What is intermodal shipping?

Intermodal shipping is when multiple modes of transportation are used to move goods from their origin to their destination country. Learn more about it in this blog.
Intermodal shipping
Global trade requires efficient movement of goods and a well-planned logistics process. Intermodal shipping is one such concept that has revolutionized the way goods are transported internationally.

What is intermodal shipping?

Intermodal shipping is when multiple modes of transportation are used to move goods from their origin to their destination country. This involves a seamless integration of various modes such as trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes to enable flexible logistics. In this, cargo is usually loaded into a standardized container that is easily transferred between different transport modes without the need for unpacking and repacking.

How does intermodal shipping work?

The process of intermodal shipping involves a series of coordinated steps to ensure seamless transport of goods. At the terminal, containers are transferred to a different mode of transportation, which carries them to their next destination. Here is an overview of how intermodal shipping commonly works:

Planning and booking:

The process begins with the shipper or logistics provider determining the most optimal route and modes of transportation for cargo. Factors such as cost, transit time, and nature of goods are taken into consideration. Once the plan is finalized, transportation services are booked with respective carriers involved.

Origin pickup:

Cargo is collected from the shipper's location and transported to the initial point of departure, which is typically a rail or intermodal terminal. Goods are properly packaged and secured in standardized containers suitable for intermodal transportation.

Rail or intermodal transport:

At the original terminal, containers are loaded onto rail cars or intermodal platforms. These platforms are designed to facilitate smooth transfer of containers between different modes of transportation. Trains are usually used since they provide the main long-haul portion of the journey, offering cost-effective transportation.

Interchange or transloading:

When the train reaches an interchange point or a designated terminal, containers are transferred to a different mode of transportation, such as trucks or ships. This process, known as interchange or transloading, involves lifting the containers from the railcars or intermodal platforms.

Road or sea transport:

Depending on the destination and logistics plan, containers may be loaded onto trucks for road transport or onto ships for overseas ocean shipping.

Destination delivery:

When containers reach the destination terminal, they are unloaded and transferred to the designated location. The cargo is then delivered to the recipient or stored in a warehouse, ready for distribution or further transportation.

Advantages and disadvantages of intermodal shipping

Intermodal shipping has several advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages of intermodal shipping

Cost efficiency:

Intermodal freight transport offers cost savings compared to single-mode shipping. By leveraging cost-effective modes for different parts of the shipping journey, businesses can reduce transportation expenses.

Flexibility and scalability:

Intermodal shipping provides flexibility in choosing the most suitable transportation mode based on specific requirements. It allows businesses to scale their operations efficiently by adapting to fluctuating demands.

Reduced transit times:

Leveraging different modes of transportation enables fast transit times, particularly for long distances.

Improved reliability:

Intermodal freight transport offers increased reliability by reducing the risk of delays and disruptions. If one mode of transportation encounters issues or congestion, alternative modes can be seamlessly utilized, ensuring that cargo continues to move toward its destination.

Environmental sustainability:

By utilizing more fuel-efficient modes, and minimizing reliance on trucks for long-haul transport, intermodal shipping helps reduce carbon emissions and lowers the overall environmental impact of cargo movement.

Disadvantages of intermodal shipping

Infrastructure limitations:

Intermodal shipping relies on well-developed infrastructure, including rail networks, intermodal terminals, and efficient transfer systems. In regions with limited or inadequate infrastructure, effectiveness of intermodal logistics may be compromised.

Transloading challenges:

Transferring containers between different modes of transportation can lead to complexities and potential risks.

Limited accessibility:

Intermodal transportation may face limitations in terms of accessibility to certain locations. Some remote or underdeveloped areas may have inadequate connections to intermodal terminals.

Coordination and communication:

Intermodal shipping involves multiple carriers, each responsible for a specific segment of the transportation process. Coordinating activities of different carriers and ensuring effective communication throughout the journey can be challenging.

Increased complexity:

Businesses need to navigate multiple regulations, contractual agreements, and logistical variables when coordinating different modes of transportation.

Types of intermodal transportation

Here are some of the common types or modes of intermodal transportation:


Rail intermodal involves use of trains as the primary mode of transportation for long-haul journeys. This is known for its capacity to move large volumes of cargo over extensive distances, making it a cost-effective option.


Containers are transported by trucks between various locations, such as ports, terminals, or warehouses, for local or last-mile delivery. This mode provides flexibility and accessibility, particularly for destinations that may not have direct rail or waterway connections.


Ship intermodal involves transportation of containers by sea or inland waterways using large cargo vessels, such as container ships or barges. Ship intermodal is commonly used for long-distance or international transportation, offering a cost-effective for goods that do not have time-sensitive delivery requirements.


Air intermodal integrates air transportation into the intermodal logistics chain. Air intermodal is typically utilized for urgent or high-value shipments that require expedited delivery across long distances.


While less common in traditional intermodal shipping, pipeline transportation is when pipelines are used to transport certain types of goods, such as liquids or gas, over vast distances.

Intermodal transportation example

Origin pickup:

The retailer prepares your package and arranges for a truck to pick it up from their warehouse.


The truck transports the package from the retailer’s warehouse to a nearby intermodal terminal.


At the intermodal terminal, the package is loaded onto a train, which will transport it across the country to a rail terminal closer to your area.


Upon reaching the rail terminal, the package is unloaded from the train and loaded onto a delivery truck.

Final delivery:

The truck delivers the package to your doorstep.

Intermodal vs multimodal transportation

Intermodal transportation involves use of multiple modes of transportation, such as trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes, to move goods from their origin to their destination. It revolves around seamless interchangeability of standardized containers between different modes, reducing the need for unpacking and repacking. On the other hand, multimodal transportation refers to the use of multiple modes of transportation within a single shipment, where each mode is responsible for a specific stage or step of the shipping journey. Unlike intermodal transportation, multimodal transportation does not necessarily involve use of standardized containers. Goods may be loaded directly onto different modes of transport, using appropriate packaging and handling methods. It aims to provide a comprehensive and integrated logistics solution, utilizing the most efficient modes for each segment of the journey.

Intermodal vs transloading

While intermodal emphasizes seamless interchangeability of standardized containers between different modes, transloading, on the other hand, refers to the process of transferring goods from one mode of transportation to another. It occurs at designated transfer points, such as rail yards, ports, or warehouses. Transloading is used when the initial mode of transportation is unable to directly reach the destination.

By using different modes such as trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes, intermodal shipping optimizes logistics operations. Today, there are many e-commerce programs that provide the latest tools and products for hassle-free logistics not just in India but across the world. By using these, exporters and sellers can reduce their responsibility on shipping and focus on business operations and expansion.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who should use intermodal?
Intermodal is ideal for businesses and individuals seeking cost-effective transportation solutions that combine different modes (e.g., rail, truck, ship) for long-distance shipping.
What products can you ship using intermodal?
Intermodal can handle a wide range of products, including bulk goods, consumer goods, electronics, and more.
Does intermodal provide shipment visibility?
Yes, intermodal provides shipment visibility through tracking systems, allowing real-time monitoring of cargo location and status.
What are the risks of intermodal freight?
Risks of intermodal freight include delays, damages, theft, regulatory compliance challenges, and potential disruptions due to weather or infrastructure issues.
What are the latest intermodal shipping trends?
The latest trends in intermodal shipping include increased digitization, sustainable practices, and use of specialized equipment for efficient handling.
Published on May 29, 2023.


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