What is Intermodal Trucking? Understanding a Foundational Transport Process

Intermodal trucking can be defined in a pretty simple way. When you think of intermodal trucking, think of shipping containers moved by tractor-trailers as part of the supply chain.

If a truck carries a shipping container to another mode of transportation or its final destination, that’s intermodal trucking.

That short definition is a good way to start understanding this topic. However, it leaves out a lot of important context about intermodal trucking and the larger intermodal freight transport process.

There’s a lot to cover for a more complete definition of intermodal trucking. That includes:

  • Intermodal transport as a general concept
  • The reasons why intermodal freight is such a popular and relied-upon shipping method
  • How different parts of intermodal shipping fit together into a reliable system
  • The role and responsibilities of intermodal truck drivers
  • The concept of drayage and how it fits into intermodal freight transport

Let’s take a deeper dive into the seemingly simple question of “what is intermodal trucking?” We’ll start with looking at intermodal freight transport to better understand this process as a whole.

What is Intermodal Transportation?

The US Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration has a simple definition of “intermodal.” The movement of a shipment between different types of transportation, as that shipment goes from its origin point to its destination.

An intermodal shipment is held within a standardized shipping container. These containers are foundational to the reliability of intermodal shipping.

What is an Intermodal Shipping Container?

If you want to understand intermodal trucking, the shipping container is a good place to start. This container distinguishes intermodal trucking from standard truckload shipping, where goods are loaded into the trailer of the truck.

When properly loaded and secured, a shipping container can hold nearly any kind of cargo. This makes it easy for sailors, truckers, port workers, and others to transport the cargo for the length of its journey.

Shipping container manufacturers use dimensions specified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). This ensures containers can fit onto the vehicles used to carry them. It also supports compatibility with the specialized equipment that moves the containers in ports, rail yards, and other locations.

The intermodal container was first envisioned by Malcolm McLean in the 1930s, The Maritime Executive reports. As a truck driver waiting to deliver bales of cotton at a pier, McLean had a sudden strike of inspiration. He realized it would be much easier to load a container onto a ship than to move the contents of a truckload.

McLean developed the first container ship and started making deliveries. In the years following, the US military adopted similar practices for transporting supplies. And that process eventually led to a revolution in transporting goods across the globe.

Although the dimensions are standardized by the ISO, shipping containers come in many sizes and configurations. Some of the most common include:

  • 20-foot containers: The 20-foot container is one of the most regularly used. It serves as the basis of the twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU), used to calculate shipping capacity.
  • 40-foot containers: The 40-foot container is also especially common. The additional length offers more storage space for cargo.
  • High-cube containers: Also called a hi-cube container, this model is taller than a standard container by one foot.
  • Refrigerated containers: Referred to as a reefer. This type of container can keep perishable items safe in terms of temperature and humidity for the length of the journey. That includes produce, medicines, chemicals, film, and much more.
  • Tank containers: Sometimes called tanktainers or ISO tanks. These containers combine a standard-sized container frame with a steel tank that can safely hold liquids and gasses.

Two intermodal container trucks travel down a highway bridge.

Types of Intermodal Shipping

An intermodal shipment might stay entirely within a single country. Or, it could move across thousands of miles of land and ocean before being unloaded. The ability to be reliably moved from one vehicle to another is a defining feature of intermodal freight transport.

To complete these journeys, companies generally move intermodal shipments with:

  • Ships: Container ships are designed specifically to carry intermodal containers from port to port, across seas and oceans. Container News said the single largest is the Ever Ace. This ship can carry approximately 24,000 TEU. It is about 1,300 feet long (roughly a quarter-mile in length!).
  • Trains: Trains regularly carry shipping containers over land. Double-stacking of containers, which boosts efficiency and lowers costs, emerged in the 1980s. Double-stack rail transport is now commonly used in the United States and abroad.
  • Trucks: An intermodal container truck hauls containers across highways and byways. They aren’t limited by water access and ports or rail lines and yards. That means these trucks can bring an intermodal container to many destinations.

Intermodal shipping centers on the transfer of containers between these modes of transportation. Along with the vehicles mentioned above, intermodal transport also requires equipment to move the containers between them. Container cranes, straddle carriers, large forklift trucks, and more help to transport these items.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Intermodal Shipments

The advantages of intermodal freight transport include:

  • Reduced handling of contents: Intermodal containers are intended to be sealed during transit. They stay closed and locked from when they first enter the supply chain until they exit it. That also means time and cost savings as well as a lower potential for theft.
  • Environmentally friendly: Rail transport of containers is especially fuel-efficient as compared to trucks, Investopedia explains. When trucks aren’t used for long-distance hauling of containers, these benefits begin to emerge.

Drawbacks include:

  • Longer total transit times: Switching between modes of transport can increase the total time needed for a shipment to arrive.
  • Limitations on goods: Intermodal containers are versatile, but they aren’t the best choice for all shipments. Certain hazardous materials are prohibited. A load that is too heavy or too light compared to container specifications may not be cost-effective. A truckload shipment or other solution can lead to better results.

What is Intermodal Trucking? 

It’s easier to understand intermodal trucking with a firm grasp of intermodal freight transport as a whole.

Intermodal trucking is one part of the larger intermodal shipping process and is crucial to its overall success.

The versatility container trucks offer is incredibly valuable. An intermodal container truck is often the only viable connection between a business and a port or railyard. For many businesses, there’s simply no other way to ship or receive a container.

A train moves intermodal containers along a railway.

What is Intermodal Truck Driving?

Intermodal truck driving is the process of bringing a shipping container to its next stop in the intermodal supply chain. This is one of many intermodal services a company may use. Businesses may also need to warehouse containers near a port or railyard, for example.

In some ways, driving an intermodal container truck is similar to operating other kinds of trucks. They’re all large vehicles. The driver’s goal is to safely and promptly deliver the cargo on their trailer’s chassis.

Intermodal truck driving stands out because of the relatively shorter trips that drivers tend to make. As one part of a larger transport process, intermodal trucks often complete the first or last step. Those trips may cover hundreds of miles, but it’s often a much smaller distance.

What is Regional or Intermodal in Truck Driving?

Regional trucking refers to truck drivers making deliveries in a relatively large but defined area. They don’t travel anywhere in the country or continent. That’s in contrast to over-the-road trucking, where long distances are the norm. 

Regional trucking is similar to intermodal trucking in that most deliveries occur in a single day. Some containers are delivered across long distances, but quicker trips are more common.

What is Drayage?

Drayage technically only refers to moving shipping containers from the ship within the shipyard, but more largely it can mean moving the containers by truck to nearby warehouses within the same metropolitan area for storage. 

Drayage, then, always extremely localized — and an incredibly important part of the shipping logistics and transport system. Unless your business can reliably receive containers, intermodal transport won’t support business success. Container trucks help to assist and complete the drayage process to keep your shipment moving toward your business or that of your customer.

What is an Intermodal Trucking Company?

It may not be surprising to learn that intermodal trucking companies specialize in intermodal trucking.

Iraheta Bros specializes in drayage and tucking container transportation at the Port of Oakland and delivery of shipping containers across California. We recognize that intermodal trucking is a specialized part of the supply chain that requires careful attention.

To that end, we offer an innovative transportation management system to track shipments. Our team focuses on high-quality service and offers a transparent billing process. Our experienced drivers know how to transport all common types of containers. They have access to the equipment needed to do exactly that.

Additionally, our team has in-depth knowledge of the Port of Oakland and a high level of skill in interfacing with the Port’s terminals. We specialize in food grade bookings and use an on-site steam clean facility to maintain refrigerated and frozen containers.

Work with Iraheta Bros – Request a Quote Today!

What is Intermodal Trucking? Understanding a Foundational Transport Process

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