Intermodal Trucking: A Simplified Guide

Nearly every product that you can see right now resulted from a complex series and web of logistics that involve the global supply chain. Raw materials, component parts, and finished products all need to travel. Any good that needs to travel will almost certainly spend time in a standardized shipping container. The global supply chain utilizes road, rail, sea, and air transportation methods to move shipping containers. Oftentimes, shipments use more than one form of transportation, for example: rail and air, or ocean and air. The combination transportation journey is referred to as “intermodal freight transport.” Within the word “intermodal,” “inter” describes two or more, and “modal” refers to the method.


Intermodal truck driver is a specific type of international intermodal freight transport where the first and last segment of the journey is executed by a truck, and the middle portions of the shipment traverse ocean, rail, or air. The term “drayage” is used to refer to the transportation of freight by a truck, over a short distance, usually between another intermodal terminal like a port. Because the shipments are in modular containers, the transportation service providers never touch the goods, they only handle the containers. The goods never have to be repacked. The entire container is considered one unit of cargo that is sealed and secured during every step of transport, with the exception of Customs inspections. Every step in an intermodal trucking shipment is contracted through the product’s carrier. Transportation expenses can be exorbitant, and intermodal trucking is a way to lower costs. 


Intermodal trucking works by filling in the gaps between other forms of transportation. When a shipment needs to travel from the port to the distribution center and is carried on a truck, that is intermodal trucking. When a shipment needs to get from the railway to the manufacturing plant and travels by truck, that is intermodal trucking. Intermodal trucking is necessary for both the front and back ends of many freight journeys. While trucks are capable of traveling long distances, they are uniquely positioned to travel short distances that more extensive methods like air, rail, and ocean transport cannot support. When intermodal trucking is a party of the journey, all types of shipping destinations can be reached. In terms of equipment, intermodal trucking requires trucks, trailers, and cranes to connect to and from railroads, ocean liners, and destinations. Intermodal trucking is coordinated by a freight brokerage company that manages multiple services, parties, and pieces of equipment to move cargo. The shipper usually receives a single, organized bill for all of the coordinated services involved to deliver their goods. 


Examples of intermodal trucking are numerous. In food distribution, trucks carry shipments from farms to an air or rail transportation hub. From the air or rail transportation hub, trucks carry the food to a distribution center. From the distribution center, trucks carry food to many locations of a grocery store chain. From a global perspective, a shipment of housewares is shipped to an East Coast seaport via ocean travel from Taiwan. Once the freight arrives at the port, the container is hauled by a truck to the major box store rebranding center. Benefits of Intermodal Trucking


There are many benefits to intermodal trucking. It is flexible because trucks can travel any short or long distance and trucks can access any place by road. Road access is extensive and not limited by railway tracks, flight schedules, or ocean geographies. Intermodal trucks have access to pieces of public infrastructure that allow for perishable and time-sensitive cargo to travel appropriately. Furthermore, because container shipments are standardized shapes and sizes, any suitable truck can transport any piece of cargo. Shipment containers are regulated through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) so they can be stacked neatly on ocean liners, rail cars, or trailers. 

In addition to the flexibility, intermodal trucking is beneficial because it is cheaper than over the road (OTR) trucking. In OTR trucking, only one shipping container can be moved at a time. With intermodal trucking, each truck still only transports one container, but the majority of the journey is on air, rail, or ocean vessels that can transport hundreds or thousands of containers at a time. The transportation efficiency translates to cost efficiency. Additionally, the containers used in intermodal trucking are reusable. This saves money as well. 

For intermodal trucking companies, intermodal trucking has benefits over OTR trucking. Generally, trips under 500 miles can be made in one day using one truck. With the shorter trips, fuel and repair costs are lower while the pay is approximately the same. This results in higher profit margins. Intermodal trucking also lowers the risk of damage or theft to the goods inside the container because the contents are not handled. 

Another benefit of intermodal trucking to intermodal trucking companies is that drivers do not have to sleep or cook in their trucks because the trips are short and reliably scheduled. In OTR transport, shipment journeys are long, and the timing is inconsistent. With intermodal trucking, the timing is shaped by strict ocean, rail, or air schedules and many transport entities provide real time tracking. Intermodal truck drivers see a boost in quality of life in comparison to the experiences of OTR truck drivers. Intermodal truck drivers can maintain a more enjoyable work-life balance. 

Intermodal trucking is also better for the environment because it reduces the emissions used in OTR trucking. Heavy duty trucks pollute the air. Using alternative modes of transportation, particularly over long distances can lower the carbon footprint of the shipping journey. Lowering the carbon footprint is not just good for the environment. It is also good for business. Most customers prefer companies that are eco-friendly and eco-conscious. 


Many companies and supply chains should use intermodal trucking. If your products need to travel long distances and are low to medium value, intermodal trucking is ideal. Long distances require lots of fuel and truck repairs. Connecting with a train or ocean liner can save fuel and lower the cost of the shipment. Because intermodal trucking involves transferring the shipping container to and from transport methods, it is ideal for medium to low valued goods. High-value goods typically need to be transported quickly and directly to lower insurance costs. For the right goods, intermodal trucking is the most affordable and reliable method of transportation. With temperature-controlled shipping containers, intermodal trucking is ideal for perishable goods like food and medicine. Through intermodal trucking, no location is too far out of the way. Grocery stores in the country and in the city can receive shipments from distribution centers. Intermodal trucking is extremely flexible. Factories from China load goods into shipping containers and the cargo travels from a truck to a railcar, to the shipping port, to the cargo ship, across the ocean, to the West Coast of the United States, to a railcar, to a truck, and finally to a processing center. Intermodal trucking is ideal for companies with destinations in reasonable proximity to a transportation hub so that the drayage portion of the trip is an optimal length for maximum efficiency. 


Many products can be transported with intermodal trucking such as raw materials, industrial products, farming goods, clothes, housewares, food, florals, medicine, and more. Just about any product that can fit in a standard shipping container, can ship via intermodal trucking. When needed, temperature-controlled transport is efficient and cost-effective with intermodal trucking. Frozen goods arrive solidly frozen, and everything is in perfect condition. Furthermore, intermodal trucking is ideal for goods that need to meet strict deadlines. 

As environmental concerns continue to grow, intermodal trucking offers companies a competitive, eco-friendly edge. When shipments need to transverse dense urban environments or access remote destinations, final mile cost increases are common and easy to offset with the efficiencies of intermodal trucking. Intermodal trucking may take a little bit longer than other types of transport, but the consistency is invaluable. Intermodal trucking is a reliable, high-quality, and flexible mode of transportation. 

There are many different intermodal trucking companies, and it is critical to choose the best freight logistics specialist to oversee every step of the cargo journey. The freight logistic coordinator must have extensive relationships with terminals, understand how to liaise between customers and transportation modalities, and have the most up-to-date technology to keep the cargo safe. With over 60 years of experience, QFS is a global leader in intermodal trucking. With skillfully trained drivers, sophisticated tracking technology, and meticulously maintained fleets, QFS is an expert in ensuring customers receive their products on time and in perfect condition. Shipping rates are competitive, so you always get the best deal. Customer service is exceptional and every detail is carefully considered. To streamline your cargo transportation needs, contact QFS today!