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Intermodal transportation is becoming more and more popular for a number of shippers. It is a process that involves two or more modes or carriers to move goods from the shipper to the receiver. It can include full truckload, less than truckload, rail and cargo ship or any combination. Shippers have increased their usage of intermodal transportation since the pandemic and ecommerce surge because it is often less expensive compared to over-the-road shipping as it is generally charged per load instead of per mile. 

However, the intermodal industry is seeing some of the same issues affecting the entire supply chain. Freight capacity remains very high, and it is causing congestion at shipping and inland rail ports, making deliveries take longer than they would in “normal” conditions. The drayage sector is also affected by the driver shortage that has negatively impacted the entire trucking industry. Additionally, as reported by the Journal of Commerce, there is a shortage of containers and chassis at major intermodal markets because of the high amount of freight. 

Therefore, shippers need to weigh the benefits versus the challenges when deciding to ship intermodal or not.

When to Use Intermodal Transportation

Long-distance freight. Shipments that need to travel at least 750 miles across the country can often do so at a cheaper rate by rail rather than truck, but only if the origin and destination are within a few hundred miles of a major rail port. It will save the company on fuel charges because they will only need a truck for the last-mile delivery from rail transit to final destination. If the shipper can utilize LTL for the last-mile portion, they may be able to save even more money on the transport. For shipments under 500 miles, companies can look into intermodal road transport options like combining LTL with drayage or parcel shipment.

Less valuable shipments. Of course, all freight is valuable, but there are some shipments that would be better off not traveling by rail. High-value goods should ship more direct by air or overnight trucking. Additionally, perishable and food items should also be careful shipping intermodal because of the required refrigeration. 

Consistent shipments. If you are frequently shipping the same type of freight in the same or similar quantities, your company could benefit from implementing a regular intermodal shipping schedule. This will give your company negotiating power.

Flexible freight. Any shipment that has flexibility in its delivery date is a good candidate for intermodal.  This transit method is often slower because of its multiple carriers that all must work together to deliver the goods. Additionally, there may be unexpected delays, so only ship intermodal if you can plan ahead and accommodate delays if they arise. 

Technology and Intermodal

When looking into intermodal transportation for your company’s freight, it is important to ensure that the needed technology is available. The intermodal model requires effective management and tracking of freight. Transportation management systems with integrated automation and visibility solutions are essential in ensuring the shipping process runs smoothly as they will be able to track freight from order to delivery. Additionally, the data that will result from the real-time tendering and tracking of shipments will help companies determine the best modes for moving their freight in the future.

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