck line owner) developed a trailer to move freight through highway and water. Inter-modal transport in the form of TOFC is the movement of motor car trailers on flat cars while CORC is the movement of containers on flat cars (Coyle, et al., 2006, p.212).

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Growth in the global business, particularly in the off shore sourcing of goods by countries in the pacific realm led to the increase in the use of inter-modal transport (Water- rail- truck). In 1986 there was a shortage of drivers brought about by the stringent licensing of drivers in the United States of America. This led to an increase in use of piggy backs whereby two or more containers could be piled against each other. This led to decreased costs of freight as opposed to transporting one container at a time. According to the book by Coyle et al. (2006, p.213), teamster union agreements permitted the diversion of up to 28% of line haul movement to inter-modal which has made the sector one of the railroad’s industry largest customers.

Situations in the transport sector barring some modes of transport from being effective enough has also greatly contributed to the development of inter-modal transportation or even facilitated its coming into existence. For instance, goods are usually availed at the airport for air travel via other modes of transport such as roads. This is the same case for rail transport where some goods had to be transported using other means to the railway depots hence promoting inter-modal transport. Such situations have greatly contributed to the development of inter-modal transport as it couples either of the methods with road which is easily accessible and can serve points that other modes cannot e.g. at the door step of a recipient.

Role of the Container in Inter-modal transport

Inter-modal transport greatly relies on the container for ease of transferability of cargo from one mode of transport to another e.g. from a ship to a train or trailer without repacking the goods. This greatly improves efficiency of transportation and saves tremendous time as well which could have otherwise been used in physically transferring the goods from one mode of transport to another. This reduces the chances of damages to the goods and theft as well because everything is done at the loading point (Coyle, et al., 2006, p.214).

Containers make it possible for the railroad flat car to carry more than one type of goods at a time (piggyback) since one container can be piled against another without any damage. This considerably reduces the cost of transportation and improves efficiency as well. Containers can also be made in different sizes ranging in length from 28 to 53 feet making it possible for trailers to handle different sizes or for different types of freight to be transported easily.

The containers have also made it possible for refrigeration services to be built in the containers. This has made the transportation of perishables possible over long distances which could have otherwise cost the companies a lot of money to hire air transport. However, containers have a high empty weight compared to other transport means. This is due to their metallic nature which reduces the shipment weight that can be legally hauled on the highways. This not withstanding, the container is still widely used because of its easy transferability from one mode to another and due to its minimal handling costs (Coyle, et al., 2006, p.214).


Coyle, J., Bardi, J., & Novack, R. (2006). Transportation (6th ed.). Ohio: South-Western College Pub.

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