Intermodal vs. Multimodal: What Are The Differences?

Intermodal vs. Multimodal: What Are The Differences?

When you are looking to move freight most efficiently, you will likely come across the terms intermodal and multimodal. The terms are similar, but the differences can be meaningful to shippers and professionals within the logistics industry. Like many people, you may find yourself wondering what is intermodal vs multimodal? Read this guide to learn everything you need to know about multimodal and intermodal transportation. 

What is intermodal transportation?

Intermodal transportation is the movement of freight utilizing more than one method of transportation. More than one method of transportation is needed to ensure the transit is as efficient and expeditious as possible. Intermodal transportation involves methods such as rail, road, ocean, and air transport.  

Let’s hypothesize that you need to ship a large amount of goods to a destination on a different continent. In this case, your freight likely needs to travel by truck to a rail yard, by train to the shipping port, and by ship to the port on the other continent. From there, the freight will likely travel by rail for most of the journey and then by truck to the final destination. 

In intermodal transportation, each leg of the journey is operated by a different carrier, and each carrier requires a separate contract. In the example described above, you would need at least five carriers each with their own contract. 

What is multimodal transportation?

Multimodal transportation is the movement of freight utilizing more than one method of transportation. In multimodal transportation, all of the methods of transportation involved in a shipment are encompassed by a single, unified Bill of Lading or with one carrier as the single responsible party for all of the methods of transportation in the shipment.

Some carriers are equipped to provide road, air, rail, and ocean transport. These are multimodal carriers. If you work with a multimodal carrier, your cargo can travel via multiple methods of transportation under a single contract. In the example described above, all five of the legs of the journey would only need one contract. However, you do not have to work with a multimodal carrier to access a multimodal transportation solution. Another way to utilize multimodal transportation is through an agent who holds and manages a singular shipping contract for the entire freight journey. 

Key Differences Between Intermodal vs Multimodal

The easiest way to differentiate between multimodal and intermodal is by the contract, but there is a lot more to it than that. If you are trying to determine the best way to ship your goods, it is important to understand all the ways in which intermodal and multimodal differ. 

Number of Contracts

With intermodal transportation, a separate contract is required for each leg of the journey. This could mean that for one shipment, a shipper has to manage at least 2 and typically many more contracts. For multimodal transportation, a single contract can cover all of the legs of the journey. 

Type of Contract

With intermodal transportation, each contract covers a single leg of the journey and the terms and conditions set between the shipper and one carrier. With multimodal transportation, the single contract may be held between the shipper and an agent or the shipper and a carrier. Either way, the contract will detail all of the methods of transportation required for the entire freight journey. 

Number of Transportation Providers

For intermodal transportation, there are at least two carriers involved in the transportation of a load. For multimodal transportation, there is either one carrier or one agent who provides transportation services to the shipper. 

Distribution of Responsibility

When a shipper moves goods with intermodal transportation, the transportation responsibilities lie with multiple carriers. The carriers do not share the responsibility simultaneously. Instead, the carriers are responsible for the freight while it is in their possession. When a shipper moves goods using multimodal transportation, the agent or carrier is responsible for the goods throughout the entire shipment process. 

Communication Requirements

When freight is moved with intermodal transportation, shippers need to communicate with two or more carriers. When freight is moved with multimodal transportation, shippers only need to communicate with the agent or carrier who is providing all of the transportation services. 


With intermodal transportation, shippers have the flexibility to plan specialized handling of loading and unloading at different ports and rail yards. Additionally, shippers can be selective about which carriers move their cargo for specific legs of the journey. With multimodal transportation, the shipper trusts the logistics to an agent or a single carrier who handles the entire cargo journey. 

To learn more about multimodal, intermodal, and the logistics industry, visit First Star Logistics today.