Intermodal Transportation


Intermodal shipping is an approach of transferring cargo from the shipper to the consignee using multiple modes of transport. The commonly used modes of transport in intermodal shipping include rails and trucks. Particularly, the intermodal shipment of goods and services relies on special containers that can fit in well-designed carriers such as rails and trucks to move freight from one point to another. Such special containers, mostly made of steel, eliminate the need for repackaging the freight when it is being transferred from one delivery service to another. Currently, intermodal shipping facilitates the transportation of at least 25 million containers annually (Xu et al. 324). In this regard, this paper presents it as a method of transportation that has been embraced significantly in the area of international trade. Consequently, it is crucial to explore intermodal shipping by highlighting its historical background, reasons for choosing it, and the maximum weight required when shipping freight using this method. Investigating this topic cannot be exhausted without addressing various advantages, disadvantages, and challenges associated with intermodal transportation.

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The History of Intermodal Shipping

Intermodal shipping has existed for several centuries. It is still the leading method of transportation today. In particular, intermodal transportation emerged during the 18th century in England where it was used to facilitate the transportation of coal (Xu et al. 324). In the 1780s, the people of Bridgewater Canal in England used wooden containers to transfer coal from mining zones to different parts of the country using rails and roads (Agamez-Arias and Moyano-Fuentes 785). Horse-drawn vehicles boosted the road aspect of intermodal transportation in England during the 1780s.

According to Roso et al., the use of intermodal transportation expanded to other parts of England in the 1830s and 1840s (264). During this period, the Liverpool and Manchester railway saw both wooden and iron containers transport coal to meet the increasing demand for energy resources in the age of industrialization. In this regard, the rising level of industrial activities in England played a significant role in fostering the adoption of intermodal transportation of freight on rails and roads.

The period of the 1900s was marked by the creation of covered containers that facilitated the transportation of furniture between different points in England. When the First World War emerged, such containers were used for transporting household goods, including passengers’ luggage, between locations connected by the Great Eastern Railway (Agamez-Arias and Moyano-Fuentes 786). During the Second World War, the United States military adopted the use of metal transportation containers to enhance the shipment of freight using trains and trucks. As such, intermodal transportation gained popularity in the U.S. during the 1950s following the adoption of standardized containers.

In the 1960s, intermodal shipping gained acceptance in the area of ocean transport due to the development of standard containers. These new vessels were uniform in terms of size and weight among other specifications. Their standardization played a significant part in alleviating challenges regarding delays and costs associated with traditional forms of transporting goods using trucks, ships, and trains. As Agamez-Arias and Moyano-Fuentes reveal, by 1984, the development of double-stack rail transport fostered the efficiency of intermodal shipping because more freight could be moved at a lower cost and a shorter time (787). People in the 21st century are still adopting intermodal transport. Globalization continues to trigger the increased transportation of freight between various destinations around the world.

The Rationale for Choosing Intermodal Transportation

The shipper and consignee may settle on intermodal transportation based on several reasons. It is imperative to choose intermodal shipping if it suits the interest of parties involved in the delivery of specific freight. As such, one can choose this transportation method when in need of moving freight that is less than 25 tons (Caris et al. 132). Containers facilitate the safety of intermediate or finished goods under the specified weight. Therefore, the weight specification element of containers makes them suitable for both intermediary and refined goods that need to be transported in bulk.

According to Xu et al., intermodal shipping is a reasonable choice of transportation when the shipment needs to travel a longer distance (324). The advent of e-commerce has made it possible for individuals to transfer goods from overseas regions, thereby reducing the need for the consignee to travel to the location of the shipper. As such, choosing intermodal shipping methods that may apply modes such as trucks, ships, trains, and planes is logical, especially when the distance between the transporter and the consignee exceeds 300 miles (Saeedi et al. 146). Furthermore, there is no need for using one mode of transport to ship particular goods that could take an entire day to deliver at a time when intermodal shipping can be deployed to take just a few hours to relocate such items.

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The value of the load that needs to be transported also influences the decision to use intermodal shipping. In particular, as Roso et al. reveal, a consignee seeking to move freight of intermediate worth should consider using intermodal transportation due to the minimal risks involved (270). As such, the use of intermodal transportation for goods of either high or low value is not advisable. Nonetheless, high-worth freight should make use of direct transportation modes such as air cargo services. On the other hand, the use of rail or ocean transportation favors low-value shipments.

Moreover, intermodal transport is suitable for shipments that require continuous flow as well as the same quantity. Consignees who are involved in the constant transfer of their cargo to designated locations may select intermodal transportation since it upholds the aspect of continuity regarding the delivery of goods and services. Furthermore, since containers eliminate the need for repackaging, it is suitable to use intermodal shipping because cargo reaches consignees without any alterations. This form of transportation also fosters the safety of cargo shipped via multiple methods.

The Maximum Weight Shipped Using Intermodal Transportation

The standardization of containers to facilitate the efficiency of intermodal transportation provides various specifications, including dimensions, maximum weight, the strength of the container, and the highest stack. Specifications regarding containers observe two ISO standards that include ISO 668:2013 and ISO 1496-1:2013 Series 1 freight containers (Saeedi et al. 148). These stipulations apply to various dimensions of containers, including the common 20-foot and 40-foot vessels.

As Caris et al. reveal, the maximum cargo weight allowed for both the 40 feet and 80 feet containers is 28.2 tons or 61,289 lbs (130). However, the gross load might be higher due to the empty weight of such containers. Their utmost load may show some slight variances since manufacturers use different approaches as well as materials. Regardless of the producer of these vessels, abiding by the stipulated maximum weight of the cargo is an important legal aspect of intermodal shipping.

Weight is emphasized in intermodal transportation because it forms an important factor in shipping safety. As such, containers of the recommended weight reduce cases of damages done to road pavements and railway lines. Failure to adhere to the maximum vessel load standards may be costly because the shipper may be forced to strip and repackage the cargo in two containers. In some cases, inland charges may apply. Consequently, such cases may cause an unnecessary upsurge in the shipper’s cost of moving goods to the consignee. Therefore, transporters must uphold the maximum cargo weight standards as a way of fostering the efficiency of intermodal transportation.

Challenges Facing the Intermodal Freight Transportation Industry

Currently, the intermodal freight transportation sector faces an array of challenges that undermine its realization of effective movement of cargo from the transporter to the buyer. Factors that trigger the challenges experienced in the industry range from the failure to provide reliable services to the ineffective adoption of information technology systems. As such, addressing these challenges is crucial towards facilitating the efficient shipping of cargo using various modes, including trucks, ships, planes, and trains.

Many players in the intermodal freight-shipping sector have failed to offer reliable services to customers. According to Xu et al., the unreliability of services offered by shippers is a major challenge facing the sector today (324). The transport chain involving various carriers lacks flexibility. For instance, the infrastructure in some regions such as Europe and Africa displays some extent of rigidity, thereby undermining the streamlined movement of goods via multiple modes of transportation. As such, the absence of flexibility in the industry’s transport has undermined the reliability of services offered since this issue contributes to delays among other inefficiencies. Furthermore, the inflexibility of this industry has prompted the rising demand for groupage consignments and consolidated shipments.

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According to Saeedi et al., the rising need for transporting smaller volumes of cargo has influenced buyers and sellers to opt for consolidated shipments as well as groupage consignments, which have ended up posing a significant challenge in the intermodal freight-shipping sector (147). The transportation of minimal items is a major challenge in the intermodal transportation sector because it calls for additional expenses associated with cargo repackaging. Furthermore, many companies concentrate on reducing inventory as well as safety stocks in a way that necessitates the adoption of flexible shipping processes. Nonetheless, shipping companies have not responded well to the increased flexibility of both sellers and buyers. Therefore, the lack of elasticity in the intermodal transportation sector triggers not only the issue of unreliability but also the increased embracement of consolidated shipments and groupage consignments, which disrupt traditional shipping processes. This situation reveals the level of overloading of the current intermodal shipping industry. Some of the large shipping companies have been forced out of business.

Technological advancements also challenge the intermodal freight transportation industry to a considerable degree. Scientific improvements influence customers to anticipate outstanding services facilitated by integrated and flexible information technology (IT) systems. The available multiple modes of transport present in the intermodal shipping sector create a dynamic and complex supply chain that requires effective information management. As such, the proper handling of information in intermodal freight transportation is a crucial part of successful supply chain management. However, many transportation companies in the industry have not integrated IT systems that facilitate the real-time management of information. As a result, this sector’s supply chain is yet to be tapped to realize its maximum potential. The industry has failed to attain remarkable customer satisfaction levels since clients expect transport companies to use integrated and flexible IT systems to deliver services in line with their expectations.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Intermodal Transport

Intermodal transportation is a preferred method of shipping because it offers a wide range of advantages. The notable benefits of intermodal transportation include the reduced handling of cargo and lower costs. Nonetheless, it is associated with various disadvantages, including delayed delivery and high infrastructural expenses. In this respect, examining the merits and demerits of intermodal transportation is crucial in the context of this paper.


Intermodal freight shipping is associated with lower costs of handling cargo. According to van Riessen et al., using various means of transport to move cargo allows shippers to take advantage of price predictability, lower rates, and flexibility associated with the loading and unloading of cargo in containers from one carrier to another (468). Additionally, intermodal transportation facilitates the realization of just-in-time delivery, which minimizes logistic expenses in an industry that has is experiencing increased rivalry. Furthermore, intermodal transportation lowers fuel overheads, especially when using the railway system (van Riessen et al. 468). Therefore, intermodal transportation is a cost-effective method of freight shipping due to its capacity to cut operational costs associated with cargo handling.

According to Caris et al., intermodal transportation is a preferred option because it enhances the expansion of shipment networks and, consequently, the accessibility of markets (129). Expanded networks contribute to the further expansion of economies in a way that creates business opportunities. Moreover, extended transportation avenues facilitate the ease of access to input as well as output markets (Caris et al. 129). As a result, the improved market accessibility goes hand in hand with the streamlined movement of supplies and refined goods. The increased accessibility of input and output bazaars reduces companies’ production and operational costs, thereby boosting productivity.

Intermodal transportation is a method of freight shipping that acknowledges the importance of promoting environmental sustainability. Shippers who use intermodal haulage channels facilitate the reduction of carbon footprint, especially when they use trains (Obrecht and Knez 152). It is crucial to point out that rail transport contributes significantly to cutting down the emission of poisonous gases, which have been linked to environmental contamination. In particular, according to Qu et al., trains release an estimated 5.4 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 100 ton-miles compared to an estimated 19.8 pounds of carbon dioxide released by trucks (306). As such, the significantly lower carbon footprint realized when using trains as part of intermodal transport implies the huge role played by this shipment method in fostering the sustainability of the environment.

Moreover, intermodal freight transportation offers advantages linked to the reliability, capacity, and safety (Qu et al. 309). For instance, the accessibility of transport equipment and the standardization of transit schedules allow shippers to deliver reliable services to customers. The homogeny of services in this sector enhances the capacity of transporters to deliver goods and services to any given destination as long as it is connected to more than one mode of transport. Furthermore, the standardization of containers enhances the safety of cargo to a considerable extent. It eliminates the need for unnecessary loading and unloading that is witnessed when using other means such as trucks, as opposed to relying on single carriers that take goods to their required points. Therefore, these merits of intermodal transportation present it as a convenient method of transportation, which consignees should consider using to meet their day-to-day shipment demands and expectations.


The use of multiple modes of transport in intermodal shipping reduces the speed of delivering cargo. van Riessen et al. point out that some modes of transportation such as trains and trucks are slower compared to planes (462). This situation undermines the speed of delivery once the cargo is transferred from a fast mode to a slower carrier. Furthermore, the consignment may spend a long time at the depot before it is loaded to a new carrier, thereby reducing the efficiency of logistics. Intermodal transportation also faces the problem of dependability. For example, one of the modes used in shipping cargo may collapse, thus affecting the operations of almost all other networks. Furthermore, as van Riessen et al. argue, the transfer of cargo from one mode of transport to another may expose the freight to damage (460). Therefore, concerns over speed among other factors may discourage shoppers from using intermodal transportation.

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Intermodal transportation relies on multiple transport approaches to facilitate the movement of freight. Since its origin in England during the 18th century, intermodal shipment is still the preferred choice of freight transportation due to the distance involved, the value of the cargo, and the need for the continuous flow of goods on transit. Checking the maximum weight requirement for standardized containers used in intermodal shipping is also important because it fosters the safety of transportation. However, the intermodal freight transportation industry faces challenges such as the lack of reliability, technological issues, and the rise of smaller volume shipments. As such, there is a need for addressing all challenges experienced to facilitate the sustainability of this industry.

Works Cited

Agamez-Arias, Anny-del-Mar, and José Moyano-Fuentes. “Intermodal Transport in Freight Distribution: A Literature Review.” Transport Reviews, vol. 37, no. 6, 2017, pp. 782-807.

Caris, An, et al. “Integration of Inland Waterway Transport in the Intermodal Supply Chain: A Taxonomy of Research Challenges.” Journal of Transport Geography, vol. 41, 2014, pp. 126-136.

Obrecht, Matevž, and Matjaž Knez. “Carbon and Resource Savings of Different Cargo Container Designs.” Journal of Cleaner Production, vol. 155, 2017, pp. 151-156.

Qu, Yi, et al. “Sustainability SI: Multimode Multicommodity Network Design Model for Intermodal Freight Transportation with Transfer and Emission Costs.” Networks and Spatial Economics, vol. 16, no. 1, 2016, pp. 303-329.

Roso, Violeta, et al. “Seaport-Inland Port Dyad Dynamics: An Investigation of Service Provisions and Intermodal Transportation Linkages.” World Review of Intermodal Transportation Research, vol. 5, no. 3, 2015, pp. 263-280.

Saeedi, Hamid, et al. ” European Intermodal Freight Transport Network: Market Structure Analysis.” Journal of Transport Geography, vol. 60, 2017, pp. 141-154.

van Riessen, Bart, et al. “Service Network Design for an Intermodal Container Network with Flexible Transit Times and the Possibility of Using Subcontracted Transport.” International Journal of Shipping and Transport Logistics, vol. 7, no. 4, 2015, pp. 457-478.

Xu, Su Xiu, et al. ” Efficient Intermodal Transportation Auctions for B2B E-Commerce Logistics with Transaction Costs.” Transportation Research Part B: Methodological, vol. 80, 2015, pp. 322-337.

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