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intermodal freight transportation

Advantages and Disadvantages of Intermodal Freight Transportation

Nathan McGuire
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October 7, 2021
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Advantages and Disadvantages of Intermodal Freight Transportation
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Intermodal freight transportation continues to be overlooked when it comes to freight and logistic strategies due to shippers not fully understanding the benefits and drawbacks of the service. Utilizing an intermodal shipping and logistics provider can help shippers gain a better grasp of the impact intermodal services can make on supply chain deliveries. 

What Is Intermodal Freight?

Intermodal freight transportation consists of products transported in a container by a variety of different modes of transportation. For intermodal transportation, containers must meet the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) dimension guidelines allowing freight to remain in the same container between the modes. Intermodal freight has differences from multimodal transportation. Intermodal has multiple contracts with different carriers, whereas multimodal uses one contract. Over the next few years, intermodal freight transportation is expected to grow due to the cost advantages for shippers.

Advantages of Intermodal Freight Transportation

Intermodal can provide shipping benefits across a variety of different and vital core transportation concerns. The advantages of intermodal transportation include the following.

Cost Reductions

Combining the operational benefits of both rail and truckload produces a pricing advantage and greater efficiencies. By using rail for the long haul segment and truck for the dray moves, a shipper benefits from increased flexibility, improved service, and lower costs. The less drayage associated with a freight lane, the more competitive the intermodal rate is against a truck rate. 

Big Capacity

Intermodal can provide plenty of truckload solutions for a shipper’s needs very rapidly due to the operational flow. Drayage usually stays lower than 100 miles, allowing one driver to turn several times on multiple loads to the intermodal ramp. Compared to the truckload where a driver has 2,000 to 3,000 miles before a new load, this allows for more turnaround time. That can be a benefit as driver shortages continue to cause issues.


Intermodal freight transportation can provide more visibility, a fact that frequently gets overlooked due to the misconception that visibility subsides once a container has been loaded on a train. However, each container is scanned as it enters an intermodal ramp during the loading process and is placed on the train’s railcar. Tracking will occur from the origin-to-destination intermodal ramps and must be reviewed again during the outgate process. 


Intermodal transportation provides a safe and secure method that eliminates the excess handling of freight during transportation. Reducing the amount of handling needed with the cargo can reduce damages and losses while increasing security at terminals, rail tracks, and ramps.

Environmentally Friendly

When considering the environmental impact of intermodal freight transportation, the value is most evident in the purview of sustainability. According to Investopedia, “Intermodal transportation is eco-friendly. Rail transportation is more efficient. According to Inbound Logistics, rail can move one ton of freight almost 450 miles on one gallon of fuel. This fuel efficiency creates less greenhouse gas and carbon pollution as goods are shipped from coast to coast.

Best Choice for High-Value Products

For high-value products, standard CORGI liability coverage is up to $250,000 through most intermodal transportation. Additionally, the carrier does not need to stop once under the load with a few dray miles, giving potential thieves less opportunity to intercept. 

Disadvantages of Intermodal Freight Transportation

Despite how enticing the advantages seem, intermodal also has some disadvantages that shippers should know. The drawbacks of intermodal include the following.

Intermodal Transits

Intermodal transportation does require more planning by shippers due to transit being slower than a typical truckload. In addition, intermodal shipments typically are truck plus a day. When a shipment requires two railroads in use, a shipper can expect the shipment time of the truck plus two or three days.

Blocking and Bracing Requirements

Shippers often find the blocking and bracing requirements to be difficult, time-consuming, and the expense is more than savings. Intermodal containers often experience harmonic vibrations. Such vibrations can move the contents of a shipment horizontally and vertically within the container. 

Not Every Commodity Can Be Shipped Via Intermodal

Intermodal has commodities that can be restricted or even prohibited; prohibited products can travel via the rail infrastructure without any exception. The shipper must sign an agreement with the railroad that outlines the requirements and cargo liability coverage. Restricted commodities will have a cargo liability coverage more diminutive than the standard $250,000.


An intermodal shipment has a load max of 42,500 pounds; the combination of an intermodal container and the chassis is heavier than an over-the-road trailer. The chassis or container is lighter for some trucks but may not allow a shipper to load the same weight as a truckload shipment.

Limited Origin and Destination ZIP Code Pairing

Intermodal freight transportation cannot provide a solution for every possible origin and destination ZIP code pairing. This is due to a finite number of intermodal railroad ramps and dray typically 100 miles within the respective ramp. 

Not the Best Option for Small Shipments

Intermodal can cause hassle for smaller shipments due to the volume required to obtain contractual pricing. Contractual pricing that guarantees pricing and capacity for a year requires at least three loads a week on the freight lane. 

Limited Market Provider

When a shipper requires rates, the IMC must call the BCO to the railroads of the quoting for the business. A railroad does not want to compete against itself on pricing, so it will check to ensure no business has been requested through another IMC by the named BCO.

Gain More Control Over Intermodal Freight Transportation

Looking at the supply chain and the needs within it, FreightWaves states, “A tactical supply chain relies on data and facts to guide all activities. That includes onboarding new lanes, expanding into new order fulfillment centers, considering the overall needs of fleet management, and recognizing when existing operations fall short.” To see how intermodal transportation can help your business advance its supply chain capabilities, speak to an expert at Wicker Park Logistics today!

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