Home » Freight Shipping Blog » Freight How-To's » What is Intermodal Freight Shipping?

What is Intermodal Freight Shipping?

Freight shipping is used to transport goods from one place to another. Although each mode of transportation has its benefits, the goal is the same: move goods between two locations.

You likely already know about the three basic types of freight shipping: ground, air, and sea freight shipping.

But what if you need to transport something over land and sea, not only in the same country but across several?

Intermodal freight shipping is just the thing for that! 

Let's examine what it means, how it works, and how you can leverage its use today.

What is Intermodal Freight Shipping?

Intermodal freight shipping is a way to move goods that involves multiple modes of transportation instead of one carrier, whether that's a group of trucks, trains, or container ships.

Intermodal freight shipping involves different modes of transportation being used to ship goods from one place to another. 

Because intermodal freight shipments are transported in containers that comply with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) dimension guidelines, they can use one shipping container throughout the entire shipment.

These intermodal containers come into three standard sizes: a 20- or 40-foot long container for international shipments and a 53-foot container for domestic shipments. 

This means goods don't have to be moved into a new container when transferring between different modes of transportation, rather the same container is used throughout the entire shipment, minimizing the chances of damage and keeping your freight shipping costs low.

The streamlined process saves time and money, while also lessening the risk for errors.

It's also important to understand the distinction between intermodal shipping and multimodal shipping. For instance, if you wish to use multimodal trucking to move goods, you only have to draw up one contract.

For intermodal trucking, however, multiple contracts are required as you'll be dealing with several carriers. 

The same goes for multimodal and intermodal rail shipping.

We provide a closer look at what intermodal shipping involves below:

How Intermodal Shipping Works

Intermodal freight shipping works just like sea or land transportation does except that it uses multiple modes of transportation.

For example, once the container has been loaded onto a truck, the truck will make its way to the port. At the port, the container is then lifted from the truck chassis and placed on a flatbed or well car until it gets to its destination.

When it arrives at its final location, it's again lifted off the flatbed or well car and placed back on a truck chassis so that it can be driven to its final destination.

In most cases, however, sea freight is used only for international shipments. For domestic intermodal shipments, the process generally involves trains and trucks.

It begins by loading the products in a container on a truck chassis. The truck will then haul the container to an intermodal ramp, which is usually just a short distance away from the location.

This process is called “drayage” because it involves transporting containers from where they're located to a designated space for loading onto a train.

From the intermodal ramp, the container is lifted off the chassis and placed on a flat car or well car so it can ship by train.

When the container has reached its destination, it's again lifted off the train and placed back onto a truck for final delivery to the distribution center before heading to the customer's doorstep.

Having drivers on both ends of the journey---from the manufacturing facility to the railroad and from the railroad to the distribution or fulfillment center---makes it easier to coordinate intermodal deliveries and keep records of where the freight is throughout a shipment. 

Pros & Cons of Intermodal Freight Shipping

While intermodal freight shipping provides many benefits, it won't always be the best choice for your business.

Let's go over a few of the pros and cons of intermodal freight shipping to help determine if it's a good fit for you or your company. 


  • Decreased cargo handling- Intermodal shipments can use one container throughout the entire shipment, minimizing the chances of damage and keeping your freight shipping costs low. 
  • Smoother transfers- The streamlined process saves time and money, while also lessening the risk for errors. 
  • More eco-friendly- The reuse of containers reduces fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and roadway congestion. For instance, a 100-truckload intermodal shipment from Los Angeles to Chicago 
  • Cheaper and more fuel-efficient- Intermodal shipping takes advantage of U.S. freight railroad's ability to transport one ton for 470 miles for every gallon of fuel it uses; the cheapest and most efficient way to move freight. Intermodal shipping means that the longest portions of your cargo's journey by truck will be on city streets or along highways, not on the open road.
  • Reliable shipping times- Although intermodal shipments typically take one day longer than truckloads, delays are less likely to occur due to the regularity of rail schedules.


  • Infrastructure costs- Intermodal shipping requires a substantial investment in infrastructure. This includes improvements to waterways, ports, and highways as well as the installation of rail and road access at seaports. Heavy-duty cranes are also needed to lift containers during transfer between ship, rail, and truck.
  • Inflexible cargo space- There is less potential for variability with intermodal shipping than other types of shipments since containers are limited to standard sizes; this can be inconvenient if your business needs a certain type of shipping container for a shipment that is outside the standard size range.
  • Longer shipping times- Intermodal shipments take, on average, one day longer than truckload shipments. 

Now that you have a better idea of what intermodal freight shipping is best for and its potential drawbacks, you can make a better decision on whether or not it's right for your company.

See how much time and money you'll save by having our pros help manage your freight.