Benefits of Intermodal Transportation


Shippers are turning to intermodal transport for their freight because of intermodal’s advantages in today’s turbulent freight market. Some shippers locate or relocate their distribution center (DC) sites near railways for accessible, affordable access to intermodal transportation.

What is intermodal transportation?

According to Portland State University, “Intermodal freight transport is a system for transporting goods, particularly over long distances and across international borders, which uses a combination of two or more individual modes. For example, two modes used together could be road haulage and rail freight, or road haulage and inland waterway barge, to achieve the most economical, efficient and environmentally-friendly delivery offloads to their destination.” In simple terms, intermodal freight is the transportation of freight using multiple modes.

What are the benefits of intermodal transportation for your business?

Intermodal freight transport provides organizations with flexible options in their supply chain as they move their goods from the source to the customer. Intermodal freight transportation is beginning to be integrated more frequently into the supply chain strategy in today’s ever-changing transportation market. It allows the optimization of trade-offs among the components of supply chains and the service and cost aspects of transportation. Intermodal lets you reduce shipping costs and works perfectly for long-distance moves. Also, if your goods are low or medium-valued, intermodal will be a beneficial and cost-efficient solution. Intermodal freight transportation can increase a company’s bottom line by providing significant savings over traditional over-the-road trucking.

Types of freight transportation

Choosing the best transportation mode is crucial to decrease the time and cost of moving freight between a shipper and a point of purchase. Below is a list of pros and cons of the modes PLS Logistics has to offer:


The most basic and historical transportation mode has various pros and cons. First, road transportation or “over the road” (OTR) transportation is broad, with a flexible road network enabling point-to-point service and connecting specific activities. This mode allows for two types of transport depending on the load size – full truckload (FTL) and less-than-truckload (LTL). There are relatively small capital costs, especially short distances, with quick implementation of new technologies into industry infrastructure. Third, this mode of transportation is competitive, creating low prices and many carrier options. Lastly, the high speed of vehicles enables same- or next-day delivery options for shippers!

On the other hand, road transportation is noisy and increases environmental pollution. Unfortunately, there is still a driver shortage in the trucking industry, creating stressful working conditions for drivers and delivery delays. There is limited capacity due to size and weight restrictions imposed by the government and technical limits. The probability of freight damage due to careless transportation depends significantly on each carrier/driver’s liability


Railroad transportation is ideal for bulky low-cost freight and shipments with plenty of time for long-distance transportation. It is environmentally friendly (compared to other modes) and the safest form of transport, highly protected from lousy weather impact. Moreover, railroad transportation is on a strict schedule with minor congestion probability, with cost-effective long-distance routes.

There is a lack of flexibility in railroad transportation due to limited routes that cannot change quickly. This mode does not provide door-to-door delivery, requiring intermediate loading and unloading that costs time and labor. There is a lack of competition and monopoly ownership due to creating construction and maintenance costs.


The air transportation mode is the most expensive and is the best option for a quick 24-hour or 48-hour delivery. Air mode has a slight possibility of freight damage due to airport handling and storing regulations. It is ideal for perishable goods with strict expiration dates.

The capacity in air mode is small, with additional costs caused by loading/unloading, handling, airport taxes, and intermediate delivery, resulting in high transportation costs. Due to customs, security, or capacity restrictions, it is unsuitable for most bulky and heavy freight types. Air mode is on strict, limited routes and timetables.


Ocean transportation is effective for large freight amounts of non-perishable goods and enterprises near cities with water access. Ocean mode is less expensive than other modes, especially for bulky, large cargo volumes. The cost doesn’t fluctuate greatly depending on the size and shape of the cargo. High cargo capacity lets shippers spread costs among other numerous shippers.

On the other hand, ocean transportation has inflexible routes and timetables. It is prolonged and not suitable for perishable goods or fast delivery. It has a limited number of ports. It might have possible delays due to bad weather or port congestion.


Intermodal transportation can be adequate for many types of large shipments. It is secure, with quick delivery, thanks to standard container usage for all transportation modes. It combines the benefits of different transportation modes to create the most suitable solution for a specific kind of freight and delivery. Using intermodal transportation also reduces air pollution and transportation costs.

However, there can be a greater chance of delays than in other modes due to factors from each mode and loading/unloading setbacks. It is best for shipments that are not time-sensitive. Therefore, it is unsuitable for small loads and cannot provide consistent service levels. Sometimes, dock dues can be applied, increasing the total cost of transportation.

How to make intermodal transportation successful

The Railroad & Rail Schedule 

The critical infrastructure to successful intermodal service is the location of the ramps. If you are using rail transportation in your intermodal shipment, specialized equipment is required to lift containers and trailers onto and off the railcars. In addition, the system requires special gate control procedures, container inspections, storage areas for chasses and containers, and other facilities that are not typically available at a general-purpose rail yard.

Railroads develop scheduled train services between modes. As a result, the trains run as units with no stops between the origin and destination. This prioritization allows intermodal traffic to be more predictable and faster than traditional carload rail service.

Utilizing Dryman

A drayman is a specialized motor carrier that does the short haul between the ramp and the loader or unloader. The drayman could work directly for a carrier coordinating the load or he could be a contractor for an Intermodal Marketing Company (IMC). The dray company may own their own chasses (the trailer framework used to haul the container), or they may draw these from a pool at the ramp.

Understanding Containers

A drayman is a specialized motor carrier that does the short haul between the ramp and the loader or unloader. The drayman could work directly for a carrier coordinating the load or be a contractor for an Intermodal Marketing Company (IMC). The dray company may own their chasses (the trailer framework used to haul the container) or draw them from a pool at the ramp.

Intermodal containers can be stacked, allowing them to be more rigid than other modes’ containers. However, it is good to understand mode-specific containers. Many shippers that transport high freight volumes have invested in their containers. Logistics companies also control some domestic containers. Railroad-controlled pools own other containers. It is good to be prepared whether your load comes with a container, or your company must provide one. You must understand that if you rely on a carrier’s container to load at your origin, the shipper depends on a flow of containers from that shipping line into the region. Backhauls are an opportunity, as with other transportation, with a solid inbound flow. But the opposite is true when a container needs to be moved empty miles to get loaded.


A transportation management system (TMS) is a great way to ensure your intermodal transportation is successful. With a TMS, you will have tracking capabilities for supply chain visibility. It will highlight the carriers available and allow you to optimize your load by cost and service levels. A TMS will provide you with real-time data, making your intermodal successful.

Working with an experienced 3PL

Working with an experienced third-party logistics (3PL) provider can ensure a safe and organized shipment using intermodal transportation. A 3PL has the technology needed to make all intermodal transportation successful. By partnering with a 3PL like PLS Logistics Services, we provide you with our TMS, PLS Pro. Our TMS is fully customizable to your company’s needs, allowing you to control, design, and fine-tune your transportation. PLS Pro provides accurate rates, billing, and contact information using real-time data.

Contact us to request a freight quote today to learn more about freight transportation and how PLS Logistics can help your company utilize intermodal methods.

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