What Is Intermodal Trucking? Your Complete Guide

April 22, 2020

What Is Intermodal Trucking? Your Complete Guide

Logistics makes the world go ’round, right? When people use the term “world of logistics,” they truly mean worldwide. More than ever, the shipment of goods and product truly involves a worldwide supply chain. How exactly does freight travel from one side of the planet to the other?

If logistics were a family tree, then there would be many branches that reached nearly every corner of existence. But in general, the worldwide supply chain involves four main modes of shipping transportation:

  1. Rail
  2. Over the road (OTR)
  3. Sea
  4. Air

The term “intermodal freight transport” means a shipment that uses more than one of these forms of transport. The four main modes of shipment intersect at another, niche branch of transportation called intermodal trucking.

Today, let’s look at the niche of intermodal trucking. Let’s determine what it involves, what the pros and cons are, and why intermodal trucking is vital to the logistics industry.

You’ll learn about the leading intermodal trucking companies, intermodal trucking jobs, and intermodal trucking rates. Time to get loaded up with information!

Intermodal Freight Transport vs. Intermodal Trucking

What is intermodal freight transport? It means you have a load of freight being transported by two of more modes of transportation: rail, ocean, air, or truck.

The definition of intermodal trucking is the trucking involved with an intermodal shipment, sometimes known as drayage. To put it another way, intermodal trucking handles the first and last mile of a load of freight that has been shipped by rail, ocean, or air.

An Example of Drayage

Here’s a common example of intermodal trucking, or drayage. Say a shipper wants to ship a load from its manufacturing facility in Texas to a distribution center in California. The shipper compares rates and finds that it’s cheaper to ship the load by rail. That presents the following question: How does the freight get from the manufacturing plant to the rail yard? The answer is intermodal trucking.

Then, there’s a similar question asked on the back end of the load: How does the freight get from the rail yard to the distribution center? Again, the answer is intermodal trucking.

Let’s take this example one step further and say the freight is actually food goods. That would mean the DC (distribution center) is actually a facility with outbound less-than-truckload shipments to Los Angeles-area grocery chains. Thus you can see how intermodal trucking is the glue that binds together the various forms of intermodal freight. To put it another way, intermodal trucking is a crucial piece of the logistics pie!

Intermodal Trucking and Ocean Freight

Here’s another example of intermodal trucking. Say there’s a container of T-shirts shipping from China. It arrives by ocean vessel at a major West Coast seaport. Once it’s at the port, a massive crane picks up the container of T-shirts off the ship and places it onto a flatbed trailer. A truck hooks up to it and then hauls that trailer and container to its destination. That is intermodal trucking in a nutshell.

That destination could be an intermediary stop like a cross-dock, or it could be the final destination. It all depends on the requirements of the load.

Perhaps you’ve seen an enormous ship stacked high with containers? Note how everything stacks together on the deck of this ocean liner, like Legos. Container sizes are standardized.

All containers must meet certain International Organization for Standardization (ISO) specifications. In other words, all containers must meet the same specs worldwide. This is what allows multiple containers to fit in neat stacks on top of each other. Containers also stack nicely on top of railroad cars and on OTR trailers that trucks haul.

Standard ISO Sizes

The most common standard ISO shipping containers are:

  • 8 feet wide
  • 40 feet long
  • 8.5 feet high

An estimated 70% of worldwide container freight moves in these standard 40-foot containers. That said, 20-foot containers are also common, as well as 9.5-foot “high cubes,” and longer containers reaching 45, 48, and 53 feet.

Accordingly, 53-foot containers make sense. That’s the length of standard, over-the-road, dry van trailers. Refrigerated (or reefer) containers exist as well—not to mention a variety of oddball sizes. In general, just remember that pretty much any freight that ships on a regular or reefer trailer can also ship in an intermodal container.

Here’s a tip for identifying containers out on the road. Perhaps you’ve found yourself sitting in traffic wondering which trucks around you are hauling containers and which are normal reefer or dry vans? Trailers hauling a container have flat bottoms, while OTR dry vans and reefers often have arched trailer beds. Also, the side walls of containers look corrugated.

Now that you have a general understanding of what intermodal freight is, let’s review its pros and cons.

Pros of Intermodal Freight and Trucking

Intermodal freight and trucking have many positive qualities, mostly centered on cost. Ocean liners and railroads are a good way to move large volume of freight for a relatively cheap price. All in all, a ship or locomotive can move hundreds or thousands of containers. On the other hand, a truck can move only one. Compared to OTR trucking, moving freight this way can save a lot of fuel.

In turn, those savings tend to get passed on to the shipper. In general, intermodal containers are reusable, versatile, and a great way to ship freight.

Carriers that haul intermodal freight have a different set of pros. Intermodal trucking companies can save on fuel and repair while avoiding wear and tear on their equipment and being paid similar amounts for hauling freight. But other benefits of intermodal freight also can’t be denied. People consider intermodal to be a safe way to ship freight because nobody handles the freight once it’s inside the container. This limits the threat of damage or theft.

Home Cooking

Due to the local nature of drayage or intermodal, truck drivers aren’t sleeping in their cabs much. Many intermodal runs are local route short-hauls between the rail yard or ship yard and local warehouses. Instead, they typically get to sleep in their own beds every night and eat a home-cooked meal. That’s a perk, but it brings up another key point about scheduling.

Firm appointments save time. Major railroads are more organized than your average dry freight warehouses. Many times in OTR, appointments are not rock solid. On the other hand, many railroads provide live tracking for specific containers through their website and apps. When your container is ready for pickup, it’s ready. That use of technology eliminates a lot of guesswork and wasted time from intermodal trucking.

In general, you could list the pros of intermodal trucking as:

  1. Carriers save fuel.
  2. Carriers avoid wear and tear on equipment.
  3. Drivers usually sleep at home.
  4. Pickup appointments at railroads are more likely to happen on time than pickup appointments at warehouses, saving time and stress.
  5. It’s a safe way to ship freight.

Cons of Intermodal Freight and Trucking

On the other hand, a list of cons for intermodal trucking looks like this:

  1. Shippers face a longer wait for deliveries.
  2. Registration process with the FMCSA.
  3. Potential headaches getting in and out of yards.
  4. No simple drop-and-hooks.
  5. Managing additional paperwork.

One nuance of intermodal freight is dealing with the ports and rail yards. First of all, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires carriers to register as intermodal equipment providers. Second, a driver on the front end of an intermodal load must pick up an empty container. Next, the driver heads back out to a warehouse in order to get loaded. After that, the driver returns to the rail yard to make the delivery. The whole process of entry and reentry can be a major headache, especially if there are issues with traffic.

There are other downsides to intermodal as well. Notably, intermodal freight takes much longer than simple OTR. Also, the additional elements of complexity involved with intermodal can lead to additional paperwork.

Dealing With Paperwork

Paperwork is like the raw material of getting paid in the freight industry. Not to mention, the less paperwork there is—and the cleaner and more organized it is—the faster you get paid. Savvy carriers are beginning to recognize they can use technology to manage document scans, build load files, and even automate the billing process. Vector can streamline the processes currently bottlenecked by paperwork.

Companies Hiring for Intermodal Trucking Jobs

Drivers with young families may find the thought of staying close to home appealing. The big intermodal hubs include Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New Jersey, and Memphis. Check out who’s hiring in your area. Here are some links to the job boards for some of the biggest companies in intermodal trucking.


At the end of the day, the key to intermodal trucking is that the freight and the consignee both need to be within about a hundred miles of a rail hub. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work for a load. But when it does, you can really use the power of intermodal freight.

Don’t limit yourself to one mode of transport. Remember, your supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

This post was written by Brian Deines. Brian believes that every day is a referendum on a brand’s relevance, and he’s excited to bring that kind of thinking to the world of modern manufacturing and logistics. He deploys a full-stack of business development, sales, and marketing tools built through years of work in the logistics, packaging, and tier-1 part supply industries serving a customer base comprised of Fortune 1000 OEMs.

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