container on a railcar

Intermodal transportation refers to the movement of large and bulky goods by 2 or more modes of transport, where the cargo will stay in the same container throughout the journey. Every stage of this process is outsourced to a different provider instead of 1 sole carrier.   

In this article, we’ll talk about the elements of intermodal transportation, its challenges, process and industrial trends. We also explain the differences between multimodal and intermodal transport so that you can make an informed decision!

Types of intermodal transport

Dry freight container on a railcar

Container on flatcar (COFC)

A container on a flatcar refers to a loaded container that’s transported by the road or sea before being loaded onto a flat railcar, where it’ll complete the rest of its journey by rail. It’s known to be a more cost-effective method than a trailer on flatcar (TOFC) as 4 containers can be loaded onto a railcar at the same time through double stacking. 

However, not all train routes can take double stacking due to the height requirements for tunnels and bridges.

Trailer on flatcar (TOFC)

This type of intermodal transport is when an over-the-road (OTR) trailer is placed directly onto the railcar. A total of 2 trailers can fit on a railcar at a time. 

This method works well if you’re looking to transport cargo through routes that don’t meet the height clearances for double stacking.

Types of intermodal containers

Intermodal containers stacked on top of one another

Intermodal containers allow goods to be transported from 1 vehicle to another without having to load or unload any cargo. This means that the same container is used throughout the entire journey.

There are 6 main types of specialised intermodal containers that are suitable for items of different sizes and nature.

1. Dry freight

Best suited for: All kinds of cargo

Otherwise known as “general purpose” containers, dry freight containers are the most common type of intermodal containers used. According to DSV, this type of container is used for around 90% of goods shipped via sea freight. 

They’re generally airtight and don’t come with any ventilation system.

2. Insulated

Best suited for: Temperature sensitive products (e.g. food, pharmaceuticals and medicines)

These containers work at controlled temperatures to provide warm and dry storage conditions required by particular goods. They are employed as part of the cold chain to keep products fresh and effective and can be used throughout the year regardless of the weather or climate.

3. Open top

Best suited for: Large and tall cargo (e.g. machinery, construction materials and bulky raw materials)

As the name implies, these intermodal containers don’t have a roof. They’re made to transport heavy or lengthy items that don’t fit in enclosed containers.

These containers feature lashing rings, which allow the cargo to remain stable regardless of their height and weight. 

4. Flat rack

Best suited for: Large and wide cargo (e.g. machinery, vehicles and pipes)

Similar to the open top container, these specialised containers have no roof. On top of that, they only possess walls at the shorter end. Cargo on flat racks are secured through the usage of straps, chains and wire ropes.

There are 2 variations, one with fixed sides and one with collapsible sides. Flat racks with collapsible sides can be stacked, stored and transported easily. 

5. Refrigerated

Best suited for: Cargo that needs to be stored in low temperatures (e.g. fruits, vegetables, poultry, seafood and flowers)

A refrigerated container is also known as a “reefer”. They’re containers with the ability to maintain low temperatures during transit to keep goods chilled or frozen.

6. Tank

Best suited for: Hazardous or non-hazardous liquids, powders or gas

Also known as “tankers”, tank containers are made of anti-corrosive materials. They’re mostly manufactured as per ISO standards. 

According to the guidelines stipulated by the International Tank Container Organisation (ITCO), the tank container must be 80% filled to allow for thermal expansion. This prevents treacherous surges or swells during transportation. Vehicles carrying tank containers must also be adapted to them. 

Unsure of which container is best suited for your needs? Let us know your concerns and we’ll find the right container for you!

Types of intermodal terminals

Ship docking at a port terminal

There are 3 main types of intermodal terminals, each with their respective criterias for location and equipment. 

Port

Ports are sites of convergence of freight movement between the inland and maritime transportation systems. In comparison to other intermodal terminals, they have the most traffic, space and capital requirements. 

A port is equipped with amenities to facilitate loading and unloading of cargo, such as warehouses and port receptions. The area’s depth is also crucial in permitting the types of ship to dock. 

Rail

For inland intermodal chains, rail terminals are often linked with port terminals. There are 2 kinds of rail terminals: on-dock and near-dock facilities. 

  • On-dock facilities

Containers in an on-dock rail terminal can be transferred directly from the dock or its warehouse to a railcar. These rail terminals are mostly designed to handle COFC containers

  • Near-dock facilities

Near-dock facilities require terminal clearance which may result in delays. However, they often have more available space which can benefit the rail and maritime connection. These terminals can handle both COFC and TOFC containers

Distribution hubs

The transport mode that dominantly takes place at distribution centres is trucking. These intermodal terminals also feature a wide variety of added functions such as warehousing, which helps with the storage and logistics management of the cargo.

Intermodal transport vs multimodal transport

 IntermodalMultimodal
Parties involvedCombination of different companies1 carrier
Regulations
  • Different contracts and bills of lading with each company
  • Fewer inspections as containers are sealed ahead of time
  • Clients will only sign 1 contract with the agent, also known as FIATA bill of lading (FBL)
  • Transit priority for FBL through customs
  • Frequent inspections
  • CostsDepends on the different companies that do the transportationDepends on the single carrier
    TrackingDifferent tracking codes for different companies1 tracking interface that monitors each stage
    Time taken for transportationDepends on the transport modes you decide on (more affordable options may take longer)Depends on the transport modes you decide on (more affordable options may take longer)

    Deciding between intermodal or multimodal transportation ultimately boils down to factors such as 

    • the modes of transport required, 
    • places of origin and destination, 
    • time sensitivity, 
    • distance, 
    • safety and 
    • type of goods to be transported.

    Want to learn more about intermodal or multimodal transport? Contact us today to find out which is more suited for your logistical requirements!

    Challenges of intermodal transport

    Calculating finances

    Potential for high costs

    The usage of several modes of transport and the signing of agreements with different companies can result in exorbitant costs if the process isn’t carefully planned. 

    However, if done properly, intermodal transport can be affordable and beneficial for your business’s operational costs and supply chain. Thus, it’s essential to attain the best possible deals with each company without compromising on quality.

    Potential delays in shipments

    Although many businesses opt for intermodal transport due to its low costs, there are still instances where shipments experience delays. For example, when railroads don’t provide direct lines to every destination or lanes don’t run every day, the delivery time may be lengthened.

    As some cargos might be time-sensitive, it’s important to properly plan out routes and be selective with regards to the companies you engage.

    Keeping track of every stage

    As there are many organisations involved in the process, there’s a possibility that you may lose track of your cargo or contact at some point. It’s important to actively keep track of the parties involved and the location of the cargo so that you don’t lose anything.

    Process of intermodal transportation

    Worker working at intermodal terminal
    • Step 1: Choosing shipping methods and companies

      When deciding on the modes of transport, here are some factors you can consider:

      • Load capacity
      • Origin and destination 
      • Hazardous cargo
      • Seasonality of cargo
      • Special requirements of cargo (e.g. time-sensitive, temperature-sensitive)

      If you’re unsure of the kind of intermodal container or transport routes you require, enquire with an established logistics company.

    • Step 2: First-mile processes

      Once your plans are set, the transportation begins! Your freight shipment will be consolidated at a terminal. This is where the most suitable kind of container is chosen for your cargo. 

      Activities such as packing, warehousing and logistics management are also included in this stage. 

    • Step 3: Loading of goods into truck

      An empty truck will arrive at the consignee point. The transporter in charge will then load the cargo onto the back of the truck with the correct equipment. 

      It’s unlikely that the goods will be touched until they arrive at their final destination. 

    • Step 4: Transferring of goods into next mode of transport

      The truck travels to a rail yard through road networks, where the logistics company transfers the containers onto a train. From there, the container can proceed to the railroad station in the destination city or a port for shipping.

      If necessary, intermodal trucking will act as the connection between these modes of transportation. 

    • Step 5: Arrival at destination

      When the load arrives at its final destination, all goods will be removed from the storage container and stored in a warehouse if necessary. The container is now empty and ready to store new shipments.

    • Step 6: Last-mile deliveries

      Finally, the logistics company will handle the last-mile processes and deliveries to consumers. These processes include warehousing, organising, packing and door-to-door delivery services. 

    Trends in intermodal transport

    Intermodal transport via ship

    Sustainable transportation

    According to the IEA, the transportation sector is responsible for 24% of direct global CO2 emissions. With this significant ecological impact, there has been a bigger focus on environmentally friendly solutions in today’s transportation industry. 

    As such, all organisations that use intermodal transportation should be concerned about environmental responsibility and focus their efforts on more eco-friendly transport solutions. 

    Increasing demands for digitalisation

    Transportation, like every other industry, is quickly embracing a technologically-driven approach due to the rise in consumer demands. Digitalisation in transportation has a number of obvious advantages, including increased efficiency and better logistics. 

    To remain competitive in a technological age and keep operations efficient, intermodal transportation organisations must stay up to date with consumer needs and digital trends. This includes features such as real-time tracking and access to detailed information for deliveries.

    M&P International Freights is an established freight forwarder in Singapore offering a full spectrum of services. We’ll assist you at every step of the process in your goods shipment!

    Integrating intermodal transportation into your supply chain

    A good intermodal transport system is beneficial for your business due to its affordability and efficiency, provided you engage the best modes of transport and carriers for your needs. 

    Get in touch with us today to learn about more intermodal transport and whether it’s suitable for you!

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