Intermodal Freight Transportation for Effective Delivery Services

Written by Danial Mikhail De Silva, DLSM

Intermodal transportation goes back to the 18th century and predates the railways. Some of the earliest containers were those used for shipping coal on the Bridgewater Canal in England in the 1780s. Coal containers (called “loose boxes” or “tubs”) were soon deployed on the early canals and railways and were used for road or rail transfers. Wooden coal containers used on railways go back to the 1830s on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. In 1841, Isambard Kingdom Brunel introduced iron containers to move coal from the vale of Neath to Swansea Docks.

By the outbreak of the First World War the Great Eastern Railway was using wooden containers to trans-ship passenger luggage between trains and sailings via the port of Harwich. The early 1900s saw the first adoption of covered containers, primarily for the movement of furniture and intermodal freight between road and rail. A lack of standards limited the value of this service and this in turn drove standar disation. In the U.S. such containers, known as “lift vans”, were in use from as early as 1911.

Intermodal Freight Transportation

Involves the transportation of freight in an intermodal container or vehicle, using multiple modes of transportation (e.g., rail, ship, and truck), without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. The method reduces cargo handling, and so improves security, reduces damage and loss, and allows freight to be transported faster. Reduced costs over road trucking is the key benefit for inter-continental use. This may be offset by reduced timings for road transport over shorter distances.

The diagram below shows the multimodal and intermodal network

multimodal and intermodal network

The diagram below shows the integrated freight transportation system

Transmodal operations

The diagram below shows the modal shift activities

modal shift

Intermodal Logistic Advantages

The advantages of intermodal transport attract more and more enterprises to integrate it into their logistical strategies. As a result, the intermodal traffic continues to grow. Seizing the opportunities of developing intermodal logistics, the enterprises are in a way of optimizing their supply chain structure to benefit both from the transport logistics services and from the improved performance of economic activities as a whole. Generally, intermodal logistics will benefit enterprises on the following aspects:

o Door-to-door transport is most attractive objective by the enterprises in their logistical organization and it is marked as one of the core characteristics of intermodal transport. The enterprises do not necessary care about what modes are used during the transport processes. Limited only to the doors of origin and destination, the procedures of logistical chains integration is dramatically simplified.

o Lowering transport cost is the desired objectives of the enterprises. With the integration of waterways and railways transport, the intermodal transport in freight corridors (medium or long distance) has lower transport costs than the road transport, giving the privileges to be integrated into enterprises’ supply-chain.

o Lowering environmental impacts are the requirements imposed on the transport and logistical service sector to reduce the society cost (external cost). Thus, intermodal transport is a solution to shift traffic from the heavy loaded road network to the environmental friendly modes (rails, waterways) without losing the conveniences for its users. The costs incurred by the congestion, pollution including the noise can be dramatically reduced through the implementation of intermodal logistics, which allows both the enterprises and the society to profit.

Supply Chain Ads

o Safety and reliability are the two important requirements of modern logistical services and they were translated as JIT logistics. Unified standards and coordinated operations will increase the reliability, avoiding the unbearable delays due to congestions. Transportation of dangerous cargo by waterways or railways might dramatically increase transport safety both for the enterprises and for the society.

o Value-added services are appreciated by the enterprises facilitating the integration of production/consumption procedures through optimal logistical chain management. These services might easily be realized in the intermodal hubs (ports, terminals, or platforms) by using the opportunities of modal transfer breaks of intermodal transport processes. The value-added services will create strategic, financial, and organizational advantages for the enterprises.

o Integrated Information Services provide the enterprises modern means to organize its logistics and integrate intermodal transport into their supply chain management. At present, the information services for intermodal transport have already been integrated into the ‘Intelligent Transport System’, which is a part of support system of ‘information society’. Through integrated information systems, enterprises can easily book transport services and get information about the status of their loading units directly via internet. The operational parameters can easily be exchanged between systems of different transport modes in convenience of the intermodal operators to optimally organize their transportation.

Bottlenecks and Eliminations

Recently intermodal transport is promoted and improved as transport mean for sustainable development, benefiting the transport sector and the whole socio-economic development. However, the system is not yet in a perfect status. There are barriers that hinder the full usage of intermodal transport capacity and full exploration of such potentials. In order to identify what the barriers are, a method, namely ‘Modal Scan’, is introduced in the study.

‘Modal Scan’ is a method of analyzing the modal choices of an enterprise’s logistical processes, discovering the modal shift barriers and quantifying intermodal potentials. It comprises the following steps:

(1) analyzation of logistics operations;
(2) selection of freight flows;
(3) analyzation of alternatives;
(4) recommendations of optimal solution;
(5) implementation.

Benefits of using Intermodal Transportation

o Lower Cost

Shippers can take advantage of lower rates, more predictable pricing, and the flexibility of loading and unloading goods in a dropped trailer environment, which reduces handling costs.

o Environmentally Friendly

Shipper can significantly reduce their carbon footprint by going intermodal, because trains only emit approximately 5.4 pounds of carbon dioxide per 100 ton-miles, whereas trucks emit approximately 19.8 pounds.

o Reliability, Capacity, and Safety Advantages

Shippers have more access to equipment and standardized transit schedules. As companies move their freight to intermodal, there is also the opportunity to streamline their reverse logistics, providing additional savings.

o Quality Service
Shipper have discovered that intermodal transportation is faster than OTR, as intermodal provides are increase train speed and reduce time for cars in the yard. Obviously, trains are on a fixed track and are less likely to be in an accident while carrying hazardous or highly combustible freight. This means fewer restrictions on loading, unloading, and carrying dangerous materials, which speeds up the shipping process. On a train, when container is 15 feet off the ground, making it difficult to reach. And, cars are spending less time in the yard, which keeps freight moving


Intermodal transport is a attractive solution to be integrated into the logistical strategies of enterprises. Making full use of intermodal transport will profit not only the enterprises but also the society as a whole. Considering the sustainable socio-economic benefits, development of intermodal transport can be regarded as a strategic measure to optimize existent transport system. Evolution of modern logistics introduces new concepts (such as JIT, QR, ECR, and value-added services), which require the adapted transport system to support themselves. The characteristics of intermodal transport can meet these needs, fundamentally soldering intermodal logistics. The advantages (door–to-door, transport cost, environmental impacts, reliability and safety, value-added services, advanced information services, etc.) of intermodal transport offer the enterprises the opportunities to build up an efficient, economic, and reliable logistical system to respond to the challenges of globalization and internationalization.


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About the Author: Danial Mikhail De Silva has substantive years of experience in logistics management, specifically in international freight and delivery operations. He is a member of the Singapore Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management (SIPMM). Danial completed the Diploma in Logistics and Supply Management (DLSM) on September 2019 at SIPMM Institute.