More Glossary Terms


What is intermodal?

Intermodal applies to freight or equipment that is suitable for transportation through more than one type of carrier or transportation mode, such as truck and trail, or truck, ship and rail.

What is intermodal transportation?

By intermodal definition of using two or more transportation modes, intermodal transportation moves freight in an intermodal container often using a combination of truck, rail, ocean-going vessel or plane. Only the intermodal container, not the freight itself, is handled when changing modes. Benefits of intermodal transportation can reduce cargo handling, improve security, reduce damage and loss, and facilitate faster freight movements. 

Intermodal transportation in international freight movements is common. It utilizes a combination of ocean vessel and truck or rail. Moving inland, domestic intermodal typically combines movements between over-the-road and rail transportation. Transportation strategies diversified to include domestic intermodal transport often access additional shipping capacity and reduce reliance on the truckload market.

What is an intermodal container?

An intermodal container or shipping container is a large standardized container that often adheres to International Organization for Standardization (ISO) dimension guidelines. Cargo transported from overseas arrives at port in 20- and 40-foot international containers. Instead of shifting cargo to new containers for each move, these intermodal containers allow freight to remain in the same container when transferred between transportation modes.

How does intermodal transportation work?

International intermodal typically relies on a combination of ship, rail and truck. Domestic intermodal usually relies on a combination of intermodal trucking and rail. The international process can begin (or end) with an ocean vessel at port.

  • The managing transportation company offloads intermodal containers from ships, loading them onto a truck chassis.
  • A drayage move shifts the container to a nearby intermodal ramp, warehouse, cross-dock facility, rail yard or other modal station. Over-the-road trucks may also move the container direct to its destination.
  • Containers delivered to a rail yard may be lifted from the truck chassis, loaded onto a flatbed railcar, then moved through the rail network to destination cities.
  • Containers moved to a warehouse, cross dock or destination city may be unloaded, transferred into traditional 53-foot road transportation containers or processed for distribution and future transportation, including final mile delivery.

Once cargo is removed from an intermodal container, it returns to use. Loaded again or empty, it can be transported back to port and moved overseas in a return voyage. The global inventory of intermodal containers often balances delicately between those that are in use, in process, empty and/or in port storage. A shortage of containers or the chassis needed to move them can impede the transportation flow of raw materials, component parts and finished goods.

What is intermodal trucking?

Intermodal trucking is used for a freight load that is moved by two or more modes of transportation, such as rail, ocean, air, or truck. Intermodal trucking applies to the road movement of an intermodal shipment.

Drayage is an intermodal trucking move. It may shift an intermodal container from port to a cross-dock, intermodal ramp, rail yard, warehouse, or distribution center. Likewise, a shipper may coordinate a container’s drayage move from its facility to a rail yard, where it is moved within the rail network or toward port and ocean transportation.

Within a warehouse or distribution center, the intermodal shipment can be deconsolidated and sent on another trucking move through less-than-truckload carriers that move smaller quantities for final mile delivery.

Optimize your intermodal transportation operations today.

What are benefits of intermodal?

Intermodal can reduce cargo handling, improve security, reduce damage and loss. It can facilitate faster freight movements, too. Other benefits of intermodal transportation can include:

  • Sustainability: Reduced diesel gas consumption, fewer trucking miles and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Trains emit less carbon dioxide per 100 ton-miles than trucks.
  • Cost control: Domestic intermodal moves by rail are often more predictable and cost-effective than over-the-road. Added flexibility for loading and unloading in a drop trailer environment reduces handling costs.
  • Security: Freight isn’t handled once it is inside a container, reducing the chances of damage or theft. Containers moving by rail are more difficult to access and are never left alone, making theft even more difficult.
  • Capacity: Intermodal can supplement truckload capacity, especially in heavy volume lanes, and increase opportunities for reverse logistics.
How does MercuryGate support intermodal?

MercuryGate offers our customers a single transportation management platform that allows them to optimize entire networks of containers, transload sites, rail carts, drayage sites and intermodal ramps. MercuryGate TMS provides an end-to-end rail transportation management solution. It also empowers users to manage sophisticated data requirements, capacity, schedule synchronization, and rapid communication tools required for multi-leg intermodal transportation shipments.

MercuryGate TMS differentiators for intermodal include:

  • Next generation cloud-based solution.
  • Single system for all modes.
  • Decision support for least-cost provider analysis.
  • Seamless third-party integrations.
  • Extensive range of options to locate rail, truck, and other equipment.
  • Built-in best practice workflows and exception management.

To begin optimizing your intermodal operations today, learn more about our multimodal management solutions.

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